The tempo run is a staple of almost every training plan from the 5K to a marathon distance; however, it is probably one of the most misused terms in the running vernacular. A tempo run refers to a very specific type of workout, not just fast running in general.
In his book Daniels’ Running Formula, legendary running coach Jack Daniels describes the tempo run as “nothing more than 20 minutes of steady running at threshold pace.” Daniels suggests a pace about 25-30 seconds per mile slower than your 5K race pace. A typical tempo run begins with a slow warmup period, a challenging but controlled tempo period, and a slow cool down period.
The goal of this comfortably hard workout is to improve your running endurance and teach your body how to run faster for longer periods of time. The pace of the run will allow you to clear the blood lactate from your muscles, but just barely.
As you increase your running fitness, you can add more time to the tempo portion of your workouts. Think of the Waterburg Plateau as a visual representation of your tempo run.
A sample workout for a 24:00 5K runner might look something like this:
- 1 mile warm-up @ 10:00 pace per mile
- 2 miles @ 8:10 pace per mile
- 1.5 mile cool-down @ 10:00 pace per mile
Some runners make the mistake of running too slow during the tempo phase or they simply aren’t running long enough at the tempo pace to benefit. The length of the tempo period should be based on your race goal. 10K runners may require 3 to 4 miles at tempo pace, whereas marathon runners may require 6 to 8 miles or more.
Beginning runners will want to build up their mileage and running fitness before adding tempo runs to their workout cycle. Running at threshold pace isn’t easy, but it will help you lower your race time and get used to running faster over greater distances. Be sure to plan accordingly and give your body time to recover by building in a rest day or a few easy training days following a tempo run.
Controlling the pace of your tempo run is easier if you have a course with little variation. Hills, rough surfaces, and traffic lights can make it tricky to run at a consistent pace. You may want to consider visiting your local track, hopping on the treadmill, or finding a nice flat route with little traffic and interference.
Tempo runs are a great way to take your running to the next level, but they only work when used as part of a balanced approach to training. A tempo run, a long run, and a few easy days to fill in the gaps each week is a recipe for running success.
Jason is a competitive marathon runner and RRCA distance running coach. He's the senior editor at SaltmarshRunning.com, and writes for several online health and fitness publications. When he's not running on the roads and trails, Jason can be found enjoying life with his family and friends on the New Hampshire seacoast.
Main Photo Credit: lzf/shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: Jacob Lund/shutterstock.com