If you’re an athlete, or were one growing up, you’re all too familiar with the beep test (aka pacer test.) The apex of your athleticism may very well be thanks to this assessment. Have no idea what the hell a beep test is or why you should care? Keep reading.
WHAT IS IT?
Since the 80s, the beep test has served as a multidimensional fitness test—used in the UK, Australia, and U.S.—across sports like basketball, soccer, rugby, tennis, and more. While there are different programs, all have a beep that plays at a certain cadence (hence, the name ‘beep test’). Think of it as an anti-metronome. Rather than keeping steady, consistent measure, the device increases its pace as time passes.
“In the beginning, the beeps start off very slow,” says Drew Little, CSCS, a performance specialist at Michael Johnson Performance in McKinney, Texas where he coaches athletes training for the NFL, MLB, MLS, NBA, and more. “When you hear the first beep, you’re cued to go out to a line or cone set at the standardized distance (20m), and you have to match that distance before you hear the next beep go off. As you go through the stages and start accumulating reps and distance achieved, the beeps between begin to quicken and the test becomes increasingly difficult.”
At the start of the test, in the first level, 9 seconds will elapse per shuttle and you’ll cover 140 meters; by the end, in the 21 level, you’ll have just 3.89 seconds per shuttle and you’ll cover 320 meters. But cumulatively, you’ll have gone a total distance of 4,940 meters.
HOW DIFFICULT IS IT?
Your pace is easy in the beginning. You might run out to the point, then jog back and have a beat or two to rest before going again. Then, as the beeps hasten and the time it takes you to get from point to point shortens, your effort increases. “Man, when that thing starts to tick, it’s almost continuous—but it never turns into a high-velocity sprint,” Little says.
Your perceived exertion, though, is going to make you feel like you’re pushing as hard as you can as you muscle through fatigue. It’s feels like the tail-end of a marathon or the last 10 seconds of a 45- or 60-second sprint; you’re under fatigue and grinding it out, feeling like you’re giving everything you’ve got, but you’re not really going anywhere, Little explains.
WHY IS IT SO CHALLENGING?
It’s not really mental, but rather all physiological.
“If I told you to run as fast as you can and you have to get to a marker in a set amount of time, that’s more stressful than knowing you have to beat a beep,” Little says. The audiophile keeps your pace; and you anticipate it, so you know how hard to push. It’s that effort under exhaustion that really challenges athletes.
Naturally, as you complete more stages, your recovery gets shorter and shorter. “Without a little time to rest, your body struggles to replenish its energy stores,” Little says. The energy you need to complete any bout of exercise is entirely dependent on the intensity of that exercise.
“It’s not about performing at a high level all the way through,” Little says. “That’s not the nature of the test; we want to see how fit you are and how quickly your body can recover to see how many stages you can complete.” In short, the test kicks all three energy systems in at the same time: Your aerobic system, anaerobic glycolytic, and anaerobic alactic. Quick physiology primer:
Anaerobic alactic: This is the energy system Usain Bolt most frequently taps into. It’s explosive in nature, short in duration, and fast to fatigue (think: 100m sprints).
Anaerobic glycolytic: This is a combo of both: power and efficiency (think: mile)
Aerobic: This is the energy system guys like Galen Rupp and Mo Farah use most. It’s sustained work; you’re preserving as much energy as possible (think: marathon runs).
When you’re conditioning or training, you’re usually going for a set duration and intensity, so only one energy system is at play. Since the test starts slow, you don’t have a high output. Then, as it gets more intense, fatigue settles in your legs, your recovery becomes incomplete, you start building up lactic acid in your muscles, and then you phase into the other energy systems.
WHAT DOES IT TELL YOU?
“When the algorithms are done, you’re counting how many stages and levels you go through, but you’re also accumulating the total distance achieved,” Little says. Then, with the total distance achieved with different calculators, you can look at age/gender/total distance achieved and the formula will spit out an estimated VO2 max.
There are different ways to rank and compare with total number of stages as well as a way to compare vo2 max to other guys in your age group.
For a 26-35 year old male (in terms of the number of levels/number of shuttles completed), a very poor score is 5/2; an average score is 7/10-8/9; and an excellent score is 12/9. Go here for the whole chart.
See this link to calculate what your VO2 max is based on the stage and number of shuttles you complete.
WHAT TYPE OF REGIMEN WOULD PREPARE YOU?
“Everyone needs strength training, total-body complex movements, like squats and deadlifts, Olympic lift variations, ploymetrics, power work like med ball throws, and of course running,” Little says.
You want to work on short-distance sprints for explosiveness (and maximum output), but you also want to develop your aerobic capacity as well, otherwise your body won’t be able to bring your heart rate back down and replenish your energy at a fast enough rate. Bottom line: You’ll fatigue faster and perform poorly.
“There’s no greater force that can be produced in training than maximal sprinting,” Little says. “When you run as fast as you can, your force output is over 5 times the normal force your bodyweight is under,” he adds. “It’s intense, so start slow and progress into it,” Little urges. “Don’t dive into hill sprints and sled pulls with no prior experience.”
You might be wondering what diet has to do with an endurance and agility test… well, it’s just as important as the training.
“If you’re carrying an additional 20+ pounds of fat mass, that’s an additional 20 pounds your body has to work against,” Little says. It’s a load; strap a weight vest on, do the test, then do it again without.
“If you can get the right nutritional strategy and get your body composition to change so you increase your lean muscle mass and lower your fat mass, that’s going to help tremendously.”
Want to put the above advice into routines that translate into better, longer beep test assessments? Armond Jordan, CPT, the Nike trainer in charge of whipping average guys into bonafide basketball players in Nike’s 8-week long Unlimited You training journey (a personalized plan catered to each athlete’s weaknesses and goals), divulged his training plan.
Aside from strength training and mobility work in the gym, here’s how the athletes hone their aerobic and anaerobic skills:
1. INTERVAL TRAINING
“By varying your pace during runs, you improve your aerobic (endurance) and anaerobic (high-intensity) systems, something that speaks directly to the beep test,” Jordan says.
How to do it: Jog/run for 60 seconds, sprint for 15 seconds, recover for 30 seconds. Complete for 15-30 minutes (depending on your fitness level).
Ex: 4 rounds = 7 mins, 8 rounds = 14 mins, 12 rounds = 21 min.
Over time, you can increase your sprint duration and decrease your recovery and/or jogging duration.
Prescription: Do this 1-2x per week.
2. HILL REPEATS
“Hills naturally improve your aerobic and anaerobic power and overall fitness level,” Jordan explains.
How to do it: Complete 4-6×1/2 mile uphill sprints, jogging down as active recovery (the number of reps depends on your fitness level; start on the low end!)
Prescription: Do this 1-2x per week.
3. PRACTICE THE TEST!
How to do it: “A sure way to increase your chances of conquering the test is knowing the test,” Jordan says. Practice the turns, work on increasing your pace, and increasing how far you can go.
Prescription: Do this 1x per week
4. CROSS TRAIN
“A bonus fourth option (and something I had my guys do, in addition to the above) is get your heart rate up with sports and other endeavors,” Jordan says.
How to do it: Take a cycling class and/or play a sport (ie. basketball, soccer)
Prescription: Do this 1-2x per week
Now, with all this info in your arsenal, we’ve only got one more question for you: Are you ready to conquer the beep test, blast beyond your VO2 max, and become a more efficient, high-functioning athlete?
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