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Understanding Your Tempo Runs

The tempo run is the most misunderstood type of workout. Let's get it straight.

A lot of runners like to throw around the term “tempo run,” but very few actually know what they are and how (and when) to do this type of workout. While Joe Jogger will call any run done faster than his usual training pace a tempo run, some weekend warriors will pack it in during the last few miles of a bad race and call it the same thing—evidence that the tempo run is one of the most widely misunderstood workouts among the moving masses.

Of course, neither of the above examples really represents a tempo run, and while the true meaning of the term depends on who you’re talking to, 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.

Short distance specialists, ultramarathon maniacs and everyone in between can benefit from incorporating tempo runs into their training schedule. The duration, intensity and frequency of the workout itself will depend on the event an athlete is training for, but extended efforts of 20 to 90 minutes in proper proportion to goal race pace will improve aerobic capacity, enhance efficiency and help develop the confidence to hold a challenging pace for a prolonged period of time.

Let’s take a look at different types of tempo runs and where each fits into a training program.

Something For Everyone

For nearly every athlete I coach, from the frequent 5Ker to the twice-a-year marathoner and even ultramarathoners, there’s one type of tempo run I turn to throughout the course of a training cycle. In the eight to 12 weeks before a target event I’ll assign a tempo run in the range of four to six miles at 10K race pace plus 15-20 seconds per mile, which for many athletes equates to roughly half marathon race pace, or a touch quicker. For those athletes who don’t have access to a GPS unit or measured mile markers, running for 20 to 60 minutes at half-marathon race effort will do the trick.

Even if an athlete is training specifically for 5K or 10K and will never race a half marathon, spending some time running at this not-too-intense (yet still aerobically demanding) pace does wonders to improve endurance and efficiency, develop a sense of race rhythm and ease the transition into more intense race-pace and below-race-pace running that will occur later in the training cycle. Half marathoners and marathoners will reap all these same benefits, in addition to developing the confidence that comes from running close to their race pace for an extended amount of time. I typically have athletes follow this type of tempo run with a session of short hill sprints—6 x 15-20 seconds at 90 percent effort with full recovery—to recruit fast-twitch fibers and promote good mechanics. This is an optional addition to the workout, but a good way to kill two birds with one stone.

Shifting Speeds For 5K-10K

Inside eight weeks of a goal race, a shift in the speed (and distance) of the weekly tempo run occurs, the specific nature of which depends on the athlete’s goal race distance. For 5K and 10K runners, the classic 4-6 mile tempo run at roughly half-marathon pace will get shortened to 3 miles at 10K race pace plus 10 seconds per mile. I’ll often have athletes finish up these types of workouts with 4-8 x 200 meters at mile to 5K race pace (or 30 to 60-second pickups at a similar effort) with equal recovery to work on turnover and simulate changing gears and finishing hard at the end of a race.

During the final four weeks before a race, we’ll keep some variation of the aforementioned sustained tempo efforts in the rotation every 10 days or so (as aerobic maintenance-type workouts), while also getting more specific with 5K-10K interval work. For example, in addition to the occasional faster 3-mile tempo run, we’ll run longer intervals such as 2-3 x 2 miles at 10K race pace with 3 to 4 minutes rest in between. Or, we might do two 1.5-mile intervals at 5K race pace (or 7-12 minutes at the same effort) with 5 minutes of recovery in between. These longer, fast intervals help an athlete get race ready at just the right time, and are most effective when preceded by months of regular, strength-building tempo runs.

Practicing Pacing For Half &  Full Marathon

For those preparing for half marathons and marathons, tempo runs take on a slightly different twist in the final eight weeks before a peak race. Instead of shortening the length of the tempo run and increasing the intensity, I’ll actually have my athletes do just the opposite and extend most of their efforts to a higher percentage of the race distance. These workouts are run in very close proximity to goal race pace (and never much faster) to provide practice in proper pacing and fuel consumption as well as to avoid overdoing it by going too far, too fast.

Half marathoners will gradually extend their weekly tempo run to eight miles (or up to 75 minutes at the same effort) at race pace 2-3 weeks out from their goal event, while marathoners will work their way up to running the middle 13-16 miles (or up to 2-2.5 hours for slower runners) of their last long run at goal pace about three weeks before their peak race.

Practicing proper pacing is of the utmost importance when preparing for races longer than 10K, but in order to stimulate the different systems and improve overall efficiency, I’ll have my half marathoners and marathoners perform each others’ workouts every so often. Half marathoners will substitute some of their race-pace tempo runs with longer marathon-pace efforts of 10-12 miles, while marathoners will sometimes drop down in distance and do shorter tempo runs of up to 8 miles at half marathon pace.