50 Years of the Cooper 12-Minute Run

Blog Post

Stephen W. Farrell, PhD, FACSM
The Cooper Team
June 8, 2018

For those of us who are physically active and even just a little bit competitive, we tend to be curious about our level of cardiorespiratory (aerobic) fitness and how we compare to our peers. At the same time, exercise scientists have long been interested in measuring aerobic fitness. Many different tests have been developed over the past 60 years or so. These include treadmill stress tests, step tests, cycling and swimming tests, walking tests, and running tests of course. By far, the most well-known and widely used test is the Cooper 12-Minute Run, which reaches its 50 year anniversary in 2018.

Dr. Kenneth Cooper has always had a keen interest in exercise physiology, which is the study of the function of the body as it responds to various types of exercise training. In fact, he performed and published several exercise training studies on Air Force personnel (including astronauts) while he was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas during the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. The aerobic fitness level of U.S. Air Force personnel was largely unknown during this time and there was concern at the time that members of the U.S. military were not as physically fit as their counterparts in the Soviet Union.

The maximal treadmill exercise test was the gold standard measure of aerobic fitness, but this method of testing had some major drawbacks. The most obvious downside of a treadmill exercise test is that you can only test one person at a time. This created quite a dilemma given that there were approximately 900,000 active duty Air Force personnel in those days. Additionally, a great deal of sophisticated equipment is needed; this equipment needs to be carefully calibrated prior to testing each subject. So while the maximal treadmill exercise test results in an extremely accurate measurement of aerobic fitness, it is also very time consuming and expensive. Because of these limitations, Dr. Cooper became interested in developing a low cost and time-efficient test of aerobic fitness that could be administered to a large number of people outside of a laboratory setting.

To validate the 12-Minute Run Test, 115 U.S. Air Force officers and airmen were asked to run, covering as much distance as possible in 12 minutes. This was done under closely supervised conditions on a flat and accurately measured testing surface on days with mild weather conditions. Within three days after the run, all subjects underwent the maximal treadmill exercise test in Dr. Cooper’s laboratory in order to measure their maximal oxygen consumption, also known as VO2 max.

When comparing the results from distance covered during the 12 minute run and VO2 max from the treadmill exercise test, a correlation of 0.897 was found between the two. To put that in perspective, if two things are perfectly correlated (which never happens), the correlation coefficient is 1.0, so  a correlation of 0.897 is very high indeed. Based on the distance covered during the 12 minute run, a very good estimate for V02 max can be made. These innovative results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January, 1968.

Who Has Used the 12 Minute Run Test Over the Past 50 Years?

The short answer is just about everybody. A year or two prior to the 1970 World Cup soccer championship, the head coach of the Brazilian national team had read Dr. Cooper’s best-selling book ‘Aerobics.’ He became very interested in the 12-Minute Run test and asked Dr. Cooper to develop a workout routine for the team that included the run test to monitor improvements in the players’ fitness levels. Leading up to the World Cup, the players’ performance on the 12-Minute Run test improved by an average of 18 percent. With the legendary Pelé leading the way, Brazil went on to win the 1970 World Cup in impressive fashion.

Soon after the success of the Brazilians, countless other soccer teams, as well as teams in the NFL, college basketball, and high school and college cross-country began to use the test. Additionally, many law enforcement, fire service, and military groups throughout the world have used 12-Minute Run test performance as one of their criteria for hiring.  
12 Minute Run Test Administration

Prior to taking the test, be sure that you are properly hydrated, and warm up for at least 5 minutes. Here are the basics for administering a 12-minute run test:

  • Use a flat and accurately measured surface such as a standard 400-meter outdoor track.
  • Choose a time of day where weather conditions are relatively mild.
  • Run in lane 1 (the inside lane) the entire time.
  • Try to maintain a steady pace throughout the test while covering as much distance as possible.
  • A common mistake made by those who are new to the test is to start much too fast. This will result in early exhaustion and will cause you to slow down considerably the rest of the way.
  • Keep track of how many laps you have completed, rounded to the nearest quarter of a lap.
  • Cool down properly by walking slowly for 5-10 minutes.

The following chart will convert the number of laps you completed with the distance in miles covered. Since running tracks today are in meters rather than yards, you need to be aware that 1 lap (400-meters) is just a tiny bit shy of a quarter mile. Therefore, 4 laps on a 400-meter track is actually 0.994 miles.

Number of laps completed using a standard 400 meter track Distance in miles
4 0.994
4.25 1.056
4.5 1.118
4.75  1.180
5 1.243
5.25  1.305
5.5 1.367
5.75  1.423
6  1.491
6.25  1.553
6.5 1.615
6.75 1.677
7  1.739
7.25  1.802
7.5 1.864
7.75  1.926
8  1.988
8.25  2.050
8.5 2.112
8.75  2.174
9  2.237
9.25  2.299
9.5  2.360

Here is the link that will calculate your estimated VO2 max based on the distance in miles that you cover during the 12-Minute Run test. The link will also provide you with your fitness category based on your sex and age group.

A Few Notes Regarding the Cooper 1.5 Mile Run Test

Unless you have great trust that your participants will be accurate and truthful, the test administrator is responsible for keeping track of how many laps are completed during the 12 minute test period. This can be problematic if a large group is being tested simultaneously. Dr. Cooper came up with a very clever solution for this issue.By performing some mathematical calculations, he determined that the time it takes to run 1.5 miles (6 laps and 15 meters on a standard 400 meter track) has a near-perfect correlation with 12-Minute Run test performance. So when testing large groups, most administrators will use the Cooper 1.5 Mile Run test in lieu of the Cooper 12-Minute Run test because the logistics are easier. You should think of the 12-Minute Run test and the 1.5 Mile Run test as interchangeable because they will both give you essentially the same result in terms of your estimated VO2 max.To estimate VO2 max from the 1.5 Mile Run test, use the following formula:VO2 max = (483 / time in minutes) + 3.5If you don’t have access to a track, or if weather conditions are severe, both the 12-Minute Run and 1.5 Mile Run tests can be performed on a treadmill. The lone exception is if the test is being used for hiring purposes. Many public safety agencies use test performance as a standard to enter and graduate from the training academy. In those cases, the test must be given in the same manner by which it was developed, i.e. using a track both times or a treadmill both times.  

Important Safety Tip: The 12-Minute Run and the 1.5 Mile Run tests are intended for individuals who are apparently healthy and regularly physically active. If you are obese, relatively inactive, and/or if you typically experience joint pain either while running or the next day, then a walking test such as the Rockport 1 Mile Walk Test would be a much safer and more appropriate choice.

Reference: Cooper, K.H. (1968). A means of assessing maximal oxygen intake: correlation between field and treadmill testing. JAMA, 203:201-204.Coleman, D. (2015). U.S. military personnel 1954-2014. https://historyinpieces.com/research/us-military-personnel-1954-2014


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