Filling the Unforgiving Minute: Predict Your Mile Time With the Kosmin Test
A test to predict what you could run in a mile race today, that doubles as a unique workout.
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Want to know how fast you might be able to run the mile — and have a fast, intriguingly different workout along the way?
Fifty years ago, two Soviet scientists, Jahren von R. Kosmin and W. Ovitschinnokov, invented a predictor based on a succession of 60-second repeats. Officially it’s known as the Kosmin Test, but international coach Peter Thompson, now in Eugene, Oregon, likes to think of it as the Kipling Test, in honor of one of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If”:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds worth of distance run
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.
In this case it’s four 60-second repeats, but I doubt Kipling would have cared.
Kosmin and Ovitschinnokov were focused on the 1972 Munich Olympics, but their test was later adopted by Frank Horwill, founder of the British Miler’s Club and, nearly 50 years later, it remains a staple for some coaches.
Part its staying power is its simplicity. But it’s also a fun challenge most distance runners have never even thought of.
One fan is legendary coach Joe Vigil, who reportedly likes to use it three times per season: early, middle, and late, seeing how his runners progress.
How Does the Test Work?
The test begins by running 1 minute hard, then marking (or remembering) the spot where you finish. Then, take a 3-minute rest, return to the marked spot, and run another 60 seconds hard. Mark your spot again, take a 2-minute rest, and do it again. Now take a 1-minute rest and your final 60 seconds.
I.e., run 4 x 60 sec on declining recoveries of 3 minutes, 2 minutes and 1 minute. It’s elegant, simple, fun — and fast.
The results give two bits of information:
The first is your potential in the mile.
For that, what you need is the total distance you cover (in meters). Plug that into an online Kosmin Test calculator such as this one by British coach Brian Mac.
You’ll find two formulas: men and women. Unless you are super-fast (as in 4-minute-miler-fast) use the women’s calculator. The distinction, says Matthew Barreau, head cross-country/distance coach at Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon, isn’t so much about gender as about speed.
Unfortunately, these calculators are keyed to the 1500m because that’s the distance run in the Olympics and the one Kosmin and Ovitschinnokov were interested in when they developed their test.
But converting 1500m times to mile times is easy. Experienced track coaches can do it to within a second in their heads, but it’s simpler to just hit a website. Two good ones are this one by MileSplit or, if you prefer tabular format, this one from Mt. Sac Relays.
The second piece of information — and what distinguishes doing this test from just running a mile time trial — is that it reveals what you may need to focus on in training.
If with each successive 60-second sprint you are slowing down a lot, says Thompson, it means you’ve got good speed, but lack speed-endurance: a good indicator of where your training might need to focus. If you barely slow down at all, you have great endurance, but lack speed. Either way, that’s useful information.
Calculating this will take some effort, but the easiest way is to have a friend mark each split. Then you can go back and figure out how long each of them was. If you are slowing down a lot, it will be obvious.
Precautions to Take
There are, of course, some caveats.
To begin with, says Barreau, don’t expect to do the test ideally the first time. It’s like many other things in life. The first attempt is to give it a whirl. The second time you make some tweaks. The third is when you might really figure it out.
Also, sticking to the designated recovery times really matters. A while back, a team I know tried this with its distance squad, but the person overseeing the workout gave the runners extra recovery. They all came out with impossibly fast times. Botching the recovery by a couple seconds won’t matter, but 30 seconds, especially in the later parts, will matter a lot.
There is also a version of the test for 800m runners (2 x 60 sec) on 3-minute recovery. That one, Barreau says, can be dauting for a certain type of runner, such as a 400m runner stepping up to the 800m, or a “pure” 800m runner, both of whom can put out massive amounts of power and might be pretty well spent afterward. But distance runners stepping down to the mile don’t face that issue. For them, he says, it’s more about endurance and lactate tolerance.
And, he says, the 1500m/mile test really does mimic the mile race, which isn’t so much about pure speed and power as it is about how much fatigue you can tolerate and “did you go out way too hard.”
In fact, he says, it’s possible to include the Kosmin test in a larger workout (once you’ve sufficiently recovered).
One option might be by continuing to work the same short-distance neuromuscular systems you used in the test with a few flying 60s or 30s. Fast and short, with long recoveries.
Or, Barreau says, you might go the “totally opposite” direction and do a few 800m to 1000m repeats at 5K pace … or some tempo running at lactate threshold — reinforcing your aerobic system, rather than doing more sprints.
How much additional work should you do? Barreau doesn’t say. But a good rule of thumb would be to figure that the Kosmin test is somewhere around half of a normal workout. That means that whatever you add on should be no more than half of a normal workout. And, if in doubt, figure that less is more.