The Cooper Test is a long-standing, internationally used measure of a runner’s fitness.
It involves a simple test – run as far as you can in 12 minutes – and can give a pretty accurate measure of a runner’s fitness level and give a good estimation of their VO2 Max.
Many athletes use the Cooper Test to benchmark their running; they’ll perform one test, then structure their training plan accordingly to try and improve and beat their previous time.
In this article, we’re going to look at:
- The history of the Cooper Test
- The Relationship Between The Cooper Test and VO2 Max
- How To Perform The Cooper Test (with tips)
- Interpreting Your Results
- Alternatives to The Cooper Test (Other Fitness Tests)
Let’s jump in!
What is the Cooper Test?
The Cooper test is a fitness test used to estimate an individual’s aerobic fitness or VO2 max.
It was designed by Kenneth H. Cooper in 1968 for the US Military and has been used by several coaches across a variety of sports ever since.
The original paper is still available: Cooper K. A Means of Assessing Maximal Oxygen Intake Correlation Between Field and Treadmill Testing. Journal of American Medical Association. 1968;203(3):201-204)
The efficient functioning of the cardiovascular system of an athlete is a key determinant in performance. The ability to supply the muscles continuously with adequate levels of oxygen is sometimes referred to as the aerobic capacity.
Measuring aerobic fitness by getting a participant to push their body to the limit provides an accurate measure of this aerobic capacity. Moreover, one of the most widely used terms in sports science when referring to an athlete´s aerobic capacity is VO2 max.
VO2 Max – What Is It?
VO2 max is defined as the maximum rate of oxygen consumption as measured during incremental exercise. It indicates how efficient an individual uses oxygen while exercising.
The accurate testing of VO2 max normally requires access to a laboratory and can be expensive, but there are a few aerobic tests that can be used to predict VO2 max scores; Cooper Test being one of the most widely used.
Its popularity is due to how easy it is to perform with a limited amount of equipment needed, you can perform it yourself, and it is relatively simple to interpret the results of the test.
The units of measurement used when presenting values are litres of O2 per minute (l.min-1) or divided by body weight to get a score relative to a person’s body weight (ml.kg-1.min-1)
According to a study by Wilmore and Costill, a typical VO2 max value for the average young untrained male is about 3.5 litres per minute or 45 ml.kg-1.min-1 and their female equivalents would score about 2.0 litres/minute or 38 ml.kg-1.min-1.
The scores of VO2 max at the elite level vary across sports.
Intriguingly, the highest scores recorded come from cross country skiers, with top class cyclists and athletes also recording values that typically exceed 80 ml.kg-1.min-1 and occasionally exceeding 90 ml.kg-1.min-1. World class female endurance athletes have recorded scores exceeding 70 ml.kg-1.min-1.
The table below shows a number of those values with their respective sports:
|VO2 max (ml/kg/min)
|Espen Harald Bjerke
|Cross Country Skiing
|Cross Country Skiing
|Cross Country Runner
How To Perform The Cooper Test
The test is relatively easy to perform, but the following things should be taken into consideration:
The goal of the Cooper test is to run and cover as much distance as possible in 12 minutes.
Tips for Running Your Cooper Test:
2. Course: The test should ideally be carried out on a standard 400m running track, or find an accurately measured flat course of the same distance (using your GPS watch).
3. Visuals: Put a visual aid (a cone or a water bottle) at the 200m point of the lap, to assist with pacing and help determine total distance covered.
4. Timing: You could use a 12-minute countdown function on your watch if performing the test on your own. This way you can focus on keeping count of the laps and then you can stop the test once your watch beeps. Alternatively, if you have someone helping record the test, they can set you off and keep count of the laps and time.
