Functional exercise tolerance in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is often assessed by the 6-min walking test (6MWT). To assess if the use of multiple factors adds to walking distance in describing performance in the 6MWT, an exploratory factor analysis was performed on physiological measurements and dyspnea ratings recorded during testing. Eighty-three patients with mild to severe COPD performed repeated 6MWTs before inpatient pulmonary rehabilitation. Factor analysis on 15 variables yielded a stable four-factor structure explaining 78.4% of the total variance. Recorded heart rate variables contributed to factor 1 (heart rate pattern), walking distance, heart rate increase, and decrease contributed to factor 2 (endurance capacity), oxygen desaturation variables contributed to factor 3 (impairment of oxygen transport), and dyspnea and effort variables contributed to factor 4 (perceived symptoms). Walking distance decreased in half of the 53 patients measured posttreatment, but self-perceived change in exercise tolerance improved in 84% and was explained by change in walking distance, by less desaturation, and by less dyspnea (R(2) = 0.55, p = 0.005). Qualitative analysis showed that 29 of 53 patients improved in three or four factors. Performance in the 6MWT can be described with four statistically independent and clinically interpretable factors. Because clinically relevant changes consist of more than only walking distance, assessment of functional exercise tolerance in patients with COPD improves by reporting multiple variables.