Q.

Mario,

What the heck is a “tempo” run? I see this written in many of the training schedules I’ve looked at and I have no idea what it means. Please explain!

Costas G.

A.

Costas,

Great question! If you talk to 10 different coaches you’ll likely get 10 different answers as to what exactly constitutes a “proper” tempo run, but in its most basic state the workout can quite simply be described as comfortably hard running for a prolonged period of time, usually at a set pace over a predetermined distance or at a perceived effort for a predetermined amount of time. The exact distance, duration and pace/effort of the workout is where most runners and coaches end up in disagreement. 

Tempo runs provide you a lot of bang for your training buck, as faster, sustained efforts of 20–90 minutes or 2–10 miles will improve aerobic capacity, enhance efficiency and help you develop the confidence to hold a challenging pace for a prolonged period of time. These demanding workouts can also be very race-specific, particularly for half marathoners and marathoners as they approach their goal event.

In an effort to keep things simple, I like to use two paces when referring to tempo runs: half-marathon pace and marathon pace. Focusing on these two paces for tempo runs will provide a nice boost to your existing level of fitness—regardless of whether you’re training for the mile, an ultramarathon or anything in between. If you are training specifically for a half marathon or marathon, the tempo run will be of your most important workouts and allow you to practice running goal race pace/effort for a prolonged period of time.

A 20-30 minute tempo run at half-marathon pace (roughly 15-20 seconds per mile slower than 10K pace) can be a great aerobic strength-building workout for 5K-10K runners early in the early stages of a training cycle. On the flip-side, a 30-50 minute tempo run at half-marathon pace can be a very race-specific workout for a runner 2-3 weeks out from their goal half marathon and provide a solid indication as to whether or not they’re on track to hit their target time. A tempo run at half-marathon pace can also benefit marathoners, serving as a nice complement to longer marathon-paced workouts.

RELATED: Tempo Run—With A Twist!

The marathon-paced tempo run (roughly 15-20 seconds per mile slower than half-marathon pace) will fall in the range of 30-90 minutes depending on your goals, experience level and where you are in the your training schedule. It can serve as an early season tempo run for 5K-10K runners who are easing back into structured training, an aerobic maintenance workout for a runner focused on racing the half-marathon distance or a very race-specific workout for marathoners who want to work on dialing in their pacing and fueling strategies.

I hope that helps clear up some of your confusion. Next time you see “tempo run” written in your training schedule, use these suggestions to make it work for you.

All the best,

Mario

Ask Mario appears monthly in Competitor magazine and weekly on Competitor.com. Have a question for Mario? Submit it here.