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12 Minute Cooper Run | Your Complete Guide

Updated: Feb 3

An athlete conducting the 12 minute Cooper run.

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The 12 minute Cooper run is an aerobic endurance fitness test. As we will see below, the Cooper run is an effective method of assessing your cardiovascular capacity and the stamina of your leg muscles.


Another attribute of the Cooper run is that it is a non-specific fitness test. This means that it can be used for multiple training purposes. Furthermore, because the test does not require specialist equipment to conduct, it is accessible to a broad range of people.


In this blog, we will review the various ways that the 12 minute Cooper run can benefit your health and fitness. Also, I will outline three key training applications that can enable you to utilise the test to improve your fitness. Finally, we will conclude with the Cooper run guidelines and a list of useful hints and tips for maximising performance.


12 minute Cooper run benefits

Conducting fitness tests, such as the Cooper run, is beneficial for a surprising range of reasons. In the context of sport and exercise, fitness tests enable us to identify physiological strengths and [more importantly] weaknesses,’ (NSCA’s Essential of Tactical Strength & Conditioning).


For example, a person who scores below average on the 12 minute run test has gained valuable insight into their aerobic capacity. Having identified this as an area for improvement, they can begin the process of developing their cardio fitness. Throughout their training programme, they can periodically retest to see if they are responding positively to the exercise tasks.


Related: Reach your health and training goals with a Hungry4Fitness Training Programme >

Another benefit of using the 12 minute Cooper run in this way is increased motivation. Though that initial score of below average might be a bit disheartening, the subsequent increase in physicality you derive from the training programme will boost motivation. Advancing your previous score and climbing up the performance ranking table is powerful feedback.


Positive feedback is like rocket fuel for fuelling exercise participation. When we receive objective evidence that our training regime is delivering results, it makes us more committed. This in turn drives consistency and, as strength and conditioning expert …… observes, ‘The greatest benefits’ of ‘exercise are achieved through consistent, long-term participation,’ (NSCA’s Essential of Tactical Strength & Conditioning).


7 reasons to use the 12 minute run test

  1. Exposes areas for improvement

  2. Identify strengths

  3. Formulate and establish fitness goals

  4. Monitor performance over time

  5. Assessing the effectiveness of a training programme

  6. Receive information concerning the manipulation of training dosages (e.g., intensity, frequency, duration)

  7. Provides a reliable estimation of your aerobic capacity and oxygen uptake


How to use the 12 minute Cooper run test

The Cooper run can be used as a method of assessing your current cardio fitness. Actually, Dr Kenneth Cooper (the man who is credited for developing the protocol and popularising it through his Aerobics Program For Total Well-Being), tells us that the test provides a ‘reliable’ estimate of ‘your aerobic capacity’ and ‘oxygen consumption.’


After conducting the 12 minute run, you could compare your result to the performance ranking table (see below). Based on the outcome, you may decide to amend your aerobic exercise dosage.


Fitness goal

An additional application of the 12 minute Cooper run is that of establishing a fitness goal. Goal setting is one of the pillars of physical progress. Mike Finch, author of Triathlon: An Expert Companion, claims that ‘the only true way of maintaining motivation is to set yourself goals.’ He goes on to argue that failing to do so will ‘inevitably’ result in ‘unfocused’ and ‘unsuccessful training’ habits.


But by far the best way to use the 12 minute Cooper run is in conjunction with an exercise programme. In addition to incorporating the two previous methods – assessing your current aerobic capacity and formulating a fitness goal – the Cooper run offers a means of monitoring the effectiveness of your exercise routine. Let me briefly explain how this works.


Training programme

Let’s imagine that you’ve just embarked on a six-week training programme. The programme objective is to develop aerobic conditioning as well as improve the general efficiency of the cardio-respiratory system. At the end of the six weeks, you’re thoroughly pleased with yourself because you didn’t miss a single workout. That’s great! But here’s the problem. How do you know if the programme achieved its objective? The answer is, if you neglected to conduct a relevant fitness test, you don’t – not in any meaningful way that is.


Okay, let’s rewind the clock six weeks. Now, before undertaking the programme, you first conduct a 12 minute Cooper run. This has provided you with a starting point that you can use to monitor fitness progression across the programme. You may decide to retest at the end of weeks 2, 4 and 6. If all goes well and the programme is effective, you should observe a performance increase between your first and final test.


Of course, if improvements aren’t forthcoming (or they are not as pronounced as expected), you can use that information to amend your programme. Perhaps you’ve identified that the selected training tasks could be more specific (need to include more high-intensity run sessions), or that the exercise frequency is too low (expand your cardio workouts from 30 to 45 minutes).


Example of process

A process chart showing how to use the 12 minute Cooper run.

Start score: 1325m > End score: 1650m > Total performance improvement of 325m.


12 minute Cooper run test

So far we’ve considered the primary health and fitness benefits that are up for grabs if you incorporate the Cooper run into your training routine. To recap, these benefits include gleaning insights into your current level of aerobic conditioning, increasing exercise motivation, and establishing training goals.


