Tempo Runs: What Is A Tempo Run, How To Do Them

Tempo runs are one of those running workouts which every runner should really be doing; they’re a moderate-to-hard intensity training run, designed to make you a faster and stronger runner. They’re a staple of established endurance athletes across the globe.

In this article, we’re going to get into:

  • What are tempo runs, how to run them, and what do they do to you
  • The benefits of tempo runs
  • What your tempo run pace should be
  • How to incorporate tempo runs into your training schedule.

Ready?

Let’s jump in!

what is a tempo run

What Is A Tempo Run?

A tempo run is a moderate-to-hard intensity training run, between 5km and 8km or between 20 minutes and 40 minutes in duration.

The intensity of a training run should be around 6 out of 10 in terms of rate of perceived exertion (we cover exact timings and pace later).

In addition to interval training, a tempo run is an example of a high-quality workout for runners and is an essential part of the weekly training plan. It is widely regarded that the level of effort and the most appropriate pace is at the point where your body is switching from using oxygen (aerobic) to without oxygen (anaerobic).

Experienced and elite marathon runners will use longer tempos of up to 20km as an integral part of their preparation.

For instance, one of the key sessions of elite Kenyan athletes, such as Eliud Kipchoge ensures that he includes at least one tempo run a week in his training plan throughout the year. In fact, a recent study from the 2020 European Journal of Sport Science comparing the training schedules of Kenyan and Spanish elite athletes, highlighted the importance of tempos for Kenyan athletes, with the usual duration per week running at tempo pace was between 45-70 minutes.

Tempo runs help build your lactate threshold (LT), which is critical for running faster. Your LT is the point at which lactic begins to accumulate in muscles. A buildup of this lactic acid in the muscles leads to the fatigue, burning sensation and soreness that runners experience when running hard.

If you can increase your LT by doing tempo runs, you can reduce the accumulation of lactic acid and run faster without suffering muscle fatigue.

The increase in lactate threshold from regular tempo runs is particularly important for people preparing for half marathons and marathons. The pace that you can sustain for long distances will be faster before the build-up of lactic acid sets in.

what is a tempo run

Benefits of Tempo Runs

There are many benefits to regularly running tempos. If performed consistently and correctly they provide both physiological and mental benefits.

The efficient functioning of the cardiovascular system of an athlete is a key determinant in performance. The ability to supply the muscles continuously with adequate levels of oxygen is sometimes referred to as aerobic capacity. By training at your tempo pace, it is possible to increase this aerobic capacity and delay the onset of lactic acid.

In a study carried out by a team of exercise physiologists led by Bertil Sjodin back in 1982, first introduced the term vOBLA – the speed at which there was an ‘onset of blood lactate accumulation’ (OBLA). This is widely regarded as tempo pace. After asking eight distance runners to do weekly 20-minute training runs at their OBLA pace, they found that their OBLA paces dropped by 4% (from 5:43 per mile to 5:29) after 14 weeks of training.

what is a tempo run

A more recent study in 2001 by Nicholson and Slevivert, found that this pace vOBLA is an excellent predictor of performance in the distance events, such as 10,000 and marathons.

Tempo runs are also helpful for developing the mental toughness and stamina needed for racing since you will have practised running at a pace that is a little outside of your comfort zone.

Additionally, according to experienced UK athletics coach Mark Kirk, most people struggle to get their pace right: “Tempo running is the bread and butter for endurance runners, and it is crucial for aerobic development, but they must be run at the correct pace! It is very much misunderstood, and I see many athletes who run their tempo sessions much too fast.”

Therefore, the pace at which you run your tempo is vital to get right.

What pace is right for your Tempo Run?

what is a tempo run

Finding the right pace to run your tempo sessions will at first require a little bit of experimenting, but a general rule of thumb is the pace you could sustain for an hourit usually considered to be between your 10k and half marathon pace, but closer to the latter.

If you only have times from shorter distance races such as 5k, a general rule of thumb is to add 15-20 seconds per km/ 30 seconds per mile to your 5k time to determine the appropriate tempo pace.

