Tempo workouts are one of the most commonly prescribed running workouts. You will see them in training plans for distances from the 5K to ultramarathon. Despite their prevalence, tempo runs can be one of the trickiest workouts for runners to pace. This article delves into the practical approach of how to run a tempo workout.
What Is a Tempo Run?
A tempo run is a continuous, moderate to moderately hard effort. Some variations do break the tempo run into longer intervals with short rest, but the intervals are longer and the effort remains in the moderate intensity zone. You can manipulate the duration and intensity (within a moderate/mod-hard zone) based on the workout purpose. A tempo run can be a short 20 minute effort at a moderately hard (threshold) effort, or it can be a 45-60 minute, more moderate effort at marathon pace.
However, what a tempo workout is NOT is a time trial. The goal is not to go as fast as you can for the amount of time. For tempo runs, you should finish with the feeling that you could keep going for a bit longer at that pace. If you go too hard in tempo runs, they become hard efforts and require more recovery. Over time, too hard tempo runs can curtail aerobic development, increase injury risk, and lead to burnout.
Benefits of Tempo Workouts
Tempo workouts offer both physiological and psychological benefits for runners. Physiologically, tempo runs improve lactate clearance and glycogen-sparing at moderate intensities. Over time, this increases fatigue resistance and raises your velocity second lactate threshold (pace you run at one-hour race effort). You can hold a faster pace with less fatigue in races such as a 10K, half marathon, or marathon. (You can read this article for more on the science and rationale of tempo runs.)
The benefits of tempo workouts extend beyond physiological adaptations. For many runners, pacing moderate intensities such as half marathon or marathon pace requires practice. It’s far too easy to start out too fast on race day when you feel fresh. Tempo runs teach you how your race pace should feel. They also build your confidence in your ability to settle into that pace when fresh and sustain it when tired.
Unlike interval runs, tempo workouts do not have frequent breaks. In addition to building physical fatigue resistance, these workouts teach you how to have prolonged focus on pacing and effort during a workout. This skill transfer over to racing, especially long distances that requires mental focus for hours.
Tips for Tempo Workouts
Sandwich the Workout with a Warm Up and Cool Down
Like an interval workout, a tempo workout should include a warm-up and a cooldown. A 10-20 minute easy effort run before the tempo segment allows your muscles to warm up and kickstarts aerobic metabolism. After the run, a 10-20 minute cooldown encourages a gradual transition from stress to recovery. If you are training for a marathon or ultra, you might extend the cooldown to increase overall training volume and build fatigue resistance.
Pace Yourself Appropriately
For the tempo workout itself, the premise is ultimately simple: you sustain a moderate/moderately hard effort for the set amount of time. You want to ensure that you stay within the appropriate intensity. A moderate to moderately hard effort requires a lot more control than an interval workout. However, like much of running, pacing a tempo workout is a skill. The more you do it, the more you refine the skill and the more intuitive the pacing becomes.
What does moderate to moderately hard feel like? In terms of rate of perceived exertion, the intensity of a tempo workout is roughly a 5-7 out of 10. You aren’t very relaxed as in an easy run, but the effort feels significantly more sustainable than you would run for short intervals. On the lower end, that’s around half marathon to marathon effort (depending on fitness level); on the higher end, that’s about one hour-race effort. Many tempo runs will have more explicit guidance (such as marathon effort or hour-race effort). If it feels difficult to sustain, you are going too fast for a tempo run.
Start out with a touch of control in the first couple minutes and ease into the effort.The effort should stay moderate to moderately hard; you should be able to speak in short phrases. Focus on staying in control of your effort; do a talk test or breathing check every 3-5 minutes.
Remember A Tempo Run is a Workout, Not a Race
A tempo run is a workout – not a race. Unlike races, tempo runs do not have recovery phases built in after them. Tempo workouts are often scheduled just a couple days out from a long run or another workout. If you race them consistently, you may increase your risk of overtraining.
It’s better to run a bit too slow than too fast. Avoid trying to test your fitness.
Tempo Workout Mistakes to Avoid
While a tempo run workout is relatively simple, common errors can occur. If you make one of these errors, use it as a teachable moment. You can’t change how you trained in the past, but you can make the appropriate adjustments in the future.
You Race Your Tempo Workouts to Test Fitness
Workouts are for building fitness, not testing fitness. Unless it is a deliberately scheduled time trial in your training plan, pushing too hard in tempo runs is counter-productive. If you are tempted to push hard, remind yourself of the purpose of the workout. If that doesn’t help, set your watch so that you cannot see pace during and focus on that moderate/moderately hard effort.
You Force a Certain Pace
Calculators like the VDOT calculator are useful training tools. However, they have their limitations. They can provide guidelines for pacing, but the paces given by them are not meant to be hit in exactly every workout. You are not a robot that functions on a basic premise of input pace and output adaptation.
