The Importance of the Tempo Run

Today I want to discuss what I consider to be one of the cornerstones of any training plan: the tempo run.

I’m sure you’ve heard that term being tossed around, even if you have no clue what it means. And there’s also a good handful of runners out there doing tempo runs, but they’re doing them incorrectly.

What is a tempo run?

So what exactly is a tempo run? And how should you be running them? A tempo run – sometimes referred to as a lactate threshold run or an anaerobic threshold run – is an effort commonly described as “comfortably hard.”

If you’re fairly new to workouts and/or don’t do well with gauging pace, this effort will translate to roughly 25-30 seconds slower than your current 5k race pace. You should be able to hold this pace for at least 20 minutes, and then build up from there.

For more experienced runners or those training for longer distances, this pace may roughly equal that which you could hold for an hour race if needed.

If you can’t sustain the pace for at least 20 minutes, or if you’re finishing feeling like you have nothing left, then you’re liking running at a pace that is too fast.

How to do a tempo run

Running a tempo run properly is key. Go too slow and you won’t reap all of the important benefits of this workout. Likewise, if you run at a pace that is too fast you won’t achieve the proper gains. The purpose of the tempo run is to improve your lactate threshold.

Lactate threshold (LT) is a level of intensity at which your blood concentration of lactate starts to dramatically increase and your body can not keep up with clearing it. By running at a pace that is at or near your LT you can straddle that line and, over time, improve your lactate threshold.

You should properly bookend a tempo run with easy warm up and cool down miles. If you’re new to this workout, start by aiming for 15-20 minutes the first time and see how that feels. Do this workout once a week and increase the length of time each week if you’re able.

Another way to do a tempo run is to incorporate tempo intervals into your training. You could try 2 x 2 miles at tempo pace with a short (approximately 2 min) rest between sets. This is often a good way to introduce tempo pace new runners.

You could also try incorporating periods of tempo running into your long run. For example, you could do 20 min easy, 20 min at tempo, 10 min easy, another 20 min at tempo, and then 20 cool down.

The other benefit of tempo runs

Another major benefit of the tempo run is the mental fortitude it builds. Doing a tempo run can require a lot of concentration and is a great way to prepare you for the mental exhaustion that can come with races – especially longer races.

If you start incorporating this type of workout into your training you are sure to see some improvements. I have personally built the tempo run into my running schedule consistently over the past 2 years and have dramatically improved my lactate threshold (from approximately 8:15 pace down to just below 7 min pace). Because of this, my race times have also dramatically improved. For example, my half marathon time dropped from a 1:47 to a 1:36 in 1 year. I fully believe in the power of this workout.

Have you incorporated tempo runs in your training? Do you love them or hate them?

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