It can be described as a “comfortably uncomfortable pace.” – or 5-6 out of 10 in RPE. You certainly wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation running at this pace, but you also don´t want to feel overly tired and exhausted after it either.

However, there are more scientific methods for determining the right pace. For instance, if you normally use a HR monitor and know your maximum HR, then you should aim to run the tempo session between 80-85% of that figure.

Moreover, one of the most widely used terms in sports science when referring to an athlete’s aerobic capacity is VO2 max. VO2 max is defined as the maximum rate of oxygen consumption as measured during incremental exercise. It indicates how efficiently an individual uses oxygen while exercising.

what is a tempo run

By undertaking a specific test to find your Vo2 max, you’ll also be given details of the point where you reach your lactate threshold; providing you with the pace that you shouldyou’re your tempos. 

Additionally, some coaches use devices to measure the blood lactate of their athletes. The classic threshold level is 4mmol, so if athletes are producing blood lactate above this level it would indicate that they are not running their tempos at the right pace.

Whichever method you use, remember that the key is to run it at the desired effort level and perhaps considering how you feel and look afterwards is as good a clue as any. As Mark Kirk states: “If an athlete finishes a tempo breathing heavily and putting hands on knees then that indicates they have run too fast”.

How To Incorporate Tempo Run Sessions Into Your Training

what is a tempo run

The first recommendation is to concentrate on your own pace and don’t turn tempo runs into races. This is common in a group training setting, so it is essential to stick to your own desired effort. The key is to run at the appropriate pace so that you can recover and still complete the rest of your weekly training sessions without too much fatigue.

Although it is the pace that you could theoretically sustain for an hour you should be doing much shorter tempo runs as part of your training to avoid burning out and exhausting yourself.

If you’re starting out with tempos, you could start with 1 effort of 10 mins and then build to 15 mins after a few weeks. Then aim for a duration between 20 and 25 mins.

For less experienced runners, a way of getting used to your tempo pace is to run intervals at that pace: 5 x 1km with a 1 min recovery or 3 x 2k with a 90 second recovery are good examples of appropriate sessions.

what is a tempo run


How to build tempos into your yearly plan

Tempo run sessions can have a place in an athlete´s schedule throughout the training year and in each of the periodization training traditional cycles: base, build, and peak.

The importance of tempos varies during the cycle. It is also usual to vary the pace and duration and maybe make them part of another session.

A tempo session once per week is essential for those wishing to run well over 5km, 10km and half-marathon distances. It can be used as a great boost to the development of aerobic endurance during the base phase.

The following are ways you can get the most out of your tempo sessions:

1. Winter – 1 per week

Starting with a 20-minute tempo session and including some of 22 and 24 minutes and reaching 30 minutes over a 12-week period should be easy to fit in to the schedule. The pace of the tempo over this period will be well established and you would expect the pace to quick as you build endurance.

2. Combined with hills session

The same as above but with some short hills for developing power and speed to be included after the tempo run. 4 x 15 seconds or 4 x 30 seconds on a steep hill is recommended.

what is a tempo run

3. Before a key track session summer

While in the pre-competition and competition phases, you´ll be focusing on high quality interval workouts. However, one way to maintain aerobic development is to run a short tempo before or after a track session.

An example would be 2-mile tempo, followed by a 3k pace workout of 12 x 400m, 60 seconds recovery. Or 1 mile tempo, followed by 5 x 600 at 3k pace.

4. Long tempos as preparation for marathons

For those preparing for marathons, you could include a long tempo of between 40 and 70 mins as part of your preparation. The pace would be at the low end of your tempo pace.

5. Split tempo

A popular session would be 10 mins at tempo pace, short hills, 8 mins at tempo pace, 6 long strides. This allows the athlete to incorporate both strength and speed into the combined session.

what is a tempo run
Cathal Logue

Cathal Logue

Cathal Logue is an avid runner and coach. After competing against Sir Mo Farah aged 16, he suffered several injuries throughout his 20s. Despite not reaching the same heights as some of his contemporaries, he still holds impressive PBs of 9.09 for 3k, 15.36 for 5k, and 33.36 for 10k. His goal now is to help runners of all abilities reach their potential and likes exploring the mountains north of his current home, Madrid, Spain.

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