Weather conditions, training fatigue, terrain, and other factors can all affect the exact pace associated with the appropriate effort in a tempo run. Do not try to force a pace if you have uphill segments, hot weather, or wind; focus on the effort and let the paces be what they are. If you force a pace on tempo runs for marathon training, you could end up poorly prepared for the race – and possibly overtrained by race day.
You Only Do Tempo Workouts
Tempo runs are beneficial for long-distance runners. For example, tempo runs for half marathon training will prepare the athlete better than short track intervals alone. However, they are not the only workout out there. While tempo runs may provide an aerobic stimulus, you do not receive the same neuromuscular benefit as you would from a short interval workout or hill repeats. Vary and periodize your workouts in your training plan. You may do fewer tempo runs months out from a race and more as your race approaches.
Tempo Runs for Specific Race Distances
A tempo run can be simple; you can’t go wrong with 20-30 minutes at a moderately hard effort. However, various additions can make a tempo run into a fun and novel stimulus. The type of tempo run you do will also vary based on race distance.
Tempo Run for 5K Training
In some training blocks, it is unrealistic to have both interval and tempo runs regularly. For 5K training though, you want to regularly include both workouts. Short intervals after a tempo run provide a neuromuscular stimulus while concentrating stress within one training session (instead of a separate workout). These workouts help you develop a finishing kick, which is valuable for 5K runners.
A tempo plus short intervals workout is appropriate for intermediate to advanced athletes. The key to this workout is not going too hard on the intervals. You want a biomechanical stimulus, not a biomechanical breakdown. Intervals are best kept at 30 seconds -2 minutes with 1:1 to 1:2 recovery time in between. You can do them on flat or on uphill; uphill may be preferable for injury-prone athletes.
- 20 minute warmup
- 20 minutes tempo (hour-race effort)
- 3-4 min recovery jog
- 4-6 x 1 minute at 5K effort or slightly faster/60 seconds jog
- 10-20 minute cooldown
Tempo Runs for 10K Training
For an intermediate to advanced 10K runner, this slight twist on a tempo workout can reinforce race-day pacing skills. The 10K starts moderately hard and quickly becomes more difficult near the end. Before you attempt this variation, you should be able to pace a tempo run with good control.
The progressive tempo run begins at the usual effort (such as hour-race effort). However, for the final 5-10 minutes, the effort can progress ever so slightly, up to critical speed (30-40 minute race effort). The key here is remaining in control; it should still not be an exhausting effort.
- 20 minute warmup
- 30 minutes tempo (first 25 min at hour-race effort, final 5 min at 30-40 min race effort)
- 10-20 minute cooldown
Tempo Run for Half Marathon Training
Half marathon plans will include several tempo runs throughout training. You will likely do tempo runs at threshold pace, tempo runs at half marathon pace, and possibly even tempo runs slower than race pace.
One fun variation I use in coaching is a tempo sandwich. The challenge of pacing a half marathon is that your legs become much more tired in the final 3-4 miles. However, tempo runs longer than 6-8 miles will overtrain an athlete. So, to prepare for that fatigue, faster intervals are included in the middle of a tempo run. You learn to hold race pace on tired legs, without driving your body into the ground during training.
- 20 minute warm-up
- 15 minutes at half marathon effort
- 3 minute recovery jog
- 4 x 1.5 minute at 10K pace/1 minute recovery jog (3 min jog total after last rep)
- 15 minutes at half marathon effort
- 10-20 minute cool down
Tempo Run for Marathon Training
Race pace workouts are the bread and butter of the specific phase of marathon training. While any terrain will be beneficial, you will receive optimal benefits when you do these workouts on terrain similar to your race course.
If you are preparing for a flat marathon, you want to know how running race pace on flat feels. While it may be easier than hills, the muscle fatigue from the repetitive impact of hills can be more pronounced. Some runners struggle to keep focus on more “boring” courses in flat races.
If you are preparing for a trail or a hilly road marathon, you will need to know how to be able to pace yourself on hills during race day. Too hard too soon on hills and fatigue can occur too quickly due to excess lactate and accompanying metabolite production. This variation of a tempo run simply takes the standard tempo and places it on hilly terrain. You can do rolling hills and focus on a consistent effort on the uphills and downhills (knowing pace will vary). You can also do this on an uphill route, especially if training for a trail marathon.
- 10-20 minute warmup
- 5-8 miles tempo on race-specific terrain at marathon effort
- 10-20 minute cooldown
Tempo Runs, Recapped
Tempo workouts can offer significant benefits for race distances from the 5K to ultra marathons. While they are not the only workout to include, doing them regularly will build mental and physical fitness.
One important reminder with tempo runs: one does not make or break your training. A tempo workout is ultimately like any run in a training plan. A single workout is less important than consistent training. You’ll have tempo runs that feel awesome and tempo runs that are challenging. Avoid placing too much weight on a singular workout and look at training as a whole.
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