Can Fitness Tests Help My Running?

As this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Cooper Test we thought we’d take a look at the basic fitness tests runners can do to assess their fitness or progress.

We live in a world where our GPS watches, phone apps and fitness trackers are spitting data out at us constantly, but it’s often so much data that we don’t really know what to do with it. Add to that the bombardment of other people’s Strava (‘they’re all doing so much more than me!’) and social media posts (often fictitious anyway) and we can easily lose track of what’s actually important to us as individual runners. Are we improving? Is the training we’re doing working for us? We can do this by going back to basics.

The Cooper Test

The Cooper Test must be one of the first fitness tests. It was originally designed for the US military. It consists of running as far as you can in 12 minutes, ideally at a consistent pace you can sustain, rather than a sprint followed by slowing. Once you measure how far you’ve run in that 12 minutes you can measure your result against tables for your gender and age (like these). But just as importantly this is a really easy test to do on your own regularly to see how your running is progressing.

Runner fitness test
Just run for 12 minutes (image Richard Ash CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Beep Test

The beep test strikes fear into the hearts of many, particularly those who’ve been in the military or the police and have had to do it regularly to prove their fitness. This is another easy one to do nowadays as you can download an app for your phone. It’s a good one to do in a group as well though, if you’re the sort of runner who thrives on a bit of competition.

To do the beep test you just need to measure out 20m and mark either end of it. Then all you have to do is run between the two points before the next beep sounds. The catch is that it starts easy, but then the time gaps between the beeps get progressively quicker. When you can no longer make the other end of the 20m within the time you stop and you record which level you were on. Therefore you get a number (or two numbers as there are sub-levels within each level), which you can try to beat next time. Again, there are tables you can consult to see how your score rates.

Beep test
Beep test (Royal New Zealand Army CC BY-ND 2.0)

VO2 Max Test

This is the key test that most people know. VO2 Max measures the total capacity of the cardio-respiratory system at maximum exertion. It tests your maximal oxygen consumption with an increasing level of exertion, right up until you reach exhaustion and have to stop. It’s often seen as the best test of endurance capacity and as such is used as a good measure for runners, cyclists, rowers etc.

The downside of the VO2 max test is that you for the most accurate measure you need to get it tested in a lab with facilities. And it’s a fairly unpleasant experience! They hook a mask over your face, then keep cranking up the treadmill until you just can’t run any more. However, there are lots of alternative ways to measure it yourself.  And once you know what your VO2 max is, you can work on trying to improve it.

Assessment of running efficiency

As we reported the other week, you can also take big leaps forward in your running by getting somebody to do a movement assessment. This can uncover basic issues in your gait or imbalances that can, at best make you less efficient, or, at worst make you injured.

There are also much simpler fitness tests to measure your progress. How about just regularly running a one mile route? Running a mile hard is a good test for anybody and is a good, easy indicator of progress (assuming you’re trying to get quicker). Similarly, doing a particular session and assessing how well you’ve performed it is a good measure of whether your training is working. I interviewed a mountain runner recently and they told me that they regularly do a 3 x 8 minute hill session. They know that when they nail that session, they’re in shape. We probably all have a session specific to our own running like that, that we could use to judge how things are going.

And if the training you’re doing isn’t delivering the improvements you’re looking for it may be time to rethink. Are you doing too much? Are you resting enough? Is your training varied enough? Do you need to try something different? It’s often the simple things that we neglect. So before investing in some new go-faster trainers or an even more advanced watch, it might just be worth going back to basics.