The History of the Beep Test

Picture the scene. It’s cold outside, there’s 30 teenagers, hormones raging, running back and forth in an old school hall. As a lovable, but somewhat crotchety, teacher screams at the teens to run faster beeps can be heard echoing throughout the hall. The rapidity of the beeps grows. Where once there was a 15 second gap between beeps, now there is 12, and then 10 and … eventually … what feels like 1 second. As a former fat boy (guilty!), this ritual was akin to my own personal torture. Cardio has rarely been a favorite activity. That I’m also blessed with the acceleration of Myrtle the turtle probably didn’t help matters. None of this, of course mattered, when our physical education teacher would run us through the ‘bleep test’ every year.

Each school has these rites of passage. For some it’s the ‘Cooper Test’ which forces students to run laps for time. Others climb ropes. A few lucky ones, will be allowed to lift weights. We had the ‘beep test.’ Now for those unfamiliar with the beep test it’s a relatively simple test of fitness. Line participants up on one side of a hall. Tell them to run up and down the hall and record the results. Easy right? Not exactly.

What distinguishes the bleep test is the beeps – those dang beeps. The goal of the beep test is to successfully complete a shuttle run across the hall in the interval between two beeps. Put another way, bleep sounds – you go, next beep sounds – you better have completed that shuttle! The below YouTube video gives a nice overview

At some point during this test, the mind will inevitably turn to the question – who did this? More specifically, why are they doing this to me? Admittedly my former fat boy (FFB) memories may have prejudiced me somewhat. But this question of who invented the beep test is nevertheless an interesting question. At the very least it provides a fun fact to be provided in the intervals during beeps.

Measuring Fitness

To understand the invention of the beep test we have to begin with a deceptively difficult question to answer – what is fitness? If we take a broad definition such as the ability to complete a task without excessive energy expenditure, we are still left with the question of what activity tests fitness. Is it deadlifting? Or the 100m sprint? What about running after a bus once it leaves the bus stop?

This is my rather labored way of saying that fitness – despite a general consensus that it is important – is a rather tricky thing to define and, in fact, how we define it, is likely influenced by our interest or sport of choice. It was the desire to define fitness which led to the creation of the beep test as we know it.

In 1980 Luc Léger and R. Boucher published the results of a research trial under the title ‘An indirect continuous running multistage field test: the Université de Montréal Track Test.’ The test 400m runs around a running tack with various intervals (more info here). It was the Montréal test that spawned the beep test. Once again Léger was involved.

In 1982, Luc Léger and J.A. Lambert, two researchers at Université de Montréal, published a research paper in the European Journal of Applied Physiology on the subject of 20m shuttle runs which they believed were an accurate means of testing VO2 max (the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during incremental exercise).

Using 91 adults as their guinea pigs (32 females and 59 males), the two researchers had participants run 20m shuttles up and down a hall with two minute intervals between each stage. After two minutes, the pace would increase. In time the researchers modified their test, first decreasing the distances involved so that people could easily conduct the test indoors and then by reducing the stages to one minute intervals. Their results were conclusive

It is concluded that the 20-m shuttle run test is valid and reliable test for the prediction of the VO2 max of male and female adults, individually or in groups, on most gymnasium surfaces.

Luc Léger, J.A. Lambert and several others published widely during the 1980s but, as I am all to aware of, publishing in academic journals doesn’t always lead to public awareness. What it took was an interplay between exercise scientists, school teachers, coaches and, of course, participants.

It was during the 1990s that different beep test protocols began to emerge. Researchers in Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and other parts of the world began to devise their own variations. Simultaneously while this was happening, school systems began to use beep tests as a means of testing their student’s fitness. Likewise coaches began to use them for both amateur and professional athletes.

The test received further exposure during the 2000s when stories began to emerge in the popular press about elite level athletes and their beep test scores. Thus individuals could measure themselves to a David Beckham or Lance Armstrong to see how they measured up. There was, even, efforts made by some in the health and fitness industry to promote the beep test as a form of cardio rather than a test of fitness.

Little of this knowledge was, of course, available to me and my friends as we struggled through the various stages. All that mattered at the time was the incessant beeps and the desire not to fall flat on my face before the intervals ended.

The story is, however, a fascinating example of how quickly testing protocols can move from the University setting to the general public. Those involved in exercise science will undoubtedly take heart from such a tale. The rest of us will try our best to avoid the tests!

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