How many of us find ourselves running slower during the latter portion of our runs? I know I do, even when I purposely go out slower on a run sometimes the fatigue will set in and I’ll slow down toward the end of my run, especially on my longer runs.
If you’ve been a runner for any length of time, you’ve heard the term “tempo run” and have probably heard someone explain that no matter how much endurance you build unless you mix in tempo runs you’ll typically fatigue at the end of your long runs or races.
What exactly are tempo runs?
There has been a lot of debate around what constitutes a tempo run, and many running coaches differ especially when it comes to the length of the tempo run and the pace of your tempo runs. We’ll keep the definition of a tempo run simple and call it “any run where you are running at close to race pace for that length run”.
For example, let’s say your tempo run is 3 miles and you typically run a 5K (3.1 miles) in 31 minutes, or a 10-minute mile pace. In this case, you’d want your tempo run to be just above your 5K pace at around 10:15 – 10:20 minute miles.
By defining it this way, it allows us to vary the types of tempo runs during your training to meet specific goals (say, if you want to improve your marathon time you’d add in some longer tempo runs) and to avoid getting into the rut of running the same runs week after week.
Benefits of Tempo Runs
An accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles leads to the fatigue and soreness that runners experience when running hard; the longer you run at a particular pace, the greater the fatigue.
If you can increase your lactate threshold with tempo runs, you can reduce the accumulation of lactic acid and run faster without suffering muscle fatigue. Bottom line, you’ll be able to run faster, longer!
So, how do tempo runs help? Without getting too technical, your tempo pace is the effort level at which your body clears as much lactate as it produces. Since your body’s lactate clearance is at the same level as its lactate production, the dreaded dead-leg sensation and fatigue doesn’t set in. Tempo runs help the body run more efficiently, allowing the body to build up less lactate and clear it more efficiently.
Thus, tempo runs help you “push back” or increase your anaerobic or lactate threshold, which is critical for running faster for longer periods.
Different types of tempo runs
There are essentially two main types of tempo workouts: sustained tempo runs and repetitions at tempo pace. Below are descriptions of each of these tempo runs, along with some ways to “switch it up” to keep your training both effective and exciting.
SUSTAINED TEMPO RUNS
This workout includes one block of running at tempo pace, where there is either a period of time (say, 20 minutes) or a specific distance (say, 3 miles) run at tempo pace with no recovery in the middle of the effort.
Classic Tempo Run
The classic tempo run should include starts with a warm-up jog, typically about a mile, and a single block of running at your temp pace. As discussed above, your tempo pace should be based on the length of this running block and should be just slightly slower than your race pace for that distance. Once you are done with the tempo block, warm down with a jog/walk of about one mile.
Progressive Tempo Run
Similar to the classic tempo run, but rather than run the entire block at your tempo pace start at a pace 20 - 30 seconds off your race pace for that distance gradually increasing the pace until you finish up at your race pace.
Ladder Tempo Run
In the ladder tempo run, start off at roughly 20 - 30 seconds slower than your race pace for the first 1/3 of your race pace then “climb the ladder” during the second 1/3 of your tempo block until you are running at your race pace then go down the ladder during your last 1/3 of your tempo block finishing up at roughly 20 - 30 seconds slower than your race pace.
Long Tempo Run
If you are training for anything longer than a 10K, you should include some long tempo runs of 40 – 60 minutes in your training; you can include the Classic, Progressive and Ladder runs to keep it interesting. Start these long tempo runs at 40 minutes, increasing as you get further into your training until you can sustain the tempo pace for 60 minutes.
This workout is like intervals except they’re done at your tempo pace, with a period of time or distance run at tempo pace (or slightly faster) followed by a recovery period of either jogging or walking. Repetitions at tempo pace can be run slightly faster than tempo pace since the recovery will help clear more lactate. Though it’s best to pace yourself conservatively rather than too fast.
For the tempo repetition runs, you should break your tempo block into 3 sections; below is an example of a Classic Tempo Repeat:
- Warm up for 1 mile
- Run 3 X 1 mile at slightly faster than tempo pace with a 90 – 120 second recovery period of jogging or walking
- Cool down for 1 mile
If you want to keep it interesting, you can also do Progressive Tempo repeats by increasing your pace during each 1/3 section of your tempo running block. For example, your first block can be at 20 seconds slower than race pace followed by a section at 10 seconds less than race pace and then the final section at race pace.
As with the sustained tempo runs, if you are training for a longer run you should do longer Tempo Repeats of six 1-mile repeats.
Tempo Run Pace
The pace for your tempo run is the pace at which you’re producing the maximum amount of lactate your body can This is the pace at which you’re producing the maximum amount of lactate that your body can clear. Thus, you are running at your lactate threshold which is the fastest pace you can run aerobically.
If you run any faster, you won’t be able to clear the lactate and you’ll begin to “feel the burn”; if you run slower, you are not pushing your body hard enough. The goal then is to straddle the lactate threshold and not run any faster.
How do you determine this pace? Typically, you can do this by “feel”; by comparing it to your race pace for the distance of your tempo running block.
.By feel, you want to run at a “comfortably hard” pace which is somewhere between a “moderate” workout and a “hard” workout; if you are used to training, you’ll settle into a pace that fits this “comfortably hard” definition.
If you want to run it based on your current race pace, you can either look at your race pace for your tempo running block distance and add 20 to 30 seconds as mentioned above.
Rich Flaherty is a middle of the pack runner and triathlete, whose only real claim to fame is his daughter Bekah Brooks qualified for the Boston Marathon in her first marathon.