Whether you run the 5K or the marathon, you will benefit this tried-and-true running workout: the tempo run.
Tempo runs, also known as lactate threshold runs, will train you to run faster and farther whether you are a short distance or a long distance runner. Many runners and running coaches reference these runs, but what exactly are tempo runs?
Tempo Runs: The Scientific Approach to Running Faster
The dominant theory behind tempo runs is that each runner has a lactate threshold. The lactate threshold reflects the fastest pace at which your muscles can sustain aerobic energy production. When you accumulate too much lactate, aerobic enzymes shut down, which reduces your muscles’ ability to contract and thus slows you down.
To run faster in any distance, you increase your lactate threshold. This is accomplished by running at or slightly faster than your current lactate threshold. Exercise physiologist Pete Pfitzinger asserts that lactate threshold is the most important physiological variable for endurance athletes. To earn that PR in the half marathon or marathon, one of your most valuable workouts will be tempo runs.
Even 5K and 10K runners can benefit from increasing their lactate threshold. To get run-nerdy with you, tempo runs increase your capillary density, the volume of your mitochondria, and the activity of your aerobic enzyme activity. These physiological adaptations will increase your aerobic abilities and even the 5K is primarily aerobic in its energy production.
Tempo Runs: Training Your Brain to Pace
The renowned exercise physiologist Tim Noakes M.D. claims the lactate threshold does not exist. Rather, you slow down when part of your brain overrides your physical ability to run. This is Noakes’ central governor model, which posits that the brain focuses on self-preservation when regulating pace.
We have all experienced our central governor overriding our running. Recall those moments when you slow at mile 18 of a marathon or mile 8 of a half marathon, despite your best efforts to fuel smartly. When you go out too fast in a race, your central governor kicks in early and leads to you slowing down in the later miles.
According to Noakes, fast running requires a balance of your physical abilities, your motivation and tolerance to pain and fatigue, and self-preservation. However, you can train in manner to in a way recalibrate your central governor.
Tempo runs require consistent pacing; thus, tempo runs improve your intuitive sense of pacing. By improving your sense of pacing, you can overcome your central governor. According to the Runner’s Connect article on the central governor, the brain uses pacing to self-regulate the central governor.
Tempo runs are thus invaluable to half marathon runners, as this workout will instill race pace and prevent you from going out too fast.
Tempo Runs: How to Pace
After reflecting on my first half marathon compared to my recent races and reading Tina Muir’s posts on racing by effort, I resolved to dedicate at least the majority of my training to running by effort. Goal pace runs may be run by pace, but only after weeks of determining what my goal pace would be based off of training runs and time trials.
The advice I offer as an RRCA certified coach is to run your tempo runs by perceived effort. This helps you run according to your current fitness, rather than an old PR or a lofty time goal. Running by perceived effort also allows for variations in terrain, how you feel that day, and weather and keeps you from stressing over your pace.
Some elite runners may use blood tests or VO2max tests to determine their precise lactate threshold; however, as more studies indicate that your lactate threshold is a range rather than a specific pace, recreational and competitive age-group runners (i.e., most of us) will benefit more from an effort-based approach to pacing.
Tempo runs should be run at a comfortably hard effort, which is slightly harder than half marathon effort. The classic tempo run will help you determine this effort: if you can sustain the pace for 20 minutes and finished feeling that you worked hard but could still keep going, then you running are at the appropriate effort.
Personally, I prefer breathing rate for gauging perceived effort. While running at tempo pace, you should breathe in for two counts (or two footsteps) and exhale for two counts (or two footsteps). You should be able to speak in short sentences or phrases.
Tempo Runs: One Workout, Three Ways
Whether you agree with the dominant model or Noakes’ model, tempo runs should be a regular workout in your training schedule. In addition to increasing your aerobic capacity and training you to run faster, tempo runs will also increase your mental and physical resistance to fatigue. Fatigue resistance is valuable for finishing a race strong and achieving your time goals!
How do you do tempo runs? Today I’m sharing with you three variations of tempo runs for you to incorporate into your training. Tempo runs should be run once every 7 to 10 days as part of a regular training schedule. You can do tempo runs on flat or hilly terrain, depending upon your goal race, or perform them on the treadmill. Always include a couple warm-up and cool down miles to prevent injury and ease your body in and out of the demanding pace of the workout.
The Standard Tempo Run
This workout should be a standard inclusion in your training plan, regardless of your goal race distance. You warm up for 1-2 miles, run at tempo effort for 3 miles, and then cool down for 1-2 miles.
Tempo Intervals are a great option for an early season workout after base building or for 5K and 10K runners. You warm up for 1-2 miles, run 2 intervals of 10-15 minutes at tempo effort with a 1-5 minute recovery jog in between, and cool down for 1-2 miles.
Tempo Long Run
Advanced runners can add a tempo segment to their long run. This workout is particularly beneficial to half marathoners, as it mimics the duration and pace of a half marathon. Run at your normal long run pace for 6-10 miles, then run for the last 3-4 miles at your half marathon goal pace or tempo effort. Do these runs no more than once every two weeks.
I’ll be joining in Jill’s Inspired to Be Fit link-up!
Do you include tempo runs in your training? How?
What area of running do you need to improve?
I need to do more speed and hill work!
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