Ahh, tempo runs. They are a magical run that benefits runners by allowing them to run faster and farther by spurring key physiological adaptations. But what is a tempo run?
In basic terms, a tempo run is a sustained effort run that teaches your body to run faster for longer.
I must be honest here. I long hated tempo runs. Why? Because I did them all wrong! In fact, I often see many athletes, including athletes I coach, do tempo runs all wrong by turning them into time trials—which defeats the purpose.
If you are gassed and CANNOT wait for the run to be over, you’re running TOO FAST in your tempo run!!
Running your tempo too fast robs you of the opportunity to promote your body’s efficiency in shuttling lactate and clearing it. You’re not moving the needle as to when that burning heavy leg feeling starts. You also recruit the wrong muscle fibers and put yourself at risk for injury.
In this article, I am going to go over everything you need to know about tempo runs so you can use them to get fitter, including:
- why you should run tempos
- when you should run tempo runs
- how to run tempo runs,
- and examples of tempo workouts,
- plus tempo run tips!
So, let’s get started!
Why do tempo runs?
Tempos runs make you run faster for longer. They are a training staple of any runner who wants to improve.
Tempo runs improve your endurance and speed because they condition your body to better process fuel for energy. Tempo runs are run at or below a runner’s lactate threshold which is the point at which our bodies begin to make more lactate (an energy source) than it can clear.
Lactate isn’t a problem but when the body cannot clear it, it combines with a byproduct, hydrogen ion. This creates lactic acid, which spurs acidosis in the blood, making your legs burn and feel heavy. It’s at this point, a runner has met their lactic threshold.
How to do a tempo run?
A tempo run is run at a comfortably hard pace for at least 15 to 20 minutes. The median tempo pace is a pace a runner can hold for an hour.
For 5k runners, a tempo pace may be a race pace you can hold for 35 to 50 minutes whereas a marathoner’s tempo pace maybe what they can hold for 1:30 to 2 hours.
How do I do a tempo run?
Here is the most common tempo run workout: To run a tempo run, warm up for 1-2 miles then increase your pace to 70 to 80 percent of your max speed for at least 20 minutes (a rate of perceived effort of 7 to 8). Then cool down for 1-2 miles.
How long is a tempo run?
A tempo run is usually at least 20 minutes in length. A tempo run can be performed up to 40 minutes, or longer. However, for tempo runs of this duration, it is best to have a 2-minute interval rest in between two 20-minute sessions to prevent too much stress on a runner.
If you are training for a marathon or longer, your tempo runs may be longer than an hour but at a slower pace, roughly 60 percent of your max effort.
How fast is a tempo run?
A tempo run is run at a comfortably hard pace that is about 60 to 80 percent of your maximum effort, depending on the distance you are training for and the length of your tempo run.
Remember: You don’t want to be racing in your training. Tempo runs are NOT time trials.
Longer distances like a marathon will have tempo paces at closer to 60 percent of your max effort but for longer durations. Those training for a 5k will do closer to 80 percent of their max effort for shorter durations.
- A 5k runner may do 15 to 20 minutes of tempo running
- A 10k runner may do 30-40 minutes of tempo running
- A half-marathoner may do 40 to 60 minutes of tempo running
- A marathoner may 90-minute to two hours of tempo running, depending on fitness and experience.
Remember, the longer the tempo, the easier the pace. You should be able to speak in short sentences during a tempo run without running out of breath.
Related: Benefits of an Easy Running Pace
When to do tempo runs?
You can do a tempo run as often as one time per week. Tempo runs are beneficial throughout any runner’s training from the 5k to the marathon and beyond (after a solid base of easy running).
Typically, tempo runs are performed more often at the beginning of a runner’s training block after a block of easy running to push the lactate threshold to allow for faster and longer running later in the training block.
Related: The Mother Runners Training Plans
What happens if I don’t do tempo runs?
If you do not increase a runner’s lactate threshold, there will be a lower ceiling as to how far and fast a runner can run. Thus, runners will get that burning heavy leg feeling earlier in their runs if they do not perform tempo runs in the early stages of and throughout their training.
How often do I do tempo runs?
Use tempo runs in moderation in a balanced training plan after consistent easy running plus doses of faster running like strides, surges, and hill repeats.
For 5k runners, you can do tempo runs weekly several weeks out from a race. Runners of longer distances from the 10k to half-marathon can use tempo runs throughout their training to practice race pace. Specifically, doing longer tempos later in their training will better prepare the runner to run at race pace.
