Welcome to this post that covers everything you need to know about tempo runs, a type of workout designed to improve a runner's overall fitness and race performance. Understanding this type of run is crucial if you're a runner looking to take your training to the next level.
We'll dive into the definition of a tempo run, its purpose, and how it differs from interval runs. We'll also explore the three key benefits of incorporating tempo runs into your training program and how it can help you become a faster and more endurance-focused runner.
Whether you're an advanced runner or a beginner runner, this information will be valuable to help you reach your running goals.
In this article you will learn:
- What is a tempo run
- What is tempo run pace, and how to calculate yours
- How to do a tempo run
- How long a tempo run should be
- What a tempo run workout looks like
- How to avoid the biggest tempo run mistakes athletes make
What is a Tempo Run?
A tempo run (also known as a threshold run or threshold training) is a type of workout designed to improve a runner's overall fitness and race performance by improving the athlete's ability to clear lactic acid.
Tempo run intervals are usually done for a duration of 10 to 60 minutes. This run session is done in a steady state that feels like a moderate to hard effort. In the five-zone training system, tempo pace is high Zone 3 or low Zone 4.
The pace of a tempo run is typically slower than a runner's half marathon pace, 5k race pace, or 10k race pace but faster than their easy run Zone 2 pace. Tempo intervals should feel easy at the start but difficult to hold by the end.
What is the Purpose of This Type of Run?
Tempo runs are one important element of a training plan because they create a specific physiological response in the body that helps on race day. A tempo training run helps increase the body's ability to clear lactic acid, a byproduct of muscle metabolism that can cause fatigue and muscle soreness. Tempo run training builds "speed endurance," allowing an athlete to run faster for longer.
Lactic acid plays a significant role in tempo runs. As the runner's effort level increases, their muscles produce more lactic acid, which can cause fatigue and slow you down. Tempo runs help ensure your body can clear lactic acid, allowing you to maintain a higher effort level for more extended periods.
Tempo Runs vs. Interval Runs
There are several ways to measure the pace of a tempo run, including heart rate, perceived exertion, and pace. For low-intensity running, we prefer using heart rate to track the appropriate intensity. For faster running, like tempo runs and interval runs, we prefer to use pace or perceived exertion.
We use pace instead of heart rate because heart rate can be affected by factors such as stress, fatigue, hills, wind, and previous training. That's okay for low heart rate runs where the purpose is to build time on your feet at a low-intensity level. For speed work, we want to have a pace number to push us and create a stress response that causes our body to adapt by getting faster.
It is important to note that tempo runs are different from interval training. Interval training involves alternating periods of high-intensity work in high Zone 4 or Zone 5 for 30 seconds to 8 minutes to increase top-end speed. In contrast, tempo runs are done at a moderate Zone 3 low Zone 4 effort level for 10 to 60 minutes. Both types of training have a unique benefit and should be included in a well-rounded training plan.
3 Key Benefits of Tempo Run Pace
Tempo runs are a valuable addition to any runner's training routine, offering several benefits that can help you become a faster and more endurance-focused runner.
- Benefit #1: Improved endurance and speed. These runs are done just below your anaerobic threshold, which is the point at which your body starts to produce too much lactic acid, and your muscles start to fatigue. (You’ll know you’re producing lactic acid by the burning sensation in your muscles.) By training at this pace, you can help your body become more efficient at using oxygen to produce energy, allowing you to run for longer periods without feeling fatigued.
- Benefit #2: Increased lactate threshold. The lactate threshold is the point at which your body starts to produce too much lactic acid for your body to maintain an effort for longer than 60 minutes, and it’s an important marker of endurance fitness. If you’re running just below your lactate threshold pace, you will help your body become more efficient at clearing lactic acid, which will allow you to run faster for longer periods of time.
- Benefit #3: Faster pace during races. Tempo runs are done around that “comfortably uncomfortable” pace where we tend to race, so they teach your body to run and perform better in races.
A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that running at tempo pace in training was highly correlated with speed on race day. The study also showed that runners who trained with tempo runs had a higher running economy, meaning they could run faster at the same energy expenditure.
How to Incorporate Tempo Run Workouts into Your Training
STEP 1: Calculate Your Tempo Run Pace
The first step in incorporating tempo runs into your plan is to calculate your personal tempo run pace. This can be done by performing a 3-kilometer (1.86 miles) max effort running time trial.
The workout pictured below is what the athletes in our app use to calculate their run training zones.
Once you've done that time trial, enter the results into the zone pace calculator below.
