Tempo Run: What are they and why should you do them?

Updated

Whether you’re training for a specific race or a personal best, the tempo run is one of the key types of workout that you should include in your running training program.

Most of us plod along at a slow pace for our recovery runs, then go all out on interval training sessions designed to make us run faster. Those are both incredibly useful running tools, along with your weekly long run. However, none of these types of running are targeting your actual race pace. This is where the tempo run becomes essential.

What is the tempo run, how do you train with tempo runs and what are the benefits for runners of all levels of using tempos in their running training program?

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • The definition and benefits of tempo runs;
  • How to include tempo runs in your training program;
  • Some tempo workout suggestions for your next run.

What is a Tempo Run?

There are many definitions of tempo running, from your 5k or 10k pace to more complex calculations. In The Science of Running, Steve Magness explains how tempo runs can be thought of under different guises:

Whether it is called a tempo, threshold, or steady state run, these all refer to a longer sustained effort. The duration can be as short as 10 minutes to as long as 70 minutes, depending on the intensity. Similarly, the intensity can vary greatly from 10k pace to marathon pace or a little slower. While some try to pinpoint an exact intensity for these types of workouts, the fact is the intensity varies with the purpose of the workout.

(Magness, 2014, p. 221)

Therefore, depending on what you’re training for, your tempo run could be your 5k pace sustained for c. 10 minutes within a short workout. Or, you could be doing a 1h45 min workout with 2×20-minute tempo efforts that are closer to your half-marathon pace if working on speed training ahead of an ultra.

To train for faster paces, tempo run efforts should begin somewhere around “comfortably hard.” If training with heart rate, consider these your Zone 4 efforts, where you are exhausted by the end but not going in the red from the start. 

Other ways to set a tempo run pace include:

  • 80-90% of your VO2 Max;
  • a pace between your half marathon and your 10k race speed.

5 Benefits of Running Tempo Efforts

Tempo runs are part of your arsenal of speed training sessions that build not only a faster pace but also strength, mental toughness, pre-race visualization, endurance and more. Here are some top 5 benefits of tempo running that help boost your performance.

Run at a faster speed

Tempos are performed at a faster pace than most of your running workouts. This means that you’re pushing your body harder for a limited amount of time, triggering adaptations in your muscles and in your cardiovascular system to get you used to running faster for longer. 

Performed as part of a progressive training program, you will be increasing your tempo run duration depending on your desired race performance. So, assuming you’re training for a marathon, you may have started off doing 10-second to 1-minute interval sessions on the track for the first few weeks of training. Now, move to 5-10 minute long tempo runs to get used to keeping a higher pace for longer and progress from here. 

Cardio performance will gradually improve, as will your leg muscles, getting stronger by running faster for longer periods of time. 

Build mental toughness

Running at a faster pace is naturally tougher on your body and your mind. By pushing yourself out of your comfort zone regularly during tempo sessions, you are building the mental toughness required to put up with the negative feelings created by these efforts.

During a race, you’ll recognize the feeling of fatigue and muscle pain, and you’re more likely to push through it until the end, thanks to the experience you build during these tempo runs.

Race effort prep

Another important benefit of performing tempo runs is the preparation for race conditions. This is a mix of building mental toughness and improving your speed and endurance. 

Set yourself a goal time for your upcoming race. Let’s assume you’re preparing for a marathon and you’d like to complete it in 4 hours – this means you’d have to run at a consistent pace of 9:10 per mile (use this calculator to play around with paces and distances to match your goals).

Very few people can maintain a consistent pace throughout every single mile of a course, and this becomes even more difficult on varied terrain and elevation. Therefore, by practicing 10 minutes, then 20, then 30, at a faster than goal pace, you’ll condition yourself to go through those tougher sections, which make the rest of your running feel easier. Visualize where you’ll be in the race when you have to run harder (maybe up the hilliest part?) and prepare yourself for that section in advance.

The result will be that, come race day when you drop your pace during 1-2 miles for any reason, you’ll know you can draw upon your tempo sessions where you might have been running 8:30 per mile and go a little faster next. This not only helps you maintain high spirits, it’s also great for mental toughness.

Spice up your training

Variety is as good a reason as any to add tempo runs in your practice. Mixing your sessions prevents you from becoming bored with your training, keeping your motivation levels up. Moreover, varying the types of running you do ensures that your body adaptations don’t reach a plateau, from where you’re no longer progressing.

