Why Tempo Runs Are an Absolute Must if You Want to Become a Better Runner

If you want to maximize your endurance and increase your speed, it’s time to turn tempo runs into your new best friend.

Tempo runs, threshold runs, T-runs… they go by many different names. They’re essentially the staple of every training plan, and yet a “tempo run” is one of the most misused terms in the running world.

When we talk about tempo runs, we’re not talking about just running fast in general, but rather a very specific type of workout—one that’s guaranteed to improve your endurance and help your body run faster for longer periods of time.

We’re here to clear things up and explain what exactly a tempo run is and why the science behind them makes them so useful in your training program.

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What is a tempo run?

Back in 1998, legendary running coach Jack Daniels published his book Daniels’ Running Formula and shook up the training world. Since then, countless coaches have adopted his method thanks to its epic success.

Runner’s World magazine even declared him the “best running coach” on account of his proprietary coaching philosophy.

Why so much hype? Daniels was the first person to introduce the concept of specified training paces based on your fitness level for optimized results. Using his famous VDOT formula (which measures your running ability), Daniels suggests what pace and intensity you should be training at in order to run stronger, longer and faster.

He identifies “threshold” or tempo runs as one of those six paces (the others being easy, marathon, hard, interval, and repetition).

Threshold runs are at a tempo that’s “comfortably hard,” corresponding to about 85 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate. A tempo run pace should be the level of effort that you could maintain for roughly an hour or so in a race.

For example, try to perform a tempo run workout 25 to 30 seconds per mile slower than your current 5K race pace, or 15 to 20 seconds per mile slower than your 10K race pace.

That’s the biggest difference between a tempo run and race pace – when you race, you go all-out. Alternatively, when you’re tempo training, your run is moderate and steadily below your max effort level and above a nice, easy ride.

Daniels made tempo run workouts popular a couple decades ago, and runners have adapted his methods in all sorts of ways since. But what did he mean by “threshold” and what is a tempo run even good for?

Tempo Runs and the Lactate Threshold

We’re sure you know the agonizing pain and suffering conjured by the mere mention of the word “lactate”. That infamous butt lock on the last leg of your race is a memory not soon forgotten. Fear not; threshold workouts can help you avoid overexertion and common injuries.

Tempo runs can save you from those lockup moments by improving your lactate threshold (LT)—hence the name. Your LT is the running speed or heart rate at which lactate begins rapidly spiking in your blood stream, creating that intense burning sensation as a result.

At low exercise levels, lactate is used for fuel almost as quickly as it’s formed, with minimal leakage into the bloodstream. At slightly higher levels, such as a light jog, it’s produced more quickly, but also used more quickly.

When running a marathon pace, things begin to change. Lactate levels rise to around 2 millimoles per liter (2 mmol), which is still low, but if you speed up any more, this number will begin to rise more rapidly.

By the time you get to Daniels’ 1-hour race pace, you’ve doubled to roughly 4 mmol—the classic LT level—above which the lactate presence skyrockets (trust us, you’ll feel it once you’ve crossed this line). The whole goal of a tempo run pace is to stay right below that level.

When you exercise at your threshold pace during a tempo run workout, your body is able to clear lactate as quickly as it produces it. Production and clearance levels are the same, lactate levels are steady and that dreaded dead-leg feeling stays at bay.

The logic is pretty simple; the more you train your body to clear lactate from your blood, the better it will become at performing the task. With consistent repetition, you can improve your LT and its corresponding heart rate—meaning you can put your body under more aerobic stress before the signs of fatigue start to kick in.

If you’re not into long-distance running and prefer shorter sprints and 5K races, you might not notice much improvement from tempo training. These shorter runs are performed at a faster speed, at an intensity above your LT, so raising it won’t make much of a difference.

Marathons and long distance runs, however, are performed at a slower, steadier pace. Turning the volume down a notch makes your running more sustainable, prevents you from getting gassed too soon, and allows you to unleash that extra energy on your final leg.

Finding Your Tempo Pace

Your lactate levels can vary daily based on anything from how you slept the night before to what you had for lunch. Identifying a cold, hard number can be a little challenging.

Don’t lose any sleep over it, though. Too many runners stress themselves out over their LT, wearing heart rate monitors and more, but that just over-complicates things.

Keep it simple; train based on how your effort feels and use your intuition to determine what’s best for you. Aim for a tempo pace that’s not so fast that it becomes a time trial, and not so slow that it’s just a recovery run.

A tempo run pace should be difficult, but it shouldn’t take you to your breaking point.

The Benefits of Tempo Runs

There are benefits to be gleaned from all styles of training—from intervals to fartleks to t-runs— the best program for you depends on your unique goals. If you’re interested in improving in any of the following areas, it’s time to embrace tempo runs:

  • Enhanced endurance: You should be able to hold your tempo pace for at least 20 minutes—albeit not very comfortably. Your body’s response to tempo runs in the LT zone helps strengthen its ability to clear lactate more efficiently and ward off signs of fatigue.
  • Increased speed: You’re familiar with comfortable, light runs, and you recognize the burn associated with going all out. A tempo pace is right in between, building both slow and fast-twitch muscle fibers. In-between runs also help develop capillary beds (which provide oxygen to working muscles), leading to major gains in speed.
  • Mental motivation: When you train at speeds just below your all-out effort, you’ll need to tap into extreme concentration. Being in this mindset helps develop the mental toughness you’ll need for competitive racing.
  • Add variety to training: You need to keep your body on its toes in order to maximize your workout efforts. Incorporating tempo runs are a great way to spice up your regular routine.
  • Make workouts fun: Tackling mile repeats can be incredibly daunting, but the beauty of tempo runs is that you’re only required to run down the clock. You rely only on time – no mile markers involved.

How to do a Tempo Run

Are you sold yet? If you’re ready to add threshold training to your running routine and want to know how to tackle a tempo run, you have options.

There are various types of tempo runs. The only real requirement is to hold to a steady, specific pace for a planned amount of time. Aside from that, you can get creative with how you choose to incorporate a tempo run workout to your training program.

PSA: No matter what training system you decide on, remember to always stretch to reduce risk of injury and to drink plenty of water to prevent getting dehydrated after running intense routes.

You can structure your sustained tempo run workout in terms of blocks or mileage, but the catch is that you can’t give yourself a break in the middle of your threshold period. It might look like:

Warm up — 10:00

Easy — 2 miles

Tempo — 3 miles

Easy — 2 miles

Cool down — 10:00

If you run cross-country races, a hilly tempo run can help you gain strength and stamina. The key is to maintain your effort no greater than tempo run pace up hill and no less than on down hills—which will require you to speed up and slow down accordingly:

Warm up — 5:00

Easy — 10:00

Tempo on hill — 20:00

Easy — 10:00

Cool down — 5:00

Marathoners in the latter stages of race preparation might add two periods of a tempo run pace into their longer runs on a bi-weekly basis. For example:

Warm up — 10:00

Tempo — 20:00

Easy — 1:00:00

Tempo — 20:00

Cool down — 10:00

Learn how to do a tempo run workout that aligns with your specific training goals, whether it’s long distance endurance or short-term speed improvement. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain, so get out there and give this trusted training program a try!

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