Tempo Runs: What are They and How Fast to Run Them?

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tempo run

Looking to increase speed and endurance? Then it’s time to fine tune that tempo run.

One of the most essential components of any half or full marathon training plan, the execution for this workout is widely misunderstood and often not done correctly.

A member of the speed training family, tempo runs, when performed properly, are one of the best workouts for increasing endurance and speed over a long period of time.

Understanding Tempo Runs

You know I love to give you the WHY behind doing different things, so let’s start with the basics of how our body reacts to different types of running.

Aerobic running
This is what most of us are doing 80% of the time (assuming you’re correctly doing easy runs!!) This means your muscles have sufficient oxygen during physical effort to produce the energy it needs. This is the backbone of marathon training and the Low Heart Rate method I love so much.

Anaerobic running
This is the other term you’ve likely heard over the years to refer to HARD efforts. At this point, the body no longer has enough oxygen to power the muscles. Now, the body must break down sugar for fuel, which also means they are producing excess lactate. This excess contributes to that burning feeling in your legs. The word “anaerobic” means “without oxygen.”

Lactate threshold
Refers to that sweet spot we want to aim for during a tempo run, not because this is a pace we want to hold for race day or to burn more fat, but because it’s the pace that’s defining our limits. These workouts are taxing on the body and need to be spaced out from other intense efforts or long runs.

Understanding all the workouts on those training plans and if tempo runs are right for you. #runchat #running #fitness Click To Tweet

What is the difference between tempo runs, fartleks, and intervals?

The many types of speed workouts tend to get muddled together, however they all serve a different purpose, while also contributing toward faster performance, better running economy, and longer endurance efforts.

The three most common methods: tempo runs, fartleks, and intervals.

Each workout requires a 10-15 min jogging warm up and cool down, and don’t you forget to include that dynamic warm up to stay injury free!!

Tempo Runs

A tempo run is a sustained effort run at a pace just above anaerobic threshold. Also known as threshold runs, tempo runs teach your body to maintain a pace for longer periods of time. The workouts are often used for half marathon or marathon training plans.

  • Ideally you will start with just 5  minutes, working up to 20 minute segments.
  • Over time you want to see that your effort level remains the same, but your pace improves.

Example tempo run workouts

  • Easy warm up miles, 5 minutes tempo, 10 minutes easy, 5 minutes tempo, easy cooldown miles
  • Easy warm up miles, 20 minutes tempo, easy cool down miles
  • Easy warm up miles, 20 minutes tempo, 10 minutes easy, 20 minutes tempo, easy cool down miles

Fartleks

Besides having the best name in all of sports workouts, fartleks are also fun to do. The Swedish word means “speed play” and that’s exactly the intent of these workouts. More unstructured than intervals or tempo runs, fartleks teach your body to incorporate varying speeds into a run, which can come in handy at the end of a race or during certain sections of a race.

There is no defined recovery period.

Example Fartlek Workouts

  • 3 mile run with 5 x 30 seconds hard effort
  • 5 mile run with 10 x 1 minute hard effort
  • 6 mile run with 7 x 1 minute increasingly hard effort
  • Long run with 1 minute hard effort every mile

A fun alternative is to pick certain landmarks during a run like lampposts or trees to act as starting and stopping points. For example, you might pick a tree in the distance and run hard to it, then run easy until the next tree you spot a block or two further down.

If you do these at a track club workout, then they generally involve the coach calling out random amounts of time to speed up or slow down, which feels like a suspenseful game, a bit like duck, duck goose!

Intervals

Are the most common type of speed work, where a set number of repetitions and recovery are assigned. These can be done on the road using your GPS watch or a the track…or of course my favorite way to do them is on the treadmill.

Checkout this post for numerous interval workouts.perceived effort chart

How to Calculate Your Tempo Pace?

While you certainly can use a calculator to determine an estimated tempo effort, it’s hugely valuable to learn to run by feel. This is going to serve you well when trying to pace yourself on race day.

So how fast is a tempo? It depends on where you are in training and your current speed.

  • A 80-90% maximum heart rate effort for those who use heart rate training
  • Run at a pace where you can’t easily talk, yet aren’t gasping for air
  • Pace can be compared to 30-45 seconds slower than 5K, which should roughly translate to your 10K pace or just a bit slower, but faster than your half marathon pace.
  • Aim for a pace that falls within an effort level between 6-8 on a scale of 10

These runs should feel hard, but not I’ve sprinted around the track and need to puke in a trashcan kind of hard. More the I need to mentally tell myself I can do this hard.

Remember, you’re running at your body’s lactate threshold pace, which means you are going to feel that pain in your legs of fatigue. Focus on the effort level to determine if you should keep pushing or pull back.

When To Use Tempo Runs?

First, I want to say that I don’t often assign my runners many tempo runs. While they do have some clear benefits:

  • Improving confidence in your speed
  • Practicing mental toughness
  • Training fast twitch muscles
  • Training bodies ability to handle lactic acid
  • Variety in training
  • A tool to track progress

I personally get nervous about sending my runners out in to that gray zone of training without a specific outcome. What I mean by that is these runs aren’t easy, aren’t hard charging fast twitch intervals and often aren’t at goal pace either.

My preference is to have people do more GOAL RACE PACE miles as  part of their long runs or during a mid-week longer run, rather than a tempo run. Those miles help you get a feel for exactly what race day should feel like and building up those miles is a massive confidence boost that you know how to hit and hold your pace.

BUT in any situation, if you are adding in speed and specifically tempo runs there is a process:

Start with a Strong Base
Build a base before incorporating tempo runs into your training, otherwise you’ll risk injury. Once you have that base, you can introduce tempo runs once per week, though I’d recommend less than that to rotate through the different forms of speed work listed above.

Incorporate Strategically
Many classic intermediate or advanced marathon training plans suggest an interval run on Tuesdays and tempo runs on Thursdays.  Some plans may also use them to teach fatigue with a tempo run the day before a long run to get your body used to running on tired legs.

Utilize them for Distance Races
Tempo runs tend complement longer running efforts, generally anything over 15k or so. Since 5k and 10k runs are shorter and run at a pace over lactic threshold, they’re not always the most effective speed training to hit goals at those distances.

Now you have the full definition of a few more crazy running terms! Hopefully this helps to guide you through understanding what those training plans mean and if you’re looking for a custom plan to fit your training, checkout what we offer.

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