Tempo runs have long been a staple of all good endurance training plans, so the majority of experienced runners have encountered them before. Tempo runs have been defined in numerous ways, but in the Hansons Marathon Method, they are marathon-pace runs. Over the course of training, your tempo runs will span a number of months, requiring you to maintain race pace through an assortment of challenges and circumstances.

Teaching Control

Internalizing pace is one of the most difficult training components for runners to learn. If you feel great at the start line and go out 30 seconds per mile faster than you planned, you’ll likely hit the halfway point ready to throw in the towel. No significant marathon records have ever been set via a positive split (running the second half slower than the first half). If you want to have a successful marathon performance, you are better off maintaining a steady pace throughout the entire race rather than following the “fly and die” method.

Tempo runs teach you an important skill: Control. Even when the pace feels easy, these runs train you to hold back and maintain. Additionally, tempo runs provide a great staging ground for experimenting with different fluids, gels, and other nutritionals. Since you are running at marathon pace, you get a good idea of what your body can and cannot handle. The same goes for your gear. Use the tempo runs as dress rehearsals to try various shoes and outfits to determine what is most comfortable. Regardless of training, these things can make or break your race; tempo runs provide perfect opportunities to fine-tune your race day plans.

running on dirt road in mountains winter
photo: 101 Degrees West

Tempo Workout Guidelines

In the Hansons Marathon Method, the tempo run is completed at goal marathon pace. For many other coaches, a tempo run is much shorter, at paces closer to strength pace, but for our purposes, tempo and marathon pace are interchangeable. Your pace should remain at goal pace, even early on when it may feel easy.

It will take a good number of tempo workouts before you fully internalize the pace and can regulate your runs based on feel. What does change throughout training is the distance of these workouts. Tempo runs are progressive in length, adjusting every few weeks, increasing from 5 miles for a beginner and 6 miles for an advanced runner to 10 miles over the last few weeks of training. As an advanced runner begins to reach the heaviest mileage, the total volume of a tempo run, with a warm-up and cooldown, can reach 12–14 miles and approach 90 minutes in length.

Sample Tempo Workout

For this workout, let’s assume you’re training for your first or second marathon and you’re in week seven of training (the base period).

1–3 mile warmup

5 miles at marathon goal pace

  • Goal marathon finish time of 5 hours = Tempo run pace of 11:27
  • Goal marathon finish time of 4 hours = Tempo run pace of 9:09
  • Goal marathon finish time of 3 hours = Tempo run pace of 6:52

(Hansons Marathon Method includes paces for a wide range of 5K finish times.)

1–3 mile cool-down

The Cutdown Workout

The Cutdown is a variation on a tempo run. Between 10 and 12 miles in length, this workout starts at a pace of 6:00 minutes per mile for the elite men in the program, which is within our easy range, and decreases by 10-second increments to half-marathon pace. A typical cutdown workout looks like this: 6:00, 6:00, 5:50, 5:40, 5:30, 5:20, 5:10, 5:00, 4:50.

From experience, I can tell you that this workout often feels easy at the beginning, but it becomes increasingly challenging with each passing mile.

1-3 mile warm-up

Start with a mile at your Easy Day pace. Each mile, drop 10 seconds from your pace and hold on until you hit your marathon goal pace.

1-3 mile cool-down

Hansons Marathon Method

Adapted with permission from Hansons Marathon Method: Run Your Fastest Marathon, 2nd Ed., now available in bookstores, running shops, and online.