What is a tempo run and how do I do it?

The tempo run is like a shortcut to speed. From why tempo runs are beneficial, to how to execute them correctly, here's everything you need to know

what is a tempo run
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While a tempo run is a key staple in the training diet, few people know exactly what the recipe calls for and why. This type of workout pops up on many training plans for a good reason: learning how to incorporate tempo into your running routine can bring you lasting benefits – especially on race day. But executing tempo training incorrectly can compromise its many benefits. Here’s everything you need to know about the tempo run.

What is a tempo run?

A true tempo run – a threshold run – is at a pace that’s about 25-30 secs per mile slower than your 5K race pace, says running coach Jack Daniels, who popularised the tempo run in his book Daniels’ Running Formula.

Threshold pace is the hardest effort at which your body is able to clear as much lactate as it is producing while working comfortably hard.

That’s the key difference between a race effort and a tempo run. In an all-out session, your body passes this limit – ie your body produces more lactate than you can process – and so fatigue develops rapidly. A threshold pace, on the other hand, can be held steadily (albeit not too comfortably) for at least 20 minutes or up to one hour, in a race lasting that long. For those fond of using heart-rate monitors, Daniels notes that tempo runs should be done at 86-90 per cent of your maximum heart rate and feel ‘comfortably hard’.

How tempo runs can help you to become faster

According to two-time Olympic marathoner, exercise physiologist and coach Pete Pfitzinger, not all runners benefit equally from tempo runs.

‘Athletes racing from 15km on up to the marathon receive the most benefit from tempo runs because the physiological adaptations are most specific to the demands of those races,’ he says. ‘An improvement in lactate threshold is only a small benefit for a 5K race, because it’s run well above lactate-threshold pace.’

For shorter distances such as 5K and 10K, use tempo runs less frequently and emphasise traditional track intervals (800m and 1,200m). For longer distances, however, your performance is determined primarily by your lactate-threshold pace, so tempo runs provide a direct benefit in longer races for beginners and elites.

Although a tempo run may not boost performance as dramatically in shorter races as it does in marathons and half marathons, that doesn’t mean you should cut it from your 5K training. The beauty of tempo is that it doesn’t require a track or mile markers; it simply relies on time and intensity, making it an ideal workout if you’re just starting a training programme, because running down the clock can be a lot less daunting than tackling mile repeats.

The mental gains of tempo runs

Tempo training not only improves your physical fitness, but it also boosts your mental strength. ‘I really believe in tempo running because it helps the athlete feel that sense of toughness they experience when they compete,’ says distance-running coach Bob Williams. ‘It’s a process of adaptation, psychological as well as physiological.’

Training at speeds that aren’t quite all-out efforts – holding your hand just above the flame – taps into the concentration required to developmental toughness for racing. And practising the skill of pushing through when the effort is challenging gives you the experience and confidence todo the same on race day.

How to incorporate tempo runs

Tempo workouts should be part of your weekly routine, whether you’re running for fitness or looking to seta PB. ‘They stimulate adaptations in your muscles that improve your race pace,’ says Pfitzinger.

For 15km to marathon-distance runners, Pfitzinger prescribes tempo runs of four to six miles at 15km to half-marathon race pace. For marathon runners, he recommends up to nine miles at between half-marathon and marathon race pace, or a 13-mile run followed by five miles at between half-marathon and marathon pace. He usually has his runners perform two of these workouts every three weeks during a marathon build-up. As the race approaches (but before tapering), you can increase the frequency to one tempo run weekly.

The only real requirement of tempo running is that you stick to a steady, specific, planned intensity. Beyond that, you have many options for adding tempo to your training. To get started, try any one of these tempo workouts.

3 tempo workouts to try

Start each session with a warm-up, including drills such as high knees, bum kicks, leg swings and squats, and end with five minutes of walking or jogging to cool down.

Beginner cruise intervals

Cruise intervals are tempo runs that are interspersed at regular intervals (say, one-mile or 10-min) by 30-60- second rest periods. This pattern diminishes the psychological difficulty of the workout while preserving the aerobic benefits, allows greater volume and may help guard against excessive speed, which can lead to injury or burnout.

If you're new to tempo running, start with these intervals, because the effort is broken up.

  • 1 mile at tempo pace
  • Walk or rest for 60 secs
  • Repeat tempo and recovery intervals two to four times

    The classic

    This is a traditional tempo-session option, with a warm-up period, a solid block of time spent at tempo effort and a cool-down at the end

    • 10 mins at easy pace
    • 20 mins at tempo pace
    • 10 mins at easy pace

      Tempo session for marathon runners

      With a 26.2 miler on the horizon, Pfitzinger recommends periods of tempo running in an easy one-hour run. Do this every two weeks in the late stages of race prep but well before the taper.

      • 20 mins at tempo pace
      • 20 mins at easy pace
      • 20 mins at tempo pace
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