Reminder that 5k runners will do tempo runs at shorter distances faster, at closer to 80 percent of their max effort. Marathoners will do longer tempo runs at slower paces, closer to 60 percent of their max effort (which corresponds to race pace).
Benefits of tempo runs
The main benefits of tempo runs are that they give you better endurance. Research shows that a runner’s lactate threshold is one of the best indicators of performance in long-distance running.
Let’s take a closer look at all the benefits of tempo runs:
- Your fast-twitch muscles become more endurance-oriented.
- You can run faster before getting tired.
- You learn how to control your pace, helping you race better and not go out too fast.
- You gain mental toughness by learning how to withstand discomfort for long periods of time without a break.
Tempo runs versus threshold runs
Are tempo runs and threshold runs the same? No. Threshold runs are a type of tempo run.
Tempo runs are typically runs that are longer than threshold runs. Threshold runs are performed right at the point where a runner is about to go anaerobic (the body is burning energy without the presence of oxygen). It is a harder pace but not all out (Vo2 max).
Conversely, tempo runs are done at a comfortably hard pace you can hold for an hour, give or take, depending on the distance you are training for. An hour pace is the median tempo running pace.
How do I know my lactate threshold?
You can figure out your lactate threshold without pushing your body to the max in three ways: by doing a blood test, a 30-minute time trial, or using a race pace calculator like Jack Daniels’ VDOT calculator.
Research shows that lactate threshold is at:
- 50-60 percent of an average person’s VO2max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body takes in while exercising),
- 65-80 percent of VO2max for recreational athletes,
- and 85-95 percent of VO2max for elite endurance athletes.
Tempo runs versus interval training
Interval runs and tempo runs are not the same. Tempo runs work to push your lactate threshold whereas interval training works to improve your VO2 max, the amount of oxygen your body can take up to use to power your muscles.
The two main differences between interval running and tempo running are:
- You take breaks in interval training after each effort. In tempo runs, you do not take breaks. It is a sustained effort.
- Intervals runs are done at close to max effort (90 percent of your maximum effort or heart rate) whereas tempo runs are done at a comfortably hard pace of 60 to 80 percent of your maximum effort.
Examples of tempo runs
There are many types of tempo runs. In fact, these runs are done at varying speeds and durations. Some involve short breaks after longer sustained efforts. Some involve easy running in between work bouts. These workouts change based on the background, needs, and goals of the athlete.
Below are examples of tempo runs to help a runner build mental and physical stamina:
Before attempting these workouts, warm up for 1-2 miles and do some dynamic stretching and strides. Cool down for 1-2 miles:
Short: You can also do shorter intervals also known as cruise intervals for 3 to 8 minutes at faster paces, roughly a 40-45 min race pace. Do a 2-minute recovery jog in between intervals.
Medium: The most common tempo run workout is 20 to 30 minutes at one-hour race pace.
You can also run 2 by 20 minutes at your tempo pace with a 2 min standing rest in between.
Long: Long tempos lasting 35 minutes to an hour at best run at 75-minute to 2-hour race pace. The longer the duration, the slower the pace.
Fartleks: A fartlek (Swedish for “speed play”) is continuous running with varying paces. Here are some examples:
- 3 or 4 x 10 minutes at tempo effort with a 3-minute easy recovery jog
- 6 to 10 x 3 minutes at tempo effort with 30-to-60-seconds easy recovery jog
10 Tempo Run tips:
Before you do your tempo run, here are 10 tempo run tips to help you succeed!
- Do not attempt a tempo run until you have a solid base of easy running, plus several weeks of sessions that include hill strides, strides or surges.
- Be sure to warm up and cool down.
- Do not run too fast. If you can’t speak in short sentences, you are running too fast. Tempos are not time trials!
- Go by feel instead of pace. Aim for a 6-8 on effort scale, depending on length of the workout.
- Do not increase the pace and distance of your tempo run at the same time. Increase the duration before increasing the pace. Know you are fitter first! This has physical and mental benefits.
- Do not take breaks unless prescribed in the workout. The point of a tempo run is to teach your body to clear the lactate. If you take a break, it defeats the purpose of the workout.
- If your breathing is labored, ease up on your pace.
- Do not do a tempo run more than one time a week. At most, do 2 in 10 days.
- Keep tempo runs in your schedule throughout your training!
- Practice makes better! The more you run tempos, the better you will get at pacing and staying mentally tough!
I’d love to help you use tempos to make you a better runner! Check out my coaching services to learn more!