Transform Your Training With Tempo Runs

A man does a tempo run on a trail.

If you’ve ever trained for an endurance event, you may be familiar with the concept of progressive overload.

Put in other words, if you want to get better at doing something, do more of that thing more often. As runners, this typically means making an attempt to run a further distance, a faster pace or a combination of the two. This is where a workout called a tempo run can help!

What is a tempo run, and how does it differ from other types of workouts?

If you ask a dozen different athletes for their definition of a tempo run, you will likely receive twelve different answers. Many coaches use “tempo,” “threshold” and “critical velocity” interchangeably, and there is always a good debate to be had when trying to determine where this workout falls on the spectrum.

A man does a tempo run on a leafy trail.

When it comes to the different workouts in your training plan, there’s quite a bit of nuance. To keep things simple, workouts can typically be broken down into effort-based categories, most easily measured by heart rate:

  • Long, Slow Distance or Recovery Run - 60 to 70% of maximum heart rate and effort (speaking in paragraphs)
  • Steady State Run - 70 to 80% of maximum (speaking in sentences)
  • Tempo/Threshold/CV Run - 80 to 90% of maximum (speaking in words)
  • Interval Run - 90 to 100% of maximum (no speaking)

If you are going strictly by the numbers, a typical tempo run would be performed between 80 to 90% of your maximum heart rate. For example, if your maximum heart rate is 180, you should aim to keep your heart rate between 144 and 162 during your tempo run. Of course, this will vary depending on how long your tempo run lasts. Most tempo runs last between 20 minutes and an hour.

However, you don’t need to spend your entire run staring at your heart rate display on your Garmin watch. Instead of focusing on heart rate measurements and time or distance, a runner should build to a pace that is “comfortably uncomfortable” and maintain that pace until the level of intensity and effort required moves into “uncomfortably uncomfortable” territory or the pace starts to drop drastically.

During the “tempo” portion of a workout, your breathing should be heavy, but under control (not gasping) and you would rather not carry on a conversation but you can still manage an emphatic “yes” when your training partner asks if you are having fun.

What are the benefits of a tempo run?

If tempo runs don’t sound particularly enjoyable to you, you’re not alone. So why are we even talking about them, and what good could they possibly do other than make you (mildly) miserable for a half-hour of your life?

At the core, tempo runs are designed to increase your speed endurance. This is your body’s ability to maintain a high level of effort over a longer period of time. This is fundamentally different from developing top-end speed, which is the result of shorter, extremely hard interval efforts.

Since tempo workouts are executed right at an athlete’s lactate threshold (which is what makes them so difficult), the result is that your body is conditioned to more effectively clear the metabolic byproduct of the higher effort which is what slows us down in the first place. In essence, this is the cardiovascular equivalent of progressive overload with distance.

Do you remember the first time you ran “x” miles and it felt terrible, but the next time you ran “x” miles it was much, much easier? Well with tempo runs, the first time you sustain “y” pace for “z” time then your next attempt will require less effort and your tempo (read “lactate clearing”) pace becomes lower and lower.

Two runners start their watches before a tempo run.

While there are a ton of ancillary benefits to introducing this type of training into your schedule, there are two major implications. First, you develop your overall fitness in a more dynamic way by providing your body with a new stimulus and your training and racing paces could potentially become faster. Secondly, your goal race pace becomes less strenuous, and therefore more enjoyable!

How to incorporate tempo runs

The most common, and effective, way to build tempo runs into your schedule is once every 7-10 days. It’s best to start incorporating these higher-intensity efforts with your shorter workouts, before including longer stretches into your weekend long run. You will also want to structure your tempo sessions based on your goal race distance. For most of us non-elite athletes, tempo runs lasting less than two-thirds of your anticipated race distance will prove effective.

It’s also fun to sprinkle in a tempo run here and there without a watch or fitness tracker. This is an opportunity to free yourself from pre-determined metrics, and focus on what a hard (or comfortably uncomfortable) effort feels like on any given day. Tempo workouts are a great opportunity to learn your body, find your boundaries and push your limits.

Two runners do a tempo run together.

Try it out:

Beginner tempo workout:

  • 10 minute warm up at your easy, conversational pace
  • 10 minutes at your “comfortably hard” tempo pace
  • 2 minute recovery at your easy, conversational pace
  • 10 minutes at your “comfortably hard” tempo pace
  • 10 minute cool down at your easy, conversational pace

Intermediate tempo workout:

  • 10 minute warm up your easy, conversational pace
  • 40 minutes at your “comfortably hard” tempo pace
  • 10 minute cool down at your easy pace

Advanced tempo workout:

  • 1 mile warm up at your easy pace
  • 3 miles at your tempo pace
  • 2 miles recovery at your easy pace
  • 2 miles at your tempo pace
  • 3 miles recovery at your easy pace
  • 1 mile at your tempo pace

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