To track their progress over time and see how they compare with others, many professional and recreational athletes use a variety of performance testing protocols.
One such protocol is the Cooper test. It includes a 12-minute run to estimate a participant’s VO2 max, which is a measure of aerobic capacity.
While the test is simple to perform, you may wonder who it’s suitable for and what it says about your performance.
This article covers what the Cooper test is, how it pertains to your VO2 max, how to conduct it on your own, as well as a few tips and considerations.
During a Cooper test, participants cover as much distance as possible in 12 minutes to gauge their aerobic fitness.
It’s often used by the Armed Forces and police academies, as well as professional, college, and high school sports programs to test aerobic capacity and estimate VO2 max.
In addition, runners commonly use the Cooper test to provide a benchmark for their running progress.
This simple test allows you to see how you rank against others of the same gender and age in terms of cardiovascular fitness.
An alternative to the Cooper test is the Cooper 1.5-mile (2.4-km) run test. In this version, participants run a set distance as quickly as possible instead of attempting to cover as much ground as possible within a set timeframe.
The Cooper test is a timed running test in which participants cover as much distance as possible in 12 minutes. This can help assess their aerobic capacity and estimate their VO2 max.
The Cooper test was developed by a doctor named Kenneth H. Cooper in 1968 for the U.S. Military to measure the aerobic fitness of its troops.
Considering a large number of active-duty military personnel, the test was developed to work as a low cost and time-efficient alternative to performing running tests on a treadmill.
Since then, the test has been widely adopted in all areas of athletics and physical fitness — including professional sports and high school gym classes.
To this day, the Cooper test remains one of the most simple and accurate protocols to measure your aerobic fitness, outside of laboratory testing.
The Cooper test was created by Kenneth Cooper in 1968 as a practical, low cost way to test the aerobic fitness of large amounts of troops. It remains a top testing protocol of the armed forces and professional sport teams alike.
The VO2 max is the maximal amount of oxygen your body can use during intense exercise. It’s a direct indicator of aerobic fitness (1).
This number is particularly important for athletes whose sports require high levels of aerobic output — such as cross country running, cycling, swimming, and rowing, among others.
Traditionally, an individual’s VO2 max is measured in a laboratory on a treadmill while connected to monitoring equipment.
The Cooper test was created as a simple way to gauge your VO2 max without expensive equipment or formal training in exercise physiology.
To test its accuracy, an early 1968 study was performed in 115 U.S. Air Force staff. The participants were asked to run as far as possible in 12 minutes under closely supervised field conditions. Later, they performed a laboratory maximal treadmill running test (2).
When comparing the tests, it was found that the results from the 12-minute run test in the field had a .897 correlation rate with the laboratory results. For reference, 1 equals a perfect correlation.
As such, the Cooper test can be used as a fairly accurate alternative to estimate your VO2 max with minimal equipment.
That said, in order to determine your VO2 max more accurately, you’ll need to visit an exercise physiology laboratory to utilize their equipment and expertise.
Research suggests that the Cooper test can be a reliable way to estimate your VO2 max, or the maximal amount of oxygen your body can use during intense exercise.
To perform the test, you’ll need a stopwatch, an open area to run, and markers to designate the distance.
Before you start the test, it’s recommended that you hydrate and complete at least a 5-minute warm-up.
Generally, drinking 19–20 ounces (500–600 mL) of water or a sports drink 2–3 hours before exercising, then another 7–10 ounces (200–300 mL) 10–20 minutes prior to the test, will help ensure you’re hydrated (6).
The warm-up should consist of low intensity dynamic movements like jumping jacks, leg swings, bodyweight jump squats, high knees, and/or a short jog.
Once ready, follow the below steps to complete the Cooper test:
- Choose a stable surface to run on, such as a standard 400-meter track.
- Place a marker at the starting point to designate the distance covered with each lap.
- If using a track, maintain the same lane for the entirety of the test to ensure accuracy.
- Initiate the test by starting your stopwatch. Try to maintain a steady pace throughout.
- Keep track of each lap as you pass the starting point.
- When the 12 minutes are up, take note of how much distance you’ve covered.
- Complete a brief cool down by walking for 5–10 minutes.
While the Cooper test is most often performed on a track, you can also complete it on a treadmill. However, you should set the incline to 1% to better simulate outdoor conditions.
After finishing the test, you can use your covered distance to assess how you rank against others and to calculate your VO2 max.
Then, consider retesting yourself every few months to track your progress.
Chart of rankings for men and women of different ages
The charts below can help determine how you rank in relation to others in the same age category based on the distance you covered (2).
Cooper test results for males:
Cooper test results for females:
How to calculate your VO2 max
To calculate VO2 max with miles: VO2 max = (35.97 x miles) – 11.29
To calculate VO2 max with kilometers: VO2 max = (22.351 x kilometers) – 11.288
If you’re using the chart above to measure your
VO2 max, first convert your distance in meters to kilometers (divide the value by 1000, so 1900 meters becomes 1.9), and then plug the kilometer value into the equation above.
You may also use an online calculator. Many of these enable you to also input factors like your sex and age. Simply search online for VO2 max calculators and add your test results to view your result.
The Cooper test is completed by covering as much distance as you can in 12 minutes. You can then use the distance to determine your VO2 max or see how you rank amongst others.
Here are some helpful tips and considerations to keep in mind.
Ensure you’re fit enough
The Cooper test is a demanding protocol that requires a good deal of physical fitness.
If you have had recent heart, muscle, or joint health issues, you should seek clearance from a qualified physician before performing the test.
If you’re interested in testing your fitness but not sure if the Cooper test is right for you, there are many alternatives. For instance, options like the Rockport 1-mile (1.6-km) walk test or a test on a stationary bike or elliptical might be more suitable.
Maintain a steady pace
The Cooper test is designed to be completed at a jogging or running pace.
If you start the test by sprinting, you may get fatigued quickly. This can force you to slow down, potentially diminishing your test results.
Thus, it’s generally recommended that you maintain a consistent pace throughout the test for the best results.
Use a GPS watch for accuracy
The best practice when performing the Cooper test is to run on a standard 400-meter track to ensure accuracy.
In addition, you can consider using a GPS watch.
This type of device provides pinpoint accuracy and can be a great tool to use when completing the test.
Use the 1.5-mile (2.4-km) run test for large groups
When testing larger groups of people, it can be easier to utilize the 1.5-mile (2.4-km) Cooper run test.
This alternative only requires you to keep track of each participant’s time, as opposed to both time and distance.
If using the 1.5-mile (2.4-km) run test, you can use the following equation to estimate the VO2 max:
VO2 max = (483 / time in minutes) + 3.5
Ens1ure you’re physically fit enough before taking the test, maintain a steady pace, consider using a GPS watch to enhance accuracy, and use the 1.5-mile (2.4-km) run test for large groups.
The Cooper test is a timed running test in which participants cover as much distance as possible in 12 minutes as a means to gauge their aerobic fitness.
While Kenneth Cooper created the test to be used in the Armed Forces in 1968, it’s now widely used in all areas of athletics, ranging from high school sports all the way to professional sports teams.
Following a brief warm-up, participants run on a metered track at a brisk pace, keeping track of the distance they cover in 12 minutes. The distance can then be used to estimate their VO2 max and compare the performance with others.1
There are a few tips and considerations to keep in mind. Ensure you’re physically fit enough, maintain a steady pace throughout, consider using a GPS watch to enhance accuracy, and use the 1.5-mile (2.4-km) run test for larger groups.
If you’re an active individual looking for a simple way to estimate your VO2 max and find out how you rank amongst others, you may want to give the Cooper test a try.