Training: Tempo runs

So far in our series of training articles we’ve looked at two types of run that are relatively easy to define.

  • Long runs, which are the longer runs in your training plan and help you maintain or improve your endurance.
  • Intervals and short speedwork, which helps your speed, form and strength.

For this article we will look at one of the trickier kinds of run to define: the tempo run.

Occasionally you may also see this referred to as a “threshold run”. Strictly speaking, the two have subtly different meanings in some cases, but as most runners’ threshold pace is going to be close to their tempo training pace for the more popular events, I’m going to stick with tempo for this article.

If that last paragraph was confusing, don’t worry, as I’ll aim to explain this as I go.

What is a tempo run?

In brief, a tempo run can be thought of as being a long-ish, fast-ish run. Or, comfortably uncomfortable. Does that make the situation clearer? Probably not!

It is usually going to be within the middle of your distance range at a pace somewhere between a jog and a sprint. If you can manage to say a short sentence when running, you’re probably there. If you’re too out of breath to talk, you’re going too quick; and if you can natter away easily, you’re going too slow.

The exact nature will vary, but it is likely to be run at the pace you can maintain for an hour at your best effort. Except, for most tempo runs you are not going to be running for an hour, so it won’t be a full-on race effort.

Why do tempo runs?

They act as a useful bridge between endurance-focused long runs and speedwork. Without them we run the risk of being able to run a long way slowly, and a short distance while sprinting, but may struggle to run hard over the sort of distance run in most running events – 5km to marathon and everything in between. This is why tempo runs are useful for long distance runners, as they are reasonably close to meeting the specific demands of our chosen event.

Aerobic and lactate thresholds

There is a physiological benefit, in that tempo runs are likely to be close to the pace at which our aerobic or lactate thresholds can be found. These are similar, but slightly different concepts.

Our aerobic threshold (AT) is the exercise intensity at which aerobic energy pathways (getting oxygen to muscles to power our exercise) start to operate, considered to be around 65-85% of an individual’s maximum heart rate.

Our lactate threshold (LT) is the speed at which we start to produce more lactate (a by-product from the chemical reactions occurring when we use our muscles) than our body can process. This point is often at around 85% of an individual’s maximum heart rate. As lactate builds up, the harder it is to keep running as our muscles develop that burning sensation you are likely to have experienced when pushing hard. Only by stopping or slowing down can we reduce our lactate levels.

Sports scientists like to measure these as they can be helpful when trying to monitor an athlete’s fitness or work out how fast they might be able to run for a given event.

Though, In many runners, the AT and LT occur at slightly different heart rates, they are reasonably close (though this is not always the case) which is why you may see Threshold used as a catch-all term without specifically explaining which threshold is being referred to.

There are ways of estimating your thresholds (which might be a subject for a future article), but unless you have access to a sports science lab, those estimates won’t be precise.

Estimating threshold paces

With this in mind, it can be simpler just to think of your threshold paces as being around about the speed you could sustain for an hour flat out, or possibly the pace you could run a 10 mile race at.  There might be some difference between these two numbers, but thinking of them as a range will put you in roughly the right area. It just so happens that this range will be at around the same sort of speed as your tempo runs for a lot of runners.

A note on definitions

There will be people reading this who may disagree with the above statements, as there are difference of opinion among experts on what constitutes a threshold run or tempo run. Nonetheless, as an introduction to the concept of a tempo run – as a comfortably uncomfortable run – the above definitions should be useful. Rather than look too intensely at scientific approaches, we’ve considered this from the point of view of asking what tempo runs are for. Other definitions, based on heart-rate zones or specific paces can be helpful, especially when looking to progress our running further or work on a particular area. However, this article is intended as an introduction for a range of runners and to get too precise could be confusing, misleading, or irrelevant.

Why run at our threshold paces?

As with other areas of running and exercise, the more we train a particular energy system (or muscle, or skill) the better we tend to get at it. Evidence indicates that training at paces at, just above, or just below your thresholds will improve them. That is, you will increase the pace at which your AT or LT is found. This is a positive thing as the faster we run before we reach our thresholds, the faster we can run before we get tired and have to stop or slow down.

If you are running a 5K hard, you are likely to be running faster than your threshold pace, so it becomes a challenge to manage the level of oxygen debt and lactate build up. Improving your threshold gives you a bigger buffer to play with.

