Marathon Training

Workout of the Week: TLT for a Long-Race Breakthrough

This tough workout preps you to run fast on tired legs and excels at getting you marathon-ready.

Are you looking for a workout to help peak you for a long race or time trial? Look no further than a classic favorite: a hard, long run known as a TLT.

TLT stands for tempo-long-tempo (or if you prefer, threshold-long-threshold). The basic idea is to run fast at the start (after the warm-up), then run long enough at an easy pace for the miles to start to add up. Then you again run fast on tired legs, prepping yourself for the final miles of a long race.

I first encountered it in the 1998 edition of Jack Daniels’ classic training guide, Daniels Running Formula. Subsequent editions of the book have replaced it with other workouts, but as recently as 2015 Daniels was still using it with 2:29:45 marathoner Janet Cherobon-Bawcom, and another of Daniels’ protégés, Magdalena Lewy Boulet, told Podium Runner that she’d used it while training with 2:35:35 marathoner Clara Horowitz-Peterson. 

And, while the TLTs I now use have morphed a bit from Daniels’ original concept, runners in my club have found them extremely helpful in peaking for marathons or half-marathons.

Janet Cherobon-Bawcom at the Boston Athletic Association 2011 Half Marathon. Photo: Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

In its simplest form, as used by Cherobon-Bawcom, it goes like this:

• Begin with a 1- to 3-mile warm-up

• Shift to 18–22 minutes of tempo pace,

• Go directly into an hour of easy running

• Conclude with another 18–22 minutes of tempo

• Cool down as desired.

The total, depending on pace, ends up somewhere between 13 and 18 miles.

The “T” in TLT implies that the tempo running is at the traditional steady pace, but that’s not necessary. Even Daniels’ original vision had several variants, including the use of tempo repeats or “cruise intervals” done on short recoveries of easy running—something I like because it works the lactate shuttle and may give you more benefit from the same amount of training.

TLT Variations

In keeping with that, my TLTs have become increasingly complex—to the point where one of my runners jokes that TLT is actually a misnomer, because hers had actually become TLMLTs, where the “M” is an extra segment in the middle at marathon pace. 

I’ve also found that with the warm-up and cool-down, high-volume marathoners like her (70–90 miles per week) can stretch these workouts to 20–22 miles, allowing them to fit into the training schedule in lieu of traditional long runs. 

Her favorite version goes like this:

  • 2 miles warm up
  • 2 miles at tempo
  • 2 minutes easy
  • 1-2 miles at tempo
  • 4 miles easy
  • 3 miles at marathon pace
  • 4 miles easy
  • 1 mile at tempo
  • 1 minute easy
  • 1-2 miles at tempo
  • 2 miles cool-down

Total distance: 20-22 miles

One of her teammates likes to substitute 4 x 400 at 10k pace for part of the tempo. Here’s how she does it (with a slightly lower distance to account for the brisker pace):

  • 2 miles warm up
  • 2 miles at tempo
  • 2 minutes easy
  • 4 x 400 at 10k pace (15 sec easy-pace recoveries)
  • 4 miles easy
  • 2 miles at marathon pace
  • 4 miles easy
  • 4 x 400 at 10K pace (15 sec easy-pace recoveries)
  • 1 minute easy
  • 1-2 miles at tempo
  • 2 miles cool-down (optional)

Total distance: 18-20 miles

These are not easy workouts. We only do them twice, at least two weeks apart, the last usually six weeks before the race. 

Nor is the first TLT as intense as the ones described above. Instead, it is scaled back, serving partly as a tune-up for the tougher one to follow, and also as a test to make sure the second one won’t be too tough. That’s particularly important if you’ve never done this type of workout before, because if you’re going to err, it pays to err on the side of caution.

woman running long dirt road

photo: 101 Degrees West

TLT Prerequisites and Caveats

  • Make sure you’ve first built up your long, easy runs to their desired distance and that you are reasonably comfortable doing them.
  • Adjust for your overall level of training. My rule of thumb is that the total volume of tempo in these workouts shouldn’t exceed 10 percent of your weekly volume, possibly plus one mile. I.e., a 50 mile-per-week runner gets 5-6 miles of tempo—perhaps a bit more if parts of the workout are at marathon pace rather than tempo.
  • Make sure the length of your TLTs reflects your overall training. At a rough guess, they probably should be no longer than one-third of your total weekly volume. Thus, a 45 mile-per-week runner probably should not exceed 15 miles, counting warm-up and cool-down.
  • Do not do too many of them. Two or three is enough—especially if you are also doing a half-marathon or other long race as a marathon tune-up.
  • Allow time for recovery. Nobody recovers from a TLT as quickly as from a normal long run. At a minimum, it’s an extra day, but it could be more.
  • Adjust your training schedule to account for this. You could, for example, use an alternating-week strategy in which you do five quality workouts every two weeks. Thus, the first week might go like this: speed on Tuesday and Friday, long-easy on Sunday. The next week becomes: speed on Tuesday (none on Friday) and TLT or other long-fast run on Saturday. That way, TLTs come up in weeks with only one other quality workout and are followed by an extra day’s recovery. It’s possible to build other training cycles that accomplish the same goal, but the key message is that TLTs take preparation, both before and after.

Finally, I’ve always used TLTs only for marathoners and half-marathoners. But scaled-down versions may be useful for shorter distances. “We used to do a 10-mile run that would have embedded tempo in it,” says Portland, Oregon, road and cross-country runner Chris Platt, who ran the 1500, 5k, and cross-country for Michigan State. And Cherobon-Bawcom was also a 10k Olympian, so it’s possible that her TLTs may have helped her at that distance, as well. 

So, feel free to experiment. That, after all, is partially what training is about, especially now, when conventional training may not be possible.

Richard A. Lovett coaches Portland, Oregon’s, 220-member Team Red Lizard running club, an all-comers group whose members range from road-racers seeking PRs to national age-group champions and Olympic Team Marathon Trials contenders.  He is the author of two books about training and dozens of magazine articles.