Tempo workouts are one of the most commonly prescribed running workouts. You will see them in training plans for distances from the 5K to ultramarathon. Despite their prevalence, tempo runs can be one of the trickiest workouts for runners to pace. This article delves into the practical approach of how to run a tempo workout.
What Is a Tempo Workout?
A tempo run is a continuous, moderate to moderately hard effort. Some variations do break the tempo run into longer intervals with short rest, but the intervals are longer and the effort remains in the moderate intensity zone. You can manipulate the duration and intensity (within a moderate/mod-hard zone) based on the workout purpose. A tempo run can be a short 20 minute effort at a moderately hard (threshold) effort, or it can be a 45-60 minute, more moderate effort at marathon pace. You can read this blog post for more on the science and rationale of tempo runs.
However, what a time workout is NOT is a time trial. The goal is not to go as fast as you can for the amount of time. For tempo runs, you should finish with the feeling that you could keep going for a bit longer at that pace. If you go too hard in tempo runs, they become hard efforts and require more recovery. Over time, too hard tempo runs can curtail aerobic development, increase injury risk, and lead to burnout.
How to Run Tempo Workout
Like an interval workout, a tempo workout should include a warm-up and a cooldown. A 10-20 minute easy effort run before the tempo segment allows your muscles to warm up and kickstarts aerobic metabolism. After the run, a 10-20 minute cooldown encourages a gradual transition from stress to recovery. If you are training for a marathon or ultra, you might extend the cooldown to increase overall training volume and build fatigue resistance.
For the time workout itself, the premise is ultimately simple: you sustain a moderate/moderately hard effort for the set amount of time. You want to ensure that you stay within the appropriate intensity. A moderate to moderately hard effort requires a lot more control than an interval workout. However, like much of running, pacing a workout in time is a skill. The more you do it, the more you refine the skill and the more intuitive the pacing becomes.
What does moderate to moderately hard feel like? In terms of rate of perceived exertion, the intensity of a tempo workout is roughly a 5-7 out of 10. You aren’t very relaxed as in an easy run, but the effort feels significantly more sustainable than you would run for short intervals . On the lower end, that’s around half marathon to marathon effort (depending on fitness level); on the higher end, that’s about one hour-race effort. Many tempo runs will have more explicit guidance (such as marathon effort or hour-race effort). If it feels difficult to sustain, you are going too fast for a tempo run.
The basic principles of pacing a tempo workout:
- It’s better to run a bit too slow than too fast. Avoid trying to test your fitness.
- Start out with a touch of control in the first couple minutes and ease into the effort.
- The effort should stay moderate to moderately hard; you should be able to speak in short phrases.
- Focus on staying in control of your effort; do a talk test or breathing check every 3-5 minutes.
Common Tempo Workout Mistakes to Avoid
While a tempo run workout is relatively simple, common errors can occur. If you make one of these errors, use it as a teachable moment. You can’t change how you trained in the past, but you can make the appropriate adjustments in the future.
You Race Your Tempo Workouts to Test Fitness
Workouts are for building fitness, not testing fitness. Unless it is a deliberately scheduled time trial in your training plan, pushing too hard in tempo runs is counter-productive. If you are tempted to push hard, remind yourself of the purpose of the workout. And if that doesn’t help, set your watch so that you cannot see pace during and focus on that moderate/moderately hard effort.
You Force a Certain Pace
Calculators like the VDOT calculator are useful training tools. However, they have their limitations. They can provide guidelines for pacing, but the paces given by them are not meant to be hit in exactly every workout. You are not a robot that functions on a basic premise of input pace, output adaptation. Weather conditions, training fatigue, terrain, and other factors can all affect the exact pace associated with the appropriate effort in a tempo run. Do not try to force a pace if you have uphill segments, hot weather, or wind; focus on the effort and let the paces be what they are.
You Only Do Tempo Workouts
Tempo runs are beneficial for long-distance runners. However, they are not the only workout out there. While tempo runs may provide an aerobic stimulus, you do not receive the same neuromuscular benefit as you would from a short interval workout or hill repeats. Vary and periodize your workouts in your training plan. You may do fewer tempo runs months out from a race and more as your race approaches.
Sample Tempo Workouts
A tempo run can be simple; you can’t go wrong with 20-30 minutes at a moderately hard effort. However, various additions can make a tempo run into a fun and novel stimulus.
Progressive Tempo Run
For an intermediate to advanced athlete, this slight twist on a tempo workout can reinforce race-day pacing skills. Before you attempt this variation, you should be able to pace a tempo run with good control.
The progressive tempo run begins at the usual effort (such as hour-race effort). However, for the final 5-10 minutes, the effort can progress ever so slightly, up to critical speed (30-40 minute race effort). The key here is remaining in control; it should still not be an exhausting effort.
Sample: 20 minute warmup + 30 minutes time (first 25 min at hour-race effort, final 5 min at 30-40 min race effort) + 20 minute cooldown
Tempo + Short Intervals (Flat or Uphill)
In some training blocks, it is unrealistic to have both interval and tempo runs regularly. An example are the peak weeks of marathon-specific training, when midweek workouts may be a tempo run and then you do a long run on the weekends. Short intervals after a tempo run provide a neuromuscular stimulus while concentrating stress within one training session (instead of a separate workout).
As with the previous example, tempo plus short intervals are appropriate for intermediate to advanced athletes. The key to this workout is not going too hard on the intervals. You want a biomechanical stimulus, not a biomechanical breakdown. Intervals are best kept at 30-60 seconds with 1:1 to 1:2 recovery time in between. You can do them on flat or on uphill; uphill may be preferable for injury-prone athletes.
Sample: 20 minute warmup + 20 minutes tempo (hour-race effort), 3-4 min recovery jog, 4-6 x 30 seconds at 5K effort/60 seconds jog + 20 minute cooldown
The Hilly Tempo
If you are preparing for a trail race or a hilly road race, you will need to know how to be able to pace yourself on hills during race day. Too hard too soon on hills and fatigue can occur too quickly due to excess lactate and accompanying metabolite production. This variation of a tempo run simply takes the standard tempo and places it on hilly terrain. You can do rolling hills and focus on a consistent effort on the uphills and downhills (knowing pace will vary). You can also do this on an uphill route, especially if training for a trail race.
Sample: 20 minute warmup + 20 minutes tempo on rolling hills (hour-race effort) + 20 minute cooldown
A tempo workout is ultimately like any run in a training plan. A single workout is less important than consistent training. You’ll have tempo runs that feel awesome and tempo runs that are challenging. Avoid placing too much weight on a single workout and look at training as a whole.