Build efficiency

Practice makes perfect. By running faster in training for repeated bouts of time, you’ll simply get better at it. This includes a better running form from getting accustomed to the effort and learning to spend the time to improve your posture and movement. It also means improving your breathing while running at higher speeds for extended periods of time. 

When to Run Tempo Workouts

Regardless of whether you’re an experienced runner or a beginner training for your first race, you’ll want to include one tempo workout per week, alongside your easy runs, interval training sessions and long slow runs. The aim is to get your body working at a different pace than all the other sessions for a period of time that is relevant to the race or objective you’re training towards.

The idea of “more is better” does not apply to this type of workout – just like with interval training. Don’t try to do more speed workouts than your training plan suggests, or you’ll over-stress your body and not get the adaptations you’re looking for.

If you’re training for your first 10k, for example, here’s what we would suggest over a 12-week training plan:

  • Split up your training into build weeks and recovery weeks, with one recovery week after each 3 build weeks. This gives your body time to adapt to the effort level built during the harder weeks, and replenish with the energy you’ll need for the next block of build weeks;
  • Do the sessions least adapted to your race earlier. In this case, during the first 3 build weeks, focus on explosive speed with short bursts aiming for your maximum heart rate. Think about 3 x 1-minute intervals, then 4 x 2-minute intervals, and so on. These sessions will build speed and short-term endurance before you launch into more race specific speed workouts;
  • In the second build block, move to 5 and 10-minute intervals. By the time you’re running hard for 10 minutes, you’ll be nearing your 10k race pace so you’ll be in tempo run territory. This is a pace you’re able to sustain for the whole time, without feeling like you need to stop. Wear a heart rate monitor to help gauge your effort (you should be in Zone 4 by the end of your 10 minutes).
  • In the final build block, perform 20-minute tempo runs which are just at or above your goal race pace. If you get used to running faster than you will on race day, then your long 10k effort will feel easier and more sustainable, ensuring you hit your goals.

Read more about how to build your own training plan in our trail marathon training article or more generally here.

3 Types of Tempo Run You Should Try Next

Stuck for ideas on how to structure your tempo run? Here are some options you can add to your routine right now.

Sustained tempo workout

This is pretty much the “classic” tempo run. You’ll aim to do one single effort at race pace or above, without dropping the intensity. Working with heart rate zones is best for this type of workout, as you’ll be able to aim for Zone 4 and then maintain your pace to keep your heart rate within that range.

Warm up as usual for 10-20 minutes, including some dynamic stretches and drills. Then, run at your desired tempo pace for 20 minutes straight. Cool down gradually for the final 20 minutes, with light stretches and an easy jog.

Progress to 30-35 minutes or longer, depending on the length of the race you’re training for. If you’re struggling to get straight into a 30-minute tempo run, try 2×15 minutes instead, with a 5-minute recovery jog in between.

Shorter tempos

This session is similar to a “long” interval training run. Perform 5-minute intervals, where you’ll be running at a harder effort level than for a sustained tempo run (think Zone 5 heart rate, or a rate of perceived exertion – RPE – of c. 8 out of 10).

Warm up for 20 minutes as above, then run 5 x 5-minute tempo intervals, with 3 minutes recovery in between. Then do a normal gradual cool-down at decreasing pace and followed by some light stretching.

Tempos for ultrarunners

If you’re training for a 100k or 100-mile race, some longer tempos are great for building speed and preparing you for tougher moments during the race, when you’ll feel exhausted despite the lower pace per mile. 

Warm up and cool down as normal, but aim for a longer session of c. 1h45 – 2 hours. In the middle, run 2 x 20-minute tempos at 5k or 10k race pace, with a 5-minute recovery in between. As you progress, increase your tempo duration to 25-30 minutes. 

Tempo Run: One More Tool In Your Speed Running Toolkit

Just like short interval runs, easy recovery runs, long runs and so on, a tempo run is one more type of workout that you can perform during your training program to build up speed, strength and endurance. They work great for conditioning your body to go faster for an extended period of time, and they will fit seamlessly into a training cycle for any type of race (with the necessary adaptations). 

To make the most of your tempo workouts, ensure you’re not doing more than one per week and that you compliment them with recovery runs and strength and conditioning sessions to avoid any risk of injury. 

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