STEP 2: Select the Key Runs You'll Use in Your Training Plan
Runners or triathletes who only run twice per week should focus on the long run and the interval run. However, for athletes who are running more frequently, the third key run each week should be at tempo.
Also, this type of running becomes critical in the final two months before a race because you have to get comfortable at that sustained effort race pace. Interval runs should start to include longer tempo-paced intervals, and even some long runs should feature some tempo-paced sections.
STEP 3: Progressing with Tempo Runs
Tempo runs during the offseason and base-building season: At the start of the offseason (December to March for athletes in the Northern Hemisphere), tempo runs will include shorter 5-10 minute intervals with a lot of rest between them. As the offseason/base-building season progresses, the intervals will get longer, and the rest duration will become shorter.
Tempo runs during race season: As training progresses and athletes become fitter, they should gradually increase the duration of the tempo intervals, decrease the rest, or run faster.
By the final few weeks before a key race, athletes should be able to perform as many as 30-60 continuous minutes at a fast tempo pace.
STEP 4: Update Your Tempo Pace
It's essential for athletes to always be training in the correct training zone, with the right effort level, to create the correct training effect.
As athletes get fitter throughout the year, they must update their pace training zones. We get the athletes using our app to perform the running time trial test mentioned above every 2-4 months to recalculate training zones so that training paces are always up to date.
Sample Tempo Workouts
Before getting into some examples of tempo running workouts, we must stress the importance of a proper warm-up. A proper warm-up will not only help prevent injury but will also help you perform at your best in the workout.
All tempo and interval runs should start with a 5-15 minute warm-up of low-intensity running. This will help gradually increase your heart rate and prepare your body for the more intense work to come. Additionally, if you need to loosen up your hips and legs, it can be helpful to include a series of dynamic drills such as leg swings, high knees, and lunges.
While it isn't scientifically proven that cool-downs have a noticeable performance benefit, most people tend to feel better after a run if they've included a cool-down with easy running for 5-10 minutes. This will help bring your heart rate back down to a normal level, and it will also help prevent blood from pooling in your legs.
Below are some tempo run workouts (what we refer to as "Steady Runs") featured in our training plan app.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
It's easy to make mistakes in tempo runs that can hinder your progress and performance. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:
- Mistake #1: Starting too hard and fading towards the end. One of the biggest mistakes athletes make during tempo runs is starting too fast. Tempo intervals should feel fairly smooth and easy at the start, then gradually get more challenging by the final third of the workout. By starting out too hard, you’ll likely burn out early and be unable to finish your intervals at the same pace.
- Mistake #2: Not starting with short enough intervals. Another mistake to avoid is not starting with short enough intervals and gradually building the length of intervals as you become fitter. Starting with long intervals can be overwhelming and lead to injury or burnout. Instead, start intervals as short as five minutes and gradually increase as your fitness improves.
- Mistake #3: Not allowing for proper recovery. If you’re training too hard, too often, or not resting enough, executing your session well will be almost impossible. Sustaining a fast pace for a long time is challenging and requires proper recovery.
Athletes should only spend an average of 20% of their total training hours over their Zone 2 heart rate cap to ensure that when they perform a challenging workout like a tempo run, they can execute it and absorb the intended training effect.
By avoiding these common mistakes and focusing on proper pacing, interval length, and recovery, you can get the most out of your workouts and see significant improvements in your running performance.
Tempo runs are essential to any runner's training routine. Here's what you need to remember:
- Tempo workouts improve overall fitness and race performance by increasing the body’s ability to clear lactic acid
- Tempo runs are done in a steady state that feels like a moderate to hard effort, usually for a duration of 10 to 60 minutes
- The benefits of tempo runs include improved endurance and speed, increased lactate threshold, and faster pace during races
- They differ from interval runs, which involve alternating periods of high-intensity work in high Zone 4 or Zone 5 for 30 seconds to 8 minutes to increase top-end speed.
- By incorporating tempo runs into your training, you can become a faster and more endurance-focused runner, better prepared to perform on race day.
- The pace of a tempo run is typically slower than a runner’s 5k, 10k, or half-marathon race pace but faster than their easy run Zone 2 pace.
- Tempo workouts are high Zone 3 to low Zone 4
- Tempo workouts should be monitored by pace, not heart rate
If you are looking for a personalized training plan for your unique needs to help you reach your important goals, check out our app that has training plans for everything from half-marathons and marathons to triathlons from Sprint and Olympic, all the way up to Ironman distance events.