Following the benefits, we reviewed a range of ways that the 12 minute Cooper run can be applied. After covering several options, we arrived at the conclusion that the Cooper run test works best in conjunction with a health and exercise programme. As well as serving as a fitness goal – thus driving motivation and consistency – conducting tests periodically throughout a programme enables us to track progress while monitoring the effectiveness of the training tasks.


Now it’s time to turn our attention to the 12 minute Cooper run test. Below, I have outlined the test guidelines as per the NSCA’s recommendations. This includes the process of conducting the test, pre-test warm-up considerations, recording methods and participatory essentials – such as equipment and attire.


Cooper run guidelines

  1. Follow the suggested warm-up procedure below. Of course, you can use your own warm-up. However, to improve the reliability and replicability of future tests, ensure to document your warm-up process.

  2. Before setting off, check that your trainers are fastened securely and that your attire will not restrict movement.

  3. Check the serviceability of the device being used to time the run. If you are using an indoor treadmill, it is good practice to use an external timer on the machine.

  4. If you are conducting the Cooper run on a sports field, ensure that the distance markers are accurately measured. The same advice applies to the treadmill except that you will need to check that it is correctly calibrated and what metric distance is counted: miles or kilometres.

  5. Have paper and a pencil at the ready to document your distance. It’s prudent to do this the moment you have completed the test.

  6. Applying a strategy – or ‘game plan’ – can improve testing performance. But an effective strategy can only really be devised once you have gained experience from past tests. Until you’ve run close to the limit of your aerobic threshold for 12 minutes, you will have no knowledge of how your body responds. Thus, the beginner or Cooper run first-timer should focus more on putting in their best effort as opposed to striving for a specific distance.


List adapted from the NSCA's Guide to Program Design >

Warm up

The warm-up is a critical component of the workout process. Dr Kenneth Cooper, whom we briefly met earlier, states that warming up is ‘extremely important’ as it reduces injury risk. The importance becomes more pronounced when the workout consists of high-intensity training.


Related: Use this All-purpose Running Warm-up

However, as scores of studies have shown, a progressive intensity warm-up of an appropriate nature also enhances exercise performance. The following warm-up has been tailored specifically for the 12 minute Cooper run. Though it has been designed for a treadmill, it can be adapted to accommodate different training facilities.


  • 2 min mobility exercises (hip and ankle rotations and knee bends)

  • 100m (metres) walking

  • 200m jogging at 50% of target average pace (TAP)

  • 200m jogging at 60% of TAP

  • 200m jogging at 70% of TAP

  • 100m jogging at 80% of TAP

  • 100m jogging at 90% of TAP

  • 100m jogging at TAP


Related: Need more Warm-up Exercises?

Fitness test equipment

Chronometer (stopwatch or training timer) > treadmill if conducting the test indoors > Sports field (establish a 4/6/800 metre track ensuring to space the distance markers a maximum of 50 metres apart) > pencil and paper > loose-fitting attire (preferably shorts and a vest) and appropriate footwear.



Three tips to your best Cooper run test

Tip 1: The two most important factors for achieving your best distance over 12 minutes are pacing and consistency. Once you’ve set yourself a target distance, you can calculate the average pace that you will need to sustain to achieve it. The objective then is to maintain pacing consistency for 12 minutes. Following this method, which is much easier on a treadmill, will all but guarantee that you secure your desired distance.


Could you pass the Royal Marines Fitness Tests?

Tip 2: Running close to the upper limit of your aerobic threshold hurts. For 12 minutes your heart will be pounding, your lungs literally ablaze, and your legs will feel like lead as they quickly fill up with lactic acid. But, to achieve your target distance, you’ve got to fight through the pain and stay on pace. While there is little you can do to ease the physiological suffering, you can lessen the psychological burden. A simple tactic is to split the duration into manageable chunks of, say, 3 minutes. Focusing on getting through three minutes is a lot less daunting than 12 minutes. The legendary British cyclist Bradly Wiggens employed this technique when he set the hour world record. Instead of attempting to maintain a quad-melting speed of 54.5kph for one hour, Wiggins split the time into five sets of 12 minutes.



Tip 3: While the best running strategy is up for debate, I’ve found the four-phase method to be most effective. Here’s how it works. Phase 1: Hold a pace slightly under target for the first 3 minutes. Phase 2: Over the final 30 seconds of the first quarter, gradually raise the pace to target. Maintain for the following two quarters (6 minutes). Phase 3: Progressively elevate pace over the fourth quarter. Phase 4: Elevate the pace as high as physically possible until the final sprint.


12 minute Cooper run test normative data chart

12 minute cooper fun test normative data chart.
(Chart adapted from Keneth Cooper's Aerobics Program For Total Well-Being)

 

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12 minute cooper run blog concludes with the hungry4fitness book of workouts.

 

About Adam Priest –

A former Royal Marines Commando, Adam Priest is a content writer, college lecturer, and health and fitness coach. He is also a fitness author and contributor to other websites. Connect with Adam at info@hungry4fitness.co.uk.

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