Tempo Training – The Basics of Tempo Training and Tempo Runs

By Rick Morris

Tempo training is an important part of any running training routine. Successful competitive distance running requires a lot of physical and physiological strengths. A long distance athlete needs a high level of endurance, stamina, strength, power, economy and speed. All of those attributes are needed for top performance, but if I needed to pick just one as the most important indicator of running fitness, which would I choose? It’s hard to pick just one. The most important indicator is really different for each type of athlete. For a recreational running I think I would choose endurance, but for a competitive running I would have to pick stamina. It’s not enough for a competitive distance runner to be able to run long distances; they also need to run fast over that distance. A top level distance runner must be able to maintain a quality pace for very long distances to reach the peak performance levels.

Is there one type of workout that’s best for improving your stamina? Yep, there is. It’s tempo training or tempo runs. Tempo training has been around a long time and it has really become a rather imprecise term. There really isn’t any one pace or distance that’s association with tempo training. For some, tempo pace means running at your lactate turn point (LT) or the pace at which your body begins to produce lactate faster than it can be processed for energy. Others think that tempo pace is just slower than your LT – about 15 to 20 seconds slower.

I think that the confusion about proper tempo pace is caused by a misunderstanding between the terms tempo training and lactate turn point (LT) training. True LT training is performed at paces that flood your body with lactic acid, hydrogen ions and potassium. That takes place at LT pace or faster. LT pace is generally right at or just under your 10K race pace. So a real LT workout is done at 10K pace or faster. LT training is the most efficient way to raise your lactate turn point.

So if LT training is the best way to improve your lactate turn point, why is tempo training so important? The very fast pace of LT training makes it necessary to limit the length of your work repeats. Some common LT workouts are mile to 2 mile repeats at 10K pace or faster. That type of workout will make your LT soar like an eagle. But, if that’s all you do you’ll run into a problem. You will become a great athlete at running 1 to 2 miles at LT pace, but as a distance runner you need to maintain a quality pace for much longer distances. That’s were tempo runs come in.

Tempo runs are performed at a more moderate pace from 15 to 30 seconds slower than your 10K race pace or a pace that feels “comfortably hard”.  The distance of a tempo run can range from around 2 miles to 10 miles or more depending upon your goal race and your fitness level. These long, moderate paced efforts are crucial in training your body to maintain a quality pace over long distances. When done in combination with true LT training, speed training and strength workouts you will be setting new PR’s.

There are an unlimited number of specific tempo runs you could do. Anytime you’re running for 2 miles or more at tempo pace you are training your stamina and to a certain extent your lactate turn point. Here are just a few tempo runs to get you started.

Classic Tempo Run

Here’s an old reliable tempo run that’s easy to perform and will always give you good results. Begin your run with 1 mile at an easy endurance pace to warm up. Then speed up to your tempo pace or about 20 seconds per mile slower than your 10K race pace. The pace should feel comfortably hard. Run for anywhere between 2 and 12 miles at that pace. If you are a less experienced runner or are new to tempo running start with 2 miles and add ½ mile each time you do this run. The distance of your run should also vary according to your goal distance. If you’re training for a 5K, a 6 mile tempo run is a good distance. For marathon training try to reach 10 to 12 miles during your classic tempo run.

Progressive Tempo Run

This one is a variation of the classic tempo run. It’s just as simple to perform and is in many ways more enjoyable because your body gradually warms up to tempo pace. You feel stronger through the middle portions of the run and are able to finish at a faster pace. To do a progressive tempo run start with 1 mile at easy endurance pace. Then gradually and evenly increase your pace over the next 2 to 8 miles, so that you are running at your LT or 10K race pace at the end of your run. This type of tempo run give you the additional advantages of running the last mile or so at LT pace and also improving your ability to run faster at the end of a long, quality run.

5K Repeats

Here is a combination of a tempo run and interval training that you can do on the road or track. After a warm up with 1 mile at easy endurance pace, run for 5 kilometers at tempo pace – about 15 seconds slower than 10K race pace. Run at easy endurance pace for about 5 minutes to recover and then run another 5 kilometers at tempo pace. That is a good starting point for this workout. As your fitness level increases or if you’re training for a marathon you could add a third or even fourth 5K repeat to this workout. This is a good way to increase your time at tempo pace while including some recovery time.

Mile Repeats

Here is a good tempo workout for the track. Mile repeats are typically true LT workouts done at 10K race pace, but you can adapt that workout to make it a tempo run. After your typical warm up run 1 mile at your tempo pace. Recover with 1 minute of easy running before speeding back up to tempo pace for another mile. Keep up that sequence for a total of 5 to 10 miles at tempo pace. This is a good entry level tempo workout since it provides some recovery time instead of a steady 5 to 10 mile run.