What is a Tempo Run and How to complete one – 6 steps to Benefit your Running!

Updated: November 9, 2023

November 9, 2023 in Training guides

Are you stuck at a plateau in your training, or have you heard of tempo running but not known where to start? If that's you, then check out the below. This type of training is used by elite runners all over the world. If this is your first time doing it, prepare yourself for a big boost in performance.


What is a tempo run?

A tempo run is a type of running workout involving running at a moderate to high intensity for an extended period. The goal of tempo runs is to improve your lactate threshold, which is the point at which lactic acid begins to accumulate significantly in your muscles, causing fatigue and slowing you down.

Runners often use tempo runs as part of their training regime to improve their overall speed and endurance. They are also commonly used in preparation for races, as they can help runners maintain a faster pace over longer distances.

Reasons you need to add a tempo run into your training program

There are several benefits of tempo runs. The key ones of tempo running are listed below.

Improve Running Efficiency

Incorporating a tempo run in your training can help improve your running efficiency by increasing the time you can maintain a fast pace without fatigue. This translates to sustaining a quicker pace for more extended periods during races.

Build Mental Toughness

Tempo runs require you to push through discomfort and maintain a challenging pace. This can help build mental toughness and prepare you for race day's physical and mental demands.

Enhance Endurance

Tempo runs challenge your body to maintain a fast pace for an extended period of time, which helps improve your endurance. This is especially beneficial for long-distance runners who need to keep a consistent pace over longer distances.

Increase Lactate Threshold

Tempo runs are designed to be run at or slightly above your lactate threshold, which is the point where your body starts producing more lactic acid than it can remove. Training at this level makes your body more efficient at clearing lactic acid, allowing you to sustain a faster pace for extended periods.

Mimic Race Conditions

Tempo runs are often done at a pace similar to your goal race pace. This helps familiarize your body with the physical and mental demands of running at that pace, making it easier to maintain during an actual race.

Versatility

Tempo runs can be easily adjusted to fit your training schedule and goals. They can be incorporated into any type of training, whether you're focusing on speed, endurance, or a combination of both. This versatility makes them a valuable addition to any training plan.

Prevent Plateaus

Adding tempo runs to your training routine can help prevent plateaus in your fitness level. By consistently challenging yourself with tempo runs, you can continue to improve and see progress in your running performance.

Variety

 Tempo runs provide a change of pace from traditional long, easy runs or speed work. This variety can keep your training interesting and help prevent boredom or burnout.

How to do a tempo run effectively?

It is crucial to plan and complete the tempo run correctly to have the full benefits of tempo runs. Follow the below steps to ensure you are well on the way to running a solid tempo pace run.

Step 1 - Your metric

A tempo run must be kept at the correct intensity so that it does not become a flat-out effort or speed workout. Or so that it is not too easy a pace and the benefits are not realized.

Therefore, choosing a metric can be:

  • Heart rate
  • Pace
  • Using a lactic measuring device

The most basic would be to choose the pace and use roughly the time you can sustain for 1 hour or use a pace calculator. For many runners, it would be slightly faster than your half marathon pace, in line with what you could maintain for roughly an hour in a race and considered a comfortably hard pace.

Heart rate varies, but on average, the tempo zone is approximately 80% of your maximum heart rate, but this does vary, sometimes significantly, depending on the individual. If you are unfamiliar with the heart rate zones, look into having a lab test for lactic profile or start by tracking the heart rate data more on all your runs. 

Or, if you are familiar with lactic, you can get a self-measure kit to work out this metric, which can be helpful if you have had a lactic test in the lab previously.

Step 2 - Your equipment

One of the benefits of a tempo run is that it can be used to prepare for a race; therefore, you may use some race shoes or kit to simulate how you will feel on the day.

You will also likely need a GPS running watch to monitor your running speed. The vast majority now also have a heart rate sensor built-in or allow the option of using a chest strap.

Step 3 - The workout

Remember to make sure the workout is set for your fitness level. A tempo run workout does not have to be a complete amount of time or distance. You could break it down to 2 x 10 mins or 15 mins and 5 mins and slowly build up or 2 x 3km. It's up to you. The key part, though, is to make sure it's done at the correct intensity.