If you are running a half marathon hard, you are likely to be running just slower than your threshold pace. The higher your threshold, the faster you can run before you reach it.

In practice

We referred to tempo runs as being ‘comfortably uncomfortable’ above. If you are unsure of whether you’re running at the right intensity, try the speaking test (if you can get a handful of words out, you’re about right) to work out your pace. Then be honest with yourself and consider how your body feels in the day or two after a tempo run.

You need to be able to get out running consistently to improve your training. If you do a long, hard tempo run that results in you writing off the next few days of running, then you may be losing the benefit of the tempo run. If you think you might not have pushed hard enough, because you feel better than usual afterwards, then think about pushing that little bit harder next time. Always err on the side of caution though. It is better to be slightly undercooked and feel fresh, than overcooked, tired and at risk of injury.

To consider how to put the theory into practice, let’s look at the example runners from the previous articles.

Andrea’s goal is to complete a marathon

The marathon is likely to be run almost entirely below her threshold, but she would still benefit from tempo runs to expand her comfort zone. She can do this in a number of ways, but a useful option would be running 10K at a pace slightly slower than her usual race pace. By not giving 100%, she will be able to recover quicker than if she had raced the 10K, meaning she will be able to maintain the high training volume that her marathon plan calls for.

If 10K is too hard at the outset, Andrea could start off with long tempo intervals that get longer, or try and increase the speed of some of her easy runs by a small amount until she hits the right pace. Finishing an easy run with a slightly faster finish can be a good way of building tempo sections into a plan.

Balthazar’s goal is to run 5K for the first time

He’s pushing his distances up to try and run for 30 minutes continually, and doing a little speedwork for running strength, but could still benefit from some tempo running.

For example, if Balthazar is up to 20 minutes of running and finding that tough, dropping a run down to 10 or 15 minutes, but doing it slightly quicker than normal, may make his usual 20 minute run feel that little bit easier when he goes back to it. At the very least, the variety may help keep things interesting and maintain Balthazar’s motivation.

Claudia is training for a mile race

Running hard over a relatively short distance is almost entirely on the ‘wrong’ side of her AT and LT. Improving these thresholds will offer a benefit. Claudia’s tempo runs need not be long, but regular parkruns at 10K pace could be beneficial.

Another option is to introduce runs working on both sides of race pace. For example:

  • 1km at mile race pace;
  • and 1 mile at 5km race pace.

It’s not what most long distance runners would recognise as a tempo as they’re far faster than AT and LT (though it might look more familiar to sprinters), but it will help her get into the rhythm required. The idea with these is to run at 100% of race pace over a shorter distance than the event; or run the distance of the event at a slightly slower pace. Both of these get close to simulating race-day, without completely exhausting Claudia.

Pushing our limits to progress

Regardless of our personal running history, our goals, or the approach we take, it is an almost universal truth that to improve our running we’ve got to push up against the edge of our ability for a given event. Long runs and intervals work at the extremes of the speed and endurance spectrum, but tempo runs occupy the middle ground. By running at or close to race pace for an extended period of time, we prepare ourselves for race-day.

Pros and cons

What other positive and negative aspects of tempo running should you consider when devising your training plan?

Advantages:

  • There are a practically endless array of combinations, especially if you insert tempo sections into other runs, to keep training interesting.
  • The paces tempo runs are run at tend to offer physiological benefits for runners training for all manner of distances.

Disadvantages:

  • The practically endless array of combinations can be confusing, leading to runners asking whether they are doing enough, running at the right speed, or for the right distance.
  • If you push too hard, you can injure yourself.

Alternatives

What if tempo runs just don’t work for you or fit your schedule? There are alternatives you can try. Consider running your interval sessions slower, but going longer, so that they become a broken up tempo run instead. Or insert surges of speed or slightly faster finishes into other runs.

If you need to cross train (or just enjoy it), then you can get a similar physiological benefit by doing other exercise activities at or close to your threshold heart-rates – or at efforts where you can only manage a few words of talking. Running is almost always the best option though.

Summary

It can be easy to get bogged down in definitions when thinking about tempo runs. However, doing runs that are quicker than your easy runs, but not as fast as your speedwork sessions can be the missing link that leads to improved race performances. One tempo run a week can bring the rest of your training together and better prepare you for the specific demands of your event.

In the next article, on 5K training, we’ll start looking at how we can incorporate long runs, speedwork and tempo runs into a training plan to improve our results.

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