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Workout Of The Week: Tempo Trials

Combine tempo runs and all-out time trials.

Tactical training warfare meets blitzkrieg.

Nowadays, most distance runners — even 800-meter specialists — regularly incorporate tempo runs into their training, either during pre-competitive phases or year-round. Alternatively called lactate-threshold runs or anaerobic-threshold runs, these are workouts done at a pace you could hold for about one hour going all-out, and typically range from about 20 minutes in duration for track and shorter-distance specialists to 40 or more minutes for seasoned marathoners.

It’s also not uncommon for specialists at various distances to perform time trials, either at the beginning of a training bout to establish baseline fitness or as a goal race looms to engender confidence and mimic competitive conditions. There are close to all-out in terms of intensity, but in most cases are limited to about two-thirds of the goal event distance.

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Taking a close look at each of these types of sessions invites what seems an obvious question: Is there any way to combine these efforts into a single workout, and if so, does such a workout serve a useful purpose? The answers are yes and yes.

The Rationale

The main reason for doing tempo runs at a carefully controlled pace or heart rate, i.e., just on the friendly side of your lactate threshold (the intensity at which you begin to accumulate lactate more quickly than your body can clear it from your system) is that you derive ample benefits without knocking yourself silly and requiring several days to recover, as you would after a race or gut-busting hill or interval session. It is not, as many seem to have been led to believe, that you somehow spoil the session by going too fast, negating all of the benefits of the run. Hard running, however, isn’t The Price is Right, as you still stimulate gains even by going over your physiological “bid.”

A time trial, on the other hand, provides both a psychological and a physical dress rehearsal for a race at a particular distance. Some track athletes do these over their full race distance at a pace that is necessarily a little slower than whatever their race pace might be on the same day (almost everyone benefits incrementally from the adrenalin and focus a competitive situation entails). More commonly, runners perform all-out efforts over a distance about two-thirds that of their chosen event. A 1,500-meter athlete looking to run 4:30 would aim for a 1,000-meter “dry run” in three minutes; a marathoner aiming to crack three hours might do a 15-miler at just under 7:00 pace.

MORE: Running Faster Is Not Always Better

A workout that includes both threshold-effort running and race-pace running, then, can be assumed to provide a mixture of both: an improved ability to run at, as well as recognize, the all-important “red line” between aerobic and anaerobic intensity, and the oomph of running close to all-out so as to reinforce and enhance race-pace turnover and anaerobic power – what some call “speed endurance.”

The Workouts

If you’re familiar with progression runs, the preceding paragraphs may sound familiar. But a “tempo trial,” as the kind of runs mentioned might be called, differs from most people’s idea of a progression run in that it’s harder from the beginning and therefore includes a less steep pace increase throughout the run. Whereas, for example, a four-mile progression run might include miles at marathon pace, half-marathon pace, 10K pace and 5K pace, a tempo trial over the same distance (for a 5K or 10K specialist) might include two miles at threshold pace, one mile at 10K pace and a final mile at as close to 5K pace as you can manage without going overboard and being forced to either slow down or struggle to maintain form to the finish. In other words, for those familiar with competing at 5K or 10K on the track, it should feel like a “tactical” race that goes out slowly and ends up closing with three or four laps that are actually faster than you’d be able to manage in an all-out, evenly paced effort. In any case, your tachometer should only be in the red for the last 15 to 25 percent of the workout.

MORE: Tempo Run With A Twist

Former marathon world record holder Khalid Khannouchi is reported to have made use of this basic premise in some of his long runs, in which he closed his final 3200 meters (approximately two miles) on a track at faster than 10K pace. While there is clearly value in inuring yourself against the tendency to slow down in the latter stages of a marathon, be aware that for mortals, these runs are quite taxing and should not be attempted more often that every three weeks or so, and not at all unless you have a genuinely strong endurance base.

The Mental Side

Lize Brittin, a two-time qualifier for the Foot Locker (then Kinney) National Cross Country Championship and former course record holder at the Pike’s Peak Ascent, highlights the distinction between a tempo run and a time trial and clarifies how she brings them together. “If I’m just doing a tempo run, I’ll usually stick to trails and go mostly by heart rate,” she says. “In a time trial I’m going so close to all-out that I hear that ‘don’t let up’ voice that’s there in an actual race, which is good for developing toughness.” Sometimes, she’ll combine these by running a cross-country course at a conservative, tempo effort for the first mile or so and then picking it up to something just short of all-out for the remainder. The result yields, for example, a three- to five-mile time about 10 seconds a mile short of what a race would produce.

Integration & Reward

If you elect to give these a shot, don’t jump in with both feet at first. If you’re in the habit of doing two hard workouts a week, consider replacing one of them every three weeks with a tempo trial at first. If you find that you’re getting good results, you can sprinkle them into your schedule at your leisure. The main thing to keep in mind is that these are not races; as it is, some people race their “tempo” runs, and while this isn’t always bad in and of itself, a failure to recognize the difference in physiological cost between a tempo run and a true time trial can have an impact on subsequent training sessions. By formally classifying these efforts, done in a progressive fashion, you both exert more control over your training and become a tougher, stronger runner.