You can always add some rest if you start working too hard, as that is not the point of the tempo run.

Remember, for this workout, it's important to warm up with a light jog and dynamic mobilities before starting the session.

Step 4 - During

Keep an eye on your pace and HR if needed, and ensure you keep to the designated pace or effort. A common mistake with tempo runs is running them too fast.

You may also want to think about your form and see if changes in technique, for example, can make you more efficient. 

If you are aiming for a half or full marathon, the tempo run is a great run to practice fuelling on so you can get used to taking on board some energy gels and drinks during the effort.

Step 5 - Review

After completing the session, reviewing and seeing what could be done better and what went well is essential.

For example,

  • You stuck to pace - This can be the average time or the individual KM or mile splits; a pace watch can make this much more manageable.
  • You took on drinks - Particularly if you are training for a longer distance race such as a marathon, it is a big success point if you can get used to taking on drinks during your tempo pace runs.
  • Your HR was correct - You managed to keep your HR at the correct level - if not, was it due to the elevation of the course, or did you perhaps start too quickly to reach the HR target
  • You felt good - feeling good on a tempo run can boost your confidence. If you didn't feel good, did you do a speed workout just a few days prior? for example, and still have some leg fatigue.

Key considerations for successfully completing a tempo run

You can complete the run on a flat course or a course in which you have run your best time, which you are using to calculate your tempo pace.

For example, suppose you have run your half marathon best time on a fast and flat course when you put this into a running calculator. In that case, this will provide a tempo pace considering the same, so try to avoid running the tempo pace on a hilly course, or you will likely be working too hard.

If you are using HR data, you can run on Hilly Terrain if you wish, and the HR should account for the extra effort. I often use this method, as some courses I like to run are undulating.

Taking it to the Next Level: How to Go Beyond with a Tempo Run

You may wish to go further with how to track and monitor the tempo run pace. To go beyond this, we recommend having some fitness testing. You may want to get a lactate threshold profile to get an idea of the paces to go through. The Vo2 max test is also often completed at the same time.

The tests can then be repeated after 3- to 6 months of specific training to see how improvements have been made and how to adjust the pacing accordingly for the future.

Alternatives to the tempo run

The tempo run is a vital part of training. However, other elements of the training week should be focused on as well, such as

  • speed workout
  • long run
  • easy runs
  • race pace

The variation of runs and pace in a training program is vital, as is organizing the plan to ensure you have enough stimulus to get stronger and recover correctly.

Wrapping up and my experience with the tempo run

In summary, the tempo run is one of the absolute key workouts. As mentioned, it can be used in different forms to suit your race preparations.

The critical thing I have noticed is getting the intensity correct on the tempo run and letting it progress as the data allows. You will then be able to run more efficiently to progress naturally.

Make sure you include the tempo run in your training plan. From building endurance and increasing speed to improving mental toughness and reducing the risk of injury, tempo runs are essential for any runner looking to take their training to the next level.

Regularly including tempo runs in your training routine can also build your confidence and mental strength, which are crucial for success in races. Additionally, tempo runs change pace from traditional long runs or interval training, making them an exciting and challenging addition to your training schedule.

FAQ

Is a tempo run faster than a jog?

All paces are specific to the individual; however, a jog would often be considered an easy run, so generally, a tempo run would be faster than a jog.

Make sure your tempo run is the right effort for you; this is important so that you can improve and progress most efficiently. It's important to track the tempo run over time to see your improvements and adjust the pace as required.

What is a tempo run for beginners?

A tempo run for beginners can be something like a 10-minute warm up, 10 minutes at the designated tempo pace or heart rate, followed by a 10-minute warm down.

This can then be progressed as required, for example, 2 x 10 mins, 1 x 5 min, moving to 2 x 10 min with 3 min recovery in-between. This will allow you to gradually increase your time at a tempo pace and ensure you have time to adapt to the session.


 

About the author 

James

James is an elite distance runner and has also raced triathlon for a number of years. He has a certification in swimming coaching, and a passion to help all athletes succeed in finding a balance within sport and life.