The How and Why of Tempo Runs

The How and Why of Tempo Runs

Whether you run the 5K or the marathon, you will benefit from this tried-and-true running workout: the tempo run. There are no magic workouts in training; no single workout will achieve all of your running goals. But, as part of a well-rounded training plan, tempo runs are an effective workout for distance runners.

Tempo runs prolonged efforts at a moderate to moderately hard intensity. That intensity will vary based on the duration.

The Purpose of Tempo Runs

Tempo runs are paced at a moderate intensity, typically between your aerobic threshold (sometimes called first ventilatory or first lactate threshold) and your lactate threshold. These workouts improve your body’s ability to shuttle lactate back to the cells. This shuttle delays lactate accumulation in the blood, which in turn delays muscular fatigue due to acidosis from hydrogen ion accumulation. (For more on lactate threshold, read here.) Shorter tempos of 15-30 minutes are often at hour-race pace (lactate threshold), while longer variations can be at half marathon or even marathon pace. When you do these workouts enough, you improve your ability to sustain a faster pace for longer before fatiguing.

Beyond the basic physiology, tempo runs train valuable skills for runners. They teach you how to control your pace over an extended period of time. If you constantly start out too fast in workouts or races, these workouts train you how to appropriately pace over a longer period of time. You also learn how to become mentally comfortable with prolonged physical discomfort and how to resist fatigue at the end of a run. If you are racing a half marathon or marathon, these skills are vital for a successful and enjoyable race.

According to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, tempo runs are a high predictor of long-term success for long-distance runners. If they are not already part of your training, you may want to start introducing one every couple weeks. Since they are demanding workouts, most runners will want to do only one per week.

Time Run Workouts

Think of the paces of tempo runs as the spectrum, based on the format of the workout. Indeed, it’s not that hour-race pace is magically effective and slightly slower or faster is ineffective. If you are working within the moderate-intensity zone, it is an effective workout. One big caveat: these are workouts, not time trials. Faster is not better and you should finish with a little bit in the tank.

  • Threshold run: Most runners think of threshold effort when they think of times. These last 15-30 minutes (sometimes divided with short rest, such as 2 x 10 min or 3 x 10 min) and are paced at hour-race effort.
  • Half marathon pace tempo: For some runners, these may only be slightly slower than threshold pace. Half marathon pace tempo are most effective in the six to eight weeks before a goal half marathon race. Depending on your pace, these likely last 30-45 minutes.
  • Marathon pace tempo: These are longer, slower tempos done at marathon pace – a truly moderate effort. Marathon pace times will be slightly longer, up to 60-90 minutes in duration. Longer marathon pace times are used in marathon training, while shorter ones can be used to support ultra marathon distances or early-season half marathon training.

Pacing a Tempo Run

Your body provides the best feedback for pacing. You can use recent race times to estimate your tempo paces, although these paces will be affected by weather and terrain.

The effort should feel moderate to moderately hard in relation to the duration of the run. If you can speak in short phrases (such as “pace feels good”) for the duration of the workout, you are working at the appropriate effort. In terms of perceived exertion, a tempo run should feel like a 6-7 out of 10.

As with many workouts, you should not exhaust yourself during a tempo run. If your breathing is so labored you can barely speak, scale back. Unless you haven’t raced in a long time, you should not try to be setting PRs in aworkout.

When to Do Tempo Runs

The beauty of a tempo run is that you can incorporate it into various points of your training plan. For 5K runners, it serves as a fundamental workout several weeks out from their race. Additionally, 10K runners and half marathoners can use times to practice their race pace. Marathons can use slower, high-volume marathon tempos (such as one of these effective marathon workouts).

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