Do you need tempo runs in your training plan?

The tempo run is often referred to as the threshold run, and it is a staple training session for many intermediate to advanced long-distance runners. Throughout my running career, I have often included tempo sessions as part of my training. However, I cannot say that I have always done them correctly. So you may be asking what actually is a tempo run?

A tempo run is a sustained effort run that increases your body’s ability to run faster for longer periods of time. Whether you are training for a 5k, marathon, ultramarathon, or anything in between, this is a useful training session. Beyond improving your ability to run fast and long, tempo runs have many other benefits.

 

What are the benefits of tempo sessions?

Improve your lactate threshold.

To explain a little bit more of the science here, a tempo run should be at or near our lactate threshold pace. Our lactate threshold pace is the maximum pace we can sustain while still clearing lactic acid from our muscles and bloodstream. If we push above our lactate threshold, our body becomes overwhelmed with lactic acid, fatigue, and soreness sets in, and our running pace slows. However, if we stay at or just below our lactate threshold, we can run for a longer amount of time or distance at this pace.

The goal of tempo running is to run at or slightly below our lactate threshold pace, which other runners and I tend to do wrong. Once you get running hard, it is very easy to get carried away with the pace or get caught up in the competition with other runners during a training session. It is important to stay on target with your pace to gain the most from these difficult training sessions.

 

Increase your running efficiency.

The more time you can spend near the lactate threshold pace, the more efficient your body will become. With practice, you will hold this faster pace for a longer amount of time or distance.

 

Develop your mental strength.

Have you ever had your thoughts become negative during a race or had to fight the urge to slow down? Part of that is your body’s way of trying to conserve energy and prevent you from hitting the wall. The more often you incorporate tempo runs into your training routine, the easier it will become to fight off those negative thoughts and continually give it everything you have.

 

Prepare yourself for an upcoming race.

Making tempo runs a regular part of your training routine will prepare your body (and mind!) for race day. With practice, you will become more in-tune with pacing and knowing just how much you can push on race day!

 

How do you determine tempo run pace?

To precisely determine your tempo run pace, or any training pace would require going to an exercise lab and having blood drawn throughout a lactate threshold test. However, most runners do not have access to a lab or wish to subject themselves to that sort of treatment.

Tempo runs are completed at the hardest pace at which you can run for about an hour in length. Many elite runners will do these training sessions at their half marathon pace since, for them, 60-minutes is fairly close to their half marathon time. For most runners, a tempo run might be closer to a 10k to 15k race pace. However, just as with the exercise lab, many runners will not be up for the challenge of running as hard as they can for a full hour.

Alternatively, to best determine tempo running pace, you can…

  • Use the heart rate method. If you use heart rate as your running pace metric, this will be around 85-90% of your maximum heart rate.
  • Run by the Rate of Perceived Effort. If you prefer to think of your running pace in terms of effort. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a slow walk, the tempo would feel like a 7 to 8 effort.
  • Use recent race results and an online calculator. Take several races from within the last 6 months and plug them into an online training calculator such as the McMillian Calculator.
  • Run 30-minutes hard in training. This solo 30-minute test will closely reflect what you might be able to run for 60-minutes in a competitive situation. Record the run, and your average pace here will be your approximate tempo pace.

 

How do you build tempo runs into your training plan?

So now that you are sold on doing the tempo run, let’s look at how you might add this training session into your running routine. Remember, these training sessions are challenging both physically and mentally. It would be best if you only looked at doing one tempo run session per week at most. Start by gradually building up the amount of time you spend at your tempo pace. In other words, short timed intervals for the first few sessions, then working your way up over a period of 4-5 weeks to longer intervals. I have outlined a five-week example of how you may structure your tempo training sessions below.

Session 1
4x 4-minutes at tempo with 1:30-2:00 jog between each for recovery

Session 2
4x 6-minutes at tempo with 1:30-2:00 jog between each for recovery

Session 3
4x 6-minutes at tempo with 1:00 jog between each for recovery

Session 4
3x 10-minutes at tempo with 1:00-1:30 jog between each for recovery

Session 5
2x 15-minutes at tempo with 1:00-1:30 jog between each for recovery

 

Once you finally reach the point where you can sustain 3x 10-minutes or 2x 15-minute at your tempo pace, you can start alternating varying amounts of time spent at shorter or longer intervals to mix up the routine. A final note regarding tempo runs, though, is that you should never do more than 40-minutes at this pace. At this length of time, the training session becomes more like a race effort, which is not sustainable from week to week.

So there you have it! You now are armed with everything you need to know to complete a tempo run training session. If I could pick one training session that I and others should do every week, it would be the tempo run. You gain so much from just this one workout, and it can easily become a good gauge of your fitness levels from week to week.

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