How To Calculate Your 12-Minute Run Cooper Test Results
After completing the test, you could calculate your estimated VO2 max by using the following formulas
Kilometres: VO2 max = (22.4 x your distace in kilometres) – 11.3
Miles: VO2 max = (36 x your distance in miles) – 11.3
For instance, imagine you cover 3200m. Your estimated VO2 max would be (22.4 x 3.2) -11.3 = 60.3.
You can then use your test result to compare your performance to the norms for both your age and gender.
Instead of using the calculation and getting your VO2 max, you can use the distance achieved to determine how you compare to others of similar age and gender.
Cooper Test Results for Males (in metres)
|2400 – 2800m
|2200 – 2399m
|1600 – 2199m
|2300 – 2700m
|1900 – 2299m
|1500 – 1999m
|2100 – 2500m
|1700 – 2099m
|1400 – 1699m
|2000 – 2400m
|1600 – 1999m
|1300 – 1599m
Cooper Test Results for Females (in metres)
|2200 – 2700m
|1800 – 2199m
|1500 – 1799m
|2000 – 2500m
|1700 – 1999m
|1400 – 1699m
|1900 – 2300m
|1500 – 1899m
|1200 – 1499m
|1700 – 2200m
|1400 – 1699m
|1100 – 1399m
How To Structure Your Training Around Your Cooper Test Result
Generally, the test can be performed at any stage of the year, but the start of the cross-country season (September-October in the northern hemisphere) is traditionally a good time to do it.
This will allow the athlete and coach to use the test result as a marker or benchmark of current fitness and guide them in developing the tailored training plan.
After the test, calculate your speed per 400m lap. For instance, a distance of 3200m= 90 secs per 400m. A typical week based on the test result would include:
- Run three times the distance covered in 45 minutes. For example – 3.2k run on test = 9.6k in 45 mins.
- 3 x 2k at the speed with a 90 secs rest. For example – 3.2k run on test = 90secs/400m = 2k in 7.30 mins x 3 with 90 secs rest.
- Run a series of 200m at a pace 8 seconds per 200m faster than the test run speed. For example, 3.2k run on test = 90 secs/400, when halved = 45 secs minus 8 seconds = 37 secs/200m. Start with 8 reps of the 200s and build up to 16 over a 2-month period.
In summary, the best way to make the most of your training is to use a logical and structured approach. Moreover, you should add some progression into your training and a gradual increase of 10% over a 2-month period would be sufficient.
Cooper Test Alternatives – Other Tests To Measure Your Fitness
There are several other popular tests that are used to measure aerobic fitness and offer a good alternative to the Cooper Test.
Although it is worth restating that you will be required to have access to more equipment, assistance from others, and potentially need to have access to specific indoor sports facilities.
The Bleep Test
Perhaps the 20m shuttle test or more commonly known as the bleep test is familiar to you. The test consists of the participant running between two lines 20m apart in time to recorded beeps.
At the beginning the speed is quite slow, but this increases gradually every minute and the time between the beeps is reduced. If the participant fails to make it to the line before the beep, they are eliminated. It requires access to a bleep test audio file.
15 Minutes Balke Test
Another favorite of many running coaches is the 15 minute Balke Test. This is named after Bruno Balke who designed it, and it is very similar to the Cooper Test. The participant must cover as much distance in 15 minutes and it should be performed on a running track or flat measured course.
Per-Olof Astrand is a well-known name in the world of physiology and his treadmill test is one of his most widely utilized and cited work. The test involves maintaining a constant running speed with a 2.5% increase in gradient every two minutes, until the participant reaches the point of exhaustion.
Also check out Jeff Galloway’s Magic Mile method for predicting your race times!
Final Thoughts On The Cooper Test
Whichever test you choose to perform, remember that an important output from the test is that if repeated 12 weeks later, you should be aiming to improve the distance covered by between 5-10%.
This would indicate that (barring injuries and significant interruptions) that your training has been well structured, and you have been using appropriate paces with the view of improving your VO2 max.
After all, one of the Frank Horwill’s most famous quotes was “He who trains the same, remains the same.”