February 23, 2023

Who is he and why are we talking about him?

For a long time, he held the highest ever recorded VO2max. Let's dig in.

Eero Mäntyranta was a Finnish cross-country skier who won seven Olympic medals, including three gold medals, in the 1960s. Mäntyranta's success in skiing was attributed to his exceptionally high VO2max, measured at a staggering 96 ml/kg/min. VO2max scores represent the maximum amount of oxygen a person can consume during exercise. However, Mäntyranta's high VO2max was also attributed to his genetics, specifically a mutation in the erythropoietin receptor (EPOR) gene. This raises the question of whether Mäntyranta's success was due to nature (genetics) or nurture (training). To put this into perspective, he effectively had a natural blood mutation affording him a similar advantage that EPO (blood doping) does.

Nature vs. Nurture (Epigenetic) Argument

The nature vs. nurture debate has been ongoing for decades, with each side arguing for the importance of either genetics or environment in determining human traits and abilities. However, recent research suggests that the answer is not so simple and that both genetics and environment play important roles in human development.

One aspect of genetics that has been gaining attention in recent years is epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence. These changes can be influenced by environmental factors, such as diet and exercise, and can be passed down from one generation to the next.

Eero Mäntyranta's Performance

Eero Mäntyranta's high VO2max was attributed to a mutation in the EPOR gene, which is involved in the production of red blood cells. This mutation causes the EPOR gene to be overactive, resulting in an increased production of red blood cells and, therefore, an increased ability to transport oxygen to the muscles during exercise.

VO2max is considered a key predictor of endurance performance, and Mäntyranta's high VO2max was a major factor in his success as a cross-country skier.

Mäntyranta's VO2max was measured at 96 ml/kg/min, which is an incredibly high score. For comparison, the average VO2max score for a sedentary person is around 35-40 ml/kg/min, while the average VO2max score for a highly trained endurance athlete is around 60-70 ml/kg/min. Mäntyranta's score was almost 50% higher than that of the average highly trained athlete.

To put Mäntyranta's VO2max into perspective, it's worth comparing his score to those of other famous elite athletes. One of the most well-known endurance athletes of all time, cyclist Lance Armstrong, had a VO2max score of around 85 ml/kg/min. This is certainly an impressive score, but it still falls short of Mäntyranta's score of 96 ml/kg/min.

Another famous endurance athlete, long-distance runner Mo Farah, has a VO2max score of around 80 ml/kg/min. While this score is still quite high, it is also lower than Mäntyranta's score.

Of course, it's worth noting that VO2max is just one measure of an athlete's physical fitness, and there are many other factors that contribute to success in endurance sports. However, Mäntyranta's incredibly high VO2max was undoubtedly a major advantage that helped him dominate his competitors on the ski trails.

Scientists have long been interested in studying the factors that contribute to high VO2max scores, and some have suggested that genetics may play a role. While it's clear that training and lifestyle factors also contribute to VO2max, there is evidence to suggest that some individuals may be more genetically predisposed to high scores than others.

In the case of Mäntyranta, it's possible that his high VO2max was at least partially due to genetic factors. He came from a family of skiers and athletes, and it's possible that he inherited certain advantageous genes that contributed to his exceptional physical fitness.


While Mäntyranta's genetics may have given him a head start, it was his training that allowed him to reach his full potential. Mäntyranta trained for long hours, often skiing up to 200 kilometers a week, and he was known for his grueling workouts that pushed him to his limits.

Mäntyranta's upbringing was marked by poverty and hardship. He was born in a small village called Pello in northern Finland. His family lived in a modest house with no electricity or running water, and his parents struggled to make ends meet by farming and fishing.

Growing up, Mäntyranta was responsible for helping his family with their daily chores, which included chopping wood, hauling water, and tending to the livestock. He often went to school with empty pockets and a rumbling stomach, as his family could not afford to provide him with lunch or snacks.

Despite the challenges he faced, Mäntyranta was a natural athlete, and he quickly developed a love for cross-country skiing. He started skiing at a young age, using homemade skis crafted from the branches of trees, and he would often ski to school to save on bus fare.

Mäntyranta's poverty did not deter him from pursuing his passion for skiing. He trained diligently, often skiing for hours in the bitter cold, and he competed in his first cross-country race at the age of 16. Despite finishing in last place, Mäntyranta was undeterred, and he continued to train and compete in races.

Mäntyranta's determination and hard work eventually paid off, as he began to win races and gain recognition as a talented skier. However, he never forgot his humble beginnings, and he remained humble and grateful for every opportunity that came his way.

Mäntyranta's story is a testament to the power of perseverance and hard work, even in the face of adversity. Despite growing up in poverty and facing numerous obstacles, he was able to achieve greatness through his unwavering commitment to his goals and his relentless work ethic.

THE PERFECT STORM, elite coaches bringing it all together.

Mäntyranta's success in cross-country skiing was not just one element, but due to his own hard work and natural talent. As with any elite athlete, the quality of his coaches throughout his career were the secret sauce.

One of Mäntyranta's earliest coaches was Martti Kuusisto, a former Finnish cross-country skier who recognized Mäntyranta's potential at a young age. Kuusisto encouraged Mäntyranta to focus on skiing, and he provided him with training tips and advice on technique. With Kuusisto's help, Mäntyranta quickly improved his skills and began to win races.

Another influential coach in Mäntyranta's life was Antti Tyrväinen, who coached him during his Olympic years. Tyrväinen was known for his innovative training methods, and he worked closely with Mäntyranta to develop a customized training program that suited his strengths and weaknesses. (SPECIFICITY MATTERS, if you've ever heard this phrase before) Under Tyrväinen's guidance, Mäntyranta's endurance and technique improved significantly, and he went on to win multiple Olympic medals.

Mäntyranta credited his success to his discipline and motivation, but he recognised that without the guidance of his coaches, he may not have achieved the same level of success.

"Without my coaches, I would never have won a single medal. They taught me everything I know about skiing, and they pushed me to be the best that I could be."

Mäntyranta's story is a reminder of why quality coaching and mentorship is THE secret sauce when all else is equal. While he had natural talent and a strong work ethic, he was also fortunate enough to have had the support of experienced coaches who believed in him and helped him reach his full potential.

So, to bring that all together. Mäntyranta's success was not solely due to his high VO2max, as bloody impressive as it is. Other factors, such as his technique, strategy, and mental toughness also played a role in his success. In fact, research has shown that while VO2max is an important predictor of endurance performance, it is simply a single factor that determines success in endurance sports. 

While VO2MAX is interesting, you can't use it to predict who among a field of elite athletes will win a race. Nor is it a reference as to who will win amongst a field of elite athletes. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss it entirely. In mathematical terms, having a high VO2max is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success in endurance sports.

It's the ticket that gets you in the door; once you're at a high level, everyone has a relatively high VO2max. So, in reality its all the other factors that determine who actually wins.



Bassett, D.R., Howley, E.T. Limiting factors for maximum oxygen uptake and determinants of endurance performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000;32(1):70-84. doi:10.1097/00005768-200001000-00012

Flanagan, J.N., Simmons, Z. Epigenetics and the Nature vs. Nurture Debate. Biological Theory. 2015;10(3):259-276. doi:10.1007/s13752-015-0218-y

Ricevuti, G., Mazzone, A., Fainardi, V., Motta, M., & Cutolo, M. (2017). Eero Mäntyranta's inherited high red blood cell count: a medical and historical perspective.

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