Push the tempo, with our article on how to make the most of tempo and threshold runs.

What is a tempo run?

Definitions can vary, but a tempo run can be thought of as being a long-ish, fast-ish, “comfortably uncomfortable” run.

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.

Occasionally you may also see this referred to as a “threshold run”. Technically speaking, the two can be subtly different, but as most runners’ threshold pace is going to be close to their tempo training pace for the more popular events, we’ll stick with tempo for this introductory article.

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 struggle to do anything in between.

Tempo runs are therefore useful for long distance runners, as they are reasonably close to meeting the specific demands of our chosen events.

How to do tempo runs

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. 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 consider 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 three example runners:

Andrea – first marathon

The marathon is mostly an endurance event, with little sprinting required, 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 10K 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 10 km of tempo effort 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 each week until she hits the right pace.

Finishing an easy run with a slightly faster finish can also be a good way of building tempo sections into a plan.

Baz – Couch to 5K

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

For example, if Baz 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 easier when he goes back to it. At the very least, the variety may help keep things interesting and maintain Baz’s motivation.

Claudia – racing a mile

Running very hard over a relatively short distance is tough! Any runs that introduce a little discomfort can be beneficial. Claudia’s tempo runs need not be long, as she’ll only be racing a mile, so regular parkruns at 10K pace may be a good starting point.

Lonely Goat, Ged McFadden at the Bournemouth Marathon

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 most races require us to balance both distance and speed if looking for a personal best.

By occupying the middle ground, tempo runs help us pull both aspects together and 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 faster finishes into other runs to add a little bit of discomfort.

If you need to cross train (or just enjoy it), then you can get a similar physiological benefit by doing other exercise activities at an effort level where you can only manage a few sentences when talking. Running is almost always the best option though.

Push the tempo

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.

There’s a large community of Lonely Goats who can help answer any questions you may have about adding tempo or threshold runs to your training. Head over to our Facebook Chat Group or Strava Club and join the discussion.