Optimising and understanding your tempo runs

Get some speed for September

A tempo run is a very specific and seriously beneficial workout. Today we describe how to fit it into your endurance training routine.

If you are planning tempo runs, you are clearly serious about your running endeavours. But while a tempo run is a key staple in the training “diet,” very few people actually know what pace they should be nurturing. Is it 1 minute per mile below your marathon target pace or just 30 seconds?

There are often misconceptions about the tempo run. Many start too fast and then tire quickly and ultimately recover too slowly. Today we look to support you hitting the sweet spot and optimising this session that is particularly key to marathon runners.  A tempo run should be recoverable from and not interfere with other sessions later in the week. Ideally the pace should allow for utilising fat stores for most of the run and hence runs can often be longer than most fartlek or interval sessions. However get the pace wrong and it may take 4 or more days to recover from. Too fast usually correlates from a glycogen heavy energy source rather than utilising fat stores.

 Learning how to incorporate tempo runs into your running routine can bring you lasting benefits — especially on race day. Here’s everything you need to know about the tempo running.

Tempo runs — also known as an anaerobic threshold or lactate-threshold run—this is often a pace about  30 seconds per mile slower than your current 5K race pace, according to Jack Daniels, Ph.D., who utilised tempo runs regularly in his popular book The Daniels’ Running Formula.

Without getting too technical, tempo pace is the effort level at which your body is able to clear as much lactate as it produces. Your body’s lactate clearance is at the same level as its lactate production, meaning the breathing rate and dreaded heavy-leg sensation doesn’t crank up. Depending on your physiological make up and training background some people will naturally have a higher threshold for such a state of running. 

In an all-out session, your body bypasses this limit, allowing fatigue to develop rapidly. A tempo pace, on the other hand, can be held for over 20 minutes. For those fond of using heart rate monitors, tempo runs should be done at around 80 % of maximum heart rate and feel “comfortably hard.” You should feel like you could continue at this pace at the end.

How Tempo Runs Help You Get Faster - Athletes racing beyond 60 minutes  will  receive the most benefit from tempo runs because the physiological adaptations are most specific to the demands of those distances. An improvement in lactate threshold is a smaller benefit for a 5K runner, because 5k pace is  above lactate-threshold pace. For distances like 5K and 10K, traditional track intervals like 1 to 2 minutes, are more beneficial. In longer distances, however, your performance is determined primarily by your lactate-threshold pace, so tempo runs provide a direct benefit in longer races for beginners and elites alike.

Remember a tempo run may not boost performance as dramatically in shorter races as it does in, events lasting more than 90 minutes like marathons and half marathons for others. The beauty of tempo running is that it doesn’t always require markers, but simply relies on time, making it an ideal workout.

Tempo running not only improves runners’ physical fitness, but their mental strength, too.Training at speeds that aren’t quite all-out efforts taps into the concentration required to develop mental toughness for racing, this also helps with nurturing running rhythm and consistent cadence patterns.

Tempo runs of four to six miles at half-marathon race pace are a common session. For marathoners, 7 to 10 miles at half-marathon to marathon race pace, or a 90 minute run followed by 30 minutes  at half-marathon to marathon pace.

Jack Daniels advocates time intervals, e.g. 30 minutes at 5 minutes on pace, with 1 minute cruising at a pace slightly slower. This pattern diminishes the psychological difficulty of the workout while preserving the aerobic benefits, allows greater volume (five miles + for elite marathoners at tempo pace), and may help guard against excessive speed, which correlates with injury.

Peter Thompson and  World Athletics coach educators called these workouts, ‘New Intervals’ as it maintains an overall higher heart rate by cruising for short periods rather than stopping to rest. This also teaches runners to redistribute and synthesise lactate more efficiently.