The Value of the Tempo Run

If there’s one type of training run I would recommend over all others, no matter if you are a miler, a marathon runner or an ultramarathon runner, it is the tempo run. The benefits of this workout are enormous.

What exactly is a tempo run?

This is a workout in which you typically will do a 1-2 warm-up at an easy pace, followed by one or more blocks of time or distance run at your ‘tempo’ pace. Then finish with a 1-2 mile cool-down.

How do you determine your ‘tempo’ pace?

There are three ways to define your tempo pace:

  1. The fastest pace that you are capable of running for 60 minutes. (For many runners this would be similar to their 10K pace, or slightly slower.
  2. The pace that feels “comfortably hard.” If you prefer to train based on feel, this might be the best method for you. You are pushing the pace, (no easy conversation pace), yet you do not want to be ‘red-lining’ in.
  3. Finally, if you run based on heart rate, a tempo run will typically put you at 85-90% of maximum heart rate.

Tempo runs are also known as lactate threshold runs. This is the fastest pace you can run aerobically. This is the pace at which your body is producing the maximum amount of lactate that the body can clear. Any faster and you will hit the burning feeling of anaerobic running. Thus, the goal is to never get to that point during a tempo run.

Tempo runs can help you become both physically and mentally stronger.

How do they help physically?

Tempo runs improve your lactate threshold. The more you run at or near your lactate threshold, the more efficient you become at clearing that lactate. Overtime, you will be able to run at a faster pace while still clearing the lactate. The faster you can run while still clearing lactate, the faster you will race.

How do they help mentally?

Tempo runs are not easy. They stress the body, they become uncomfortable and fatiguing. By fighting through the discomfort and successfully completing the workout, you are teaching yourself how to manage your emotions while running hard. You are becoming more resilient and building mental toughness, and this will make you better able to handle adversity and pain during your races.

What are the types of tempo runs?

  1. Sustained Tempo Run

This is a workout in which there is just one block of time run at tempo pace. This block should not exceed 40 minutes. An example would be to run at an easy pace for a mile or two, then run at your tempo pace for 3-4 miles, and finish with a cool down of a mile or so.

  • Tempo Repetitions

This workout is similar to intervals, yet they are run at or slightly faster than tempo pace, and there is a short recovery (60-90 seconds) between blocks. This workout may be best for the beginner who is building up to a longer tempo block. An example would be to run a warm up followed by 3 sets of 1-mile at tempo pace with 90 seconds recovery between. Finish with a cool-down.

If you get bored with these, a couple ways to make them more exciting are to add a strength circuit during the recovery period. This is a fantastic workout where you complete a short tempo and instead of resting between running you add in some strength exercises such as planks, pushups, squats and lunges. 

A second, more advanced variation is called a ‘lactate clearance run.’ Here you will run your longer tempo block but add a 30-60 second burst at 5K pace or faster every 6-8 minutes or so. Then you return to your tempo pace and your body is forced to clear that extra lactate while running at a faster pace. Ultimately this prepares your body to be able to clear lactate more efficiently.

The tempo run is an excellent tool for making you faster, stronger, and mentally tougher. There are important workouts for every runner, including the almighty long run, yet for me the tempo run is one I will never leave out.

Whether your goal is to PR a 5K, complete your first marathon, qualify for Boston,

or win your first ultra,

the tempo run will certainly help you get there.

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