Run Training: Time To Up The Tempo?

  • By Paul Moore
  • Published August 16, 2011

A lot of people like to term a run a tempo run, but what exactly is it? Not only that, but how should you use it to become a faster, more efficient runner?

Written by: Mario Fraioli
A lot of runners like to throw around the term “tempo run”, but the reality is very few actually know how and when to do them. While Joe Jogger will call any run done faster than his usual training pace a tempo run, some other weekend warriors will pack it in during a bad race and call it the same thing – evidence that the tempo run is one of the most widely misunderstood workouts among the moving masses.

Of course, neither of the above examples really represents a tempo run, and while the true meaning of the term depends on who you’re talking to, the workout can quite simply be described as comfortably hard running for a prolonged period of time, usually at a set pace over a predetermined distance or at a perceived effort for a predetermined amount of time.

Short distance specialists, marathon maniacs and everyone in between can benefit from incorporating tempo runs into their training schedule. The duration, intensity and frequency of the workout itself will depend on the event an athlete is training for, but extended efforts of 20 to 90 minutes in proper proportion to goal race pace will improve aerobic capacity, enhance efficiency and help develop the confidence to hold a challenging pace for a prolonged period of time.

Let’s take a look at different types of tempo runs and where each fits into a training program.

Something For Everyone
For nearly every athlete I coach, from the frequent 5K’er to the twice-a-year marathoner, there’s one type of tempo run I turn to throughout the course of a training cycle. In the eight to 12 weeks before a target event I’ll assign a tempo run in the range of four to six miles at 10K race pace plus 15-20 seconds per mile, which for many athletes equates to roughly half marathon race pace. For those athletes who don’t have access to a fancy GPS unit or measured mile markers, running for 20 to 60 minutes at half marathon effort will do the trick.

Even if an athlete is training specifically for 5K or 10K and will never race a half marathon, spending some time running at this not-too-intense pace does wonders to improve endurance and efficiency, develop a sense of race rhythm, and ease the transition into more intense race-pace and below-race-pace running that will occur later in the training cycle. Half marathoners and marathoners will reap all these same benefits, in addition to developing the confidence that comes from running close to their race pace for an extended amount of time. I typically have athletes follow this type of tempo run with a session of short hill sprints – 6 x 15-20 seconds at 90% effort with full recovery – to recruit fast-twitch fibers and promote proper mechanics. This is an optional addition to the workout, but a good way to kill two birds with one stone.

Shifting Speeds For 5K-10K
Inside eight weeks of a goal race, a shift in the speed (and distance) of the weekly tempo run occurs, the specific nature of which depends on the athlete’s goal race distance. For my 5K and 10K runners, the classic 4-6 mile tempo run at roughly half-marathon pace gets shortened to 3 miles at 10K race pace during the four to eight weeks prior to a peak event. I’ll often have athletes finish up these workouts with 4-8 x 200 meters at 5K race pace (or 30 to 60 seconds at a similar effort) with equal recovery to work on turnover and simulate running hard at the end of a race.

During the final four weeks, I’ll break the three-mile tempo run into two 1.5-mile segments run at 5K race pace (7-20 minutes at the same effort) with 5 minutes of recovery in between. In addition to a separate weekly interval workout run at or faster than race pace, these shorter, more specific types of tempo runs help an athlete get race ready and firing on all cylinders at just the right time.

Practicing Pacing For 1/2 Marathon-Marathon
For those preparing for half marathons and marathons, tempo runs take on a slightly different twist in the final eight weeks before a peak race. Instead of shortening the length of the tempo run and increasing the intensity, I’ll actually have my athletes do just the opposite and extend most of their efforts to a higher percentage of the race distance. These workouts are run in very close proximity to goal race pace, and not much faster, to provide practice in proper pacing as well as to avoid overdoing it by going too far, too fast.

Half marathoners will gradually extend their weekly tempo run to eight miles (or up to 75 minutes at the same effort) at race pace 2-3 weeks out from their goal event, while my marathoners will work their way up to running the middle 13-16 miles (or up to 2-2.5 hours for slower runners) of their last long run at goal pace about three weeks before their peak race.

Practicing proper pacing is of the utmost importance when preparing for races longer than 10K, but in order to stimulate the different systems and improve overall efficiency, I’ll have my half marathoners and marathoners perform each others’ workouts every so often. Half marathoners will substitute some of their race-pace tempo runs with longer marathon-pace efforts of 10-12 miles, while marathoners will sometimes drop down in distance and do shorter temp runs of up to 8 miles at half marathon pace.

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Paul Moore

Paul Moore

Paul Moore is the Online Editor for Triathlete Europe. When not glued to a computer he can be found writing books - most recently Ultra Performance: The Psychology of Endurance Sports and The World's Toughest Endurance Challenges. Both are available on Amazon. Paul has also written Ultimate Triathlon: A complete training guide for long-distance triathletes which is also available on Amazon.