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What Is A Tempo Run? + Why You Should Add Them To Your Training

Improve your running performance with these threshold sessions.

Tempo runs, or threshold runs, are a staple in any runner’s training program, from 5K training plans to half marathon and marathon training plans, and are used primarily to improve speed and endurance.

Now, these speed workouts aren’t easy and are actually quite uncomfortable, to tell you the truth. But they are my also favorite. And if you come to understand how to ace a tempo run, you’ll see why I love them so much.

As a running coach and avid runner myself, I feel that when executed properly, these workouts are the most efficient and effective for substantial performance results.

The reason I mention being executed properly is because many runners find it difficult to find that tempo run sweet spot. They either run their tempos too easily and don’t reap the benefits of threshold training or run them too fast and burn out before they can finish.

That “uncomfortable yet comfortable,” “hard, yet sustainable,” is a tricky happy medium to find.

In this guide, I’ll get into what exactly tempo runs entail, how to perform them correctly, and their benefits. Then, I’ll give you some of my sample tempo run workouts to try out in your training plan.

A group of people running.

What Is A Tempo Run?

A tempo run is a workout where you run at a sustainable, hard effort, ideally for bouts of 20 to 40 minutes.

There are various ways to calculate the pace at which you run these speed workouts. This will depend on your training method and what is most accessible to you.

The general rule of thumb is that a tempo run should be run at a hard pace that you could hold for 60 minutes.

Let’s look at how to calculate your tempo pace depending on your training method.

Rate of Perceived Exertion

If you use the rate of perceived exertion chart, based on a scale of 1-10, 1 being a very easy effort that you could hold for hours, and 10 being maximum effort that you could only hold for 20-30 seconds, a tempo run should be done at a 6.

Six on the rate of the perceived exertion chart is defined as “hard activity” where you experience labored breathing; it needs to be challenging and uncomfortable yet sustainable for 60 minutes.

It takes quite a bit of practice to know when you are pushing just hard enough to be in the correct zone but not too hard so that you will end up burning out before the end of the workout.

A person smiling and running.

Heart Rate Training

This is a tricky one because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. The fitter and more experienced of a distance runner you are, the higher percentage of your maximum heart rate you will be able to sustain for a longer period of time successfully.

For example, beginner athletes will likely be able to run their tempo run between 70-80% of their maximum heart rate.

In contrast, an advanced runner with a higher fitness level may be able to hold their tempo training effort level between 85- 90% of their maximum heart rate.

To calculate your maximum heart rate and training zones, click here.

Pace Training

As for pace training, you can take a 3K or a 5K field test or time trial and plug your results into a pace calculator such as Jack Daniel’s VDOT app to get your threshold pace for tempo runs.

This running formula will also give you estimated race times, such as your 5K race pace, half marathon pace, marathon race pace, and more.

For example, if you can run a 3K test all out in a total time of 15 minutes, your pace results will look like this:

Type of WorkoutPace: Minute Per MIlePace: Minutes Per Kilometer
Easy Pace10:18-11:196:24-7:02
Marathon Pace 9:205:48
Threshold Pace8:405:23
Interval Pace 7:564:55
Repetition Pace 7:314:40

As you can see, when done accurately, this field test can estimate your lactate threshold pace at which you can run your tempo runs. In this case, it would be 8:40/mile or 5:23/km.

A person running over a bridge.

Lactate Threshold

You can also take a laboratory lactate threshold test, where they actually measure your blood lactate as you run.

This treadmill test will give you more accurate results than a field test, and you can use this data to calculate your lactate threshold/tempo run pace and the rest of your training paces and heart rate zones.

Just a quick piece of science for you to back up what I mentioned about trying to find that sweet spot tempo pace:

When exercising at an intensity above the lactate threshold (anaerobic threshold), the body cannot keep up with the production of lactate, and the rate at which lactate is removed falls behind the rate at which lactate begins to be produced.

When this happens, you will begin to feel that famous burning sensation in your legs. I’m sure you’ve felt this before during hard-effort workouts. When you reach this point, you will need to slow down or even stop due to fatigue.

Tempo runs work just at this breaking point. They are a great way to work your lactate threshold and make your body more efficient at tolerating and clearing it out.

No matter how you calculate your tempo run pace, know it should feel hard, but be sustainable.

A person running down the sidewalk.

What Are The Benefits Of Tempo Runs?

Tempo runs, simply put, help you run harder and faster for longer. They train you to sustain harder intensities and faster paces and increase your time to fatigue by building endurance and tolerance and prepping you for a hard effort on race day.

They are also a great way to improve mental toughness and psychological tolerance for short or long-distance hard-effort running.

Tempo Run Workout Ideas

#1: Beginner Tempo Run Intervals

If you are just starting to incorporate this type of speedwork into your training, getting used to holding these long, sustained efforts can be challenging.

Therefore, we will first give you a workout that begins under the minimum tempo run time mentioned earlier so you can build up gradually to longer, more sustained tempo runs.

  1. Warm up at an easy pace for 10-15 minutes.
  2. 4 x 5 minutes at a tempo effort / 5-minute recovery jog
  3. Cool down easy for 10 minutes

Work your way up to 10-minute intervals, then 15-minute intervals.

A person running down the road.

#2: Mile Tempo Runs

If you prefer to use distance or are running on a track, miles at tempo pace are another good beginner tempo run workout. These interval training runs will prepare you for longer-distance tempo efforts.

  1. Warm up at an easy pace for 10-15 minutes.
  2. Repeat 3-4 x 1-mile tempo run / 3-minute recovery jog
  3. Cool down easy for 10 minutes

#3: A “Good Ole” Classic Tempo Run

Once you have a bit more practice with tempo runs and holding this hard effort, you can bump up the time.

  1. Warm up with 10-15 minutes of easy running
  2. Run a 20-minute tempo run
  3. Cool down easy for 10-15 minutes

#4 Advanced Tempo Run

  1. Warm up with 10 minutes of easy running
  2. Run a 20-minute tempo run
  3. Run 10 minutes easy
  4. Run a 20-minute tempo run
  5. Cool down at an easy pace for 10 minutes

Incorporate tempo runs into your training program to improve stamina, speed, and mental grit for distance running. I promise they’ll be hard, but they’ll be worth it.

How Can I Incorporate Tempo Runs into My Marathon Training Plan?

Add one tempo session per week to your training plan.

I like to schedule my speed workouts, such as tempo runs, with a recovery run, cross-training, or active recovery on either side to allow enough time for my body to recuperate for the next hard session.

Here is a sample week that would contain two speed sessions, one of which a tempo run:

Monday: Easy Run
Tuesday: Short Intervals (Speedwork)
Wednesday: Recovery Run
Thursday: Tempo Run
Friday: Recovery Run
Saturday: Long Run
Sunday: Complete Rest

To add more variety to your training plan, check out our guide to Fartleks:

Photo of author
Katelyn is an experienced ultra-marathoner and outdoor enthusiast with a passion for the trails. In the running community, she is known for her ear-to-ear smile, even under the toughest racing conditions. She is a UESCA-certified running coach and loves sharing her knowledge and experience to help people reach their goals and become the best runners they can be. Her biggest passion is to motivate others to hit the trails or road alongside her, have a blast, and run for fun!

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