If you are a more serious runner and want to improve your speed and stamina, then you have probably heard of the phrase ‘Tempo Run’.

The mere mention of it can send shivers down the spine of runners who have them as part of their weekly training schedule.

The biggest challenge for most runners at race pace is maintaining a constant speed while at the same time struggling with the effort of the pace. This is where the speed and fast running of tempo training come in. This doesn’t mean that you have to run like Usain Bolt for a few seconds but does mean that you need to develop speed endurance, i.e. the ability to maintain a fast pace for an extended period of time.  Yes! This is possible with the right type of training.

Just to iron-out a common misconception, a tempo run is not a race pace run. The two couldn’t be more different, however, learning how to incorporate tempo runs well into your training schedule can give you long-term adaptations to hard training and excellent benefits in races.

So, what is a true tempo pace run?

The phrase ‘tempo run’ came from running coach Dr Jack Daniels who coined the term in his fascinating book called Daniels’ Running Formula, where he explained that your tempo run pace should be 25 to 30 seconds per mile slower than your current 5k race pace. If you want to know how to get your 5k race pace from, then join in the Park Run series on a Saturday morning all over the world, or find your nearest 5k race where you live. Take a look at the Park Run website and see your nearest 5k.

Tempo runs are also called sustained runs, anaerobic threshold or lactate-threshold runs, because they are hard and run at the level at which your body is able to clear as much lactic acid – the by-product of metabolising carbohydrates. They should be run at a high enough level to clear the same amount of lactic acid as is produced.

How do you know?

Well! If you are building too much lactic acid and not clearing it fast enough, then you will be forced to stop by legs that just will not run anymore. You may even feel light headed and sick. If this occurs, don’t merely stop running but jog very slowly and it will clear faster.

The idea of a tempo run is not to allow too much lactic acid to build so that you can complete the session by holding off the lactic acid for at least 20 minutes. In a race situation your body goes beyond the tolerance and can’t hold off the fatigue, and lactic build up and your legs rapidly fail. Daniels says that tempo runs should be ‘comfortably hard’, at about 90% of maximum effort for a set period of time – depending on your ability and experience, but also mental resilience to feeling uncomfortable while running.

Unlike regular endurance training, that is run at a pace that does not cause a significant increase in lactic acid, speed endurance training is done at a higher intensity, creating faster leg speed and increased maximum oxygen uptake capacity.

Who do tempo runs help most?

Some coaches believe that long distance athletes benefit most from tempo runs most. For example, 15k upwards because the adaptations in the body’s physiology are most specific to that kind of event, by having the duration to have a benefit physiologically.

An improvement in lactate threshold is only a moderate benefit for 5K races because they should be run well above lactate-threshold pace. Tempo runs are still relevant if you are a middle-distance runner because they provide a lactate tolerance fitness. They are also easy to fit into your training because they are not reliant of infrastructure to carry out. You don’t need a running track, just merely a stopwatch because they are measured by time and not distance, and therefore can be done where ever you are in the world. In fact, 20-minute is a perfect target for a tempo run.

Should coaches encourage you to do tempo runs?

Yes! Definitely. Because it is the closest feeling you will have to a race, and it’s a great way of judging your fitness and provides essential metrics for your coach regarding where you are at with your over-all training and fitness. Both racing and training is 50% mental strength and resilience. There is no better way than tempo runs to build that inner mental strength to endure the effort of hard training and racing. The best advice I can provide you with is to endure them to the point that both mentally and physically they become easier to do. Once you master tempo runs and you are periodised to them, you will reap massive benefits. They are a great achievement! After your first successful session, plaster your progress all over your social media. I’ll find that the running community will give you the respect you will rightly deserve.

Your coach should encourage you to do a weekly tempo run in order to get the benefits. Several changes occur from routine weekly tempo runs. These include both the physiological periodisation to tolerate lactate, but musculoskeletal changes too. This type of running increases both type 1 (slow-twitch) and 2 (fast-twitch) muscle fibres but also causes adaptation to increased tissue stress by laying down more collagen in the connective tissue. This allows your ligaments, tendons and joint capsules to withstand the forces of increased speed over a more extended period of time allowing your stride length to increase and running form to improve. The better your running form – the better your tempo runs will be. Doing running-specific strength and conditioning will also improve the success of your tempo runs.

Even marathon pace runners should practice tempo runs and introduce them into their training because the type 1 slow-twitch muscle fibres that produce most of the energy in the form of ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) during long distance training can become dominant without fast training. The implication of this means that without developing type 2 fast-twitch fibres, you may struggle to maintain a quicker pace or be able to change gear in races when your competition changes gear and ups the pace leaving you in their wake.

Your muscle fibre type is primarily determined at birth, and biopsy studies have shown that sprinters have a natural predominance of fast-twitch fibres while endurance athletes have a predisposal to slow-twitch fibres that fatigue slower.  However, most runners have a large number of the so-called ‘intermediate’ fibres that share characteristics of both fast and slow twitch fibres – and it is these fibres that are mostly conditioned during tempo speed-endurance training.

Many studies have found that speed-endurance work, when the body adapts to the production, tolerance and clearance of lactic acid, is an effective way of improving maximum capacity, or VO2 max. This means that running at a constant faster pace would produce less physiological stress once maximum capacity has been developed. This is what we call adaptation or periodisation. The same occurs in the musculoskeletal system – your body adapts to the change in form and speed reducing the risk of overuse injury from impact forces. Check out our blogs on running shoes to make sure this aspect of your tempo runs is correct because you need the flexibility of the right shoe to cope with the increased motion of the foot through the contact phase of gait.

What type of tempo run should I do for my event?

  1. Tempo runs can vary depending on the event you are training for. Longer distance athletes should aim to do three to six miles at around your half-marathon to marathon race pace, and do only one followed by an easy run the following day. These can be done weekly in the last quarter during the build-up to a marathon, but not the week leading up to the race.
  2. Another way of doing a tempo run is to do a sustained effort for 20 minutes at your preferred pace, followed by an easy 10-minute recovery. Repeat and have a recovery run the next day.
  3. If you are not conditioned for tempo runs, and you want a more straightforward introduction to them, you can intersperse your tempo run by more regular rest periods of say 30 to 60 seconds, by stopping for short spells when the effort is too much for you. This is a good idea in the early stages of your training but plan to complete the effort for at least 20-minutes longer term otherwise you will not develop the mental and physical resilience to cope with the strain.
  4. As an introduction to this type of training, you could also spontaneous introduce a 5-minute tempo run into your long steady run if it feels right to do so, for as long as you returned to your steady state run pace again afterwards.
  5. You could also do regular races that are shorter in distance than your preferred race distance, i.e. run 10k’s and half marathons if your target race distance is the marathon.

Remember, the one real requirement of tempo running is that you stick to a steady, specific, planned pace without going anaerobic. Remember your body needs to clear the same amount of lactic acid that is being produced. They are as much a mental training tool as a physical one, to train your sense to be resilience while running under extreme effort.

Finally, don’t be afraid to introduce tempo runs into your training schedule. If you want to progress, run faster and race better – then, the rewards long-term will far outstrip the effort.