The How and Why of Tempo Runs

The How and Why of Tempo Runs

Whether you run the 5K or the marathon, you will benefit this tried-and-true running workout: the tempo run. There are no magic workouts in training; no single workout will achieve all of your running goals. But, as part of a well-rounded training plan, tempo runs are an effective workout for distance runners.

The How and Why of Tempo Runs

The Purpose of Tempo Runs

On the most basic level, a tempo run improves your stamina and your ability to sustain a faster pace for longer. 

Tempo runs are near your lactate threshold. Your lactate threshold (which roughly corresponds with your anaerobic threshold or a point where your breathing rate changes) is the point at which your muscles produce lactate (a type of fuel source) at a quicker rate than they can remove the hydrogen ion by-product. If there is too much hydrogen builds up, the increased acidity in the muscles reduces muscular contractions and you cannot sustain your effort for much longer. Tempo runs increase your lactate threshold. Over time, you can sustain a faster pace for longer before the fatigue sets in. 

When you do tempo runs regularly, your body physically changes your muscle composition for the demands of long-distance running. Your fast-twitch muscles become more endurance-oriented. You can generate a faster pace at a lower effort level. Essentially, you can run faster before tiring – which is essential for any distance from the 5K to the marathon. 

Lactate threshold is one of the most significant indicators of performance in long-distance running, from the 5K to the marathon. Research indicates that lactate threshold – not VO2max or even running economy – is the best indicator of marathon performance (see Esteve-Lanao et al in 2019 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research). 

Beyond the basic physiology, tempo runs teach you how to control your pace over an extended period of time. If you constantly start out too fast in workouts or races, tempo runs train you out of that bad habit, however. You also learn how to become mentally comfortable with prolonged physical discomfort and how to resist fatigue at the end of a run. 

Multiple Types of Tempo Runs

Lactate threshold runs are the most common type of tempo run. In fact, lactate threshold runs were made popular by renowned coaches like Jack Daniels and Pete Pfitzinger, and are a workout of 20-30 minutes at hour-race pace.

While the basic tempo run is certainly a valuable workout, it’s not the only type. In fact, there are several variations that are equally effective in improving your stamina and mental toughness.

Think of the paces of tempo runs as the spectrum, based on the format of the workout. Indeed, it’s not that hour-race pace is magically effective and slightly slower or faster is ineffective. As Greg McMillian points out, anywhere from 35-40 minute race pace to 1:30-2:00 race pace. All of these variations will improve your lactate threshold and stamina. 

Shorter intervals such as cruise intervals (lasting 3-8 minutes in length) are most effective when done at 40-45 minute race pace. Tempo intervals (like 1-2 mile repeats with short recovery) and basic tempo runs (20-30 minutes continuous) are best ran at about hour race pace. Long tempo runs (35-60 minutes) are best ran at a 75-min to 2-hour race pace, with the longer durations being on the slower end of the spectrum.

Sometimes, tempo runs are prescribed in terms of race effort, such as 10K effort or half marathon effort. It is important to note your own fitness level when thinking about tempo runs in this way. For example, a 10K race effort is physiologically much different for a 1-hour 10K runner compared to a 40-minute 10K runner. The 1-hour 10K runner can use their 10K pace as their pace for continuous tempo runs. For the 40-minute 10K runner, this would be too fast and the tempo run would be almost a race effort. Instead, these runners would run 10K pace in shorter cruise intervals.

Pacing a Tempo Run

Your body provides the best feedback for pacing a tempo run. You can use recent race times to estimate your tempo paces, although these paces will be affected by weather and terrain. 

Whether you are running cruise intervals or a long continuous tempo, the effort should feel comfortably hard in relation to the duration of the run. If you can speak in short phrases (such as “pace feels good”) for the duration of the workout, you are working at the appropriate effort. In terms of perceived exertion, a tempo run should feel like a 6-7 out of 10. 

A tempo run is not a race effort workout or a time trial. If your breathing is so labored you can barely speak, scale back. Unless you haven’t raced in a long time, you should not try to be setting PRs in a tempo run. 

When to Do Tempo Runs

The beauty of a tempo run is that you can incorporate it into various points of your training plan. For 5K runners, it serves as a foundational workout several weeks out from their race. Additionally, 10K runners and half marathoners can use tempo runs (of the appropriate duration) to practice their race pace. Marathons can use slower, high-volume tempo runs and cruise intervals (such as one of these effective marathon workouts). 

Tempo Run Workouts

The How and Why of Tempo Runs

Bread and Butter Tempo Run

Warm-up: 10-20 minutes easy
Main Workout: 20-25 minutes at hour race effort (10K to 15K effort)
Cooldown: 10-20 minutes easy

Cruise Intervals

Warm-up: 1-2 miles easy
Main workout: 6-8 x 1K at 8K-10K pace (40-50 min race effort) with a 2-min recovery jog in between 
Cooldown: 1-2 miles easy

Long Tempo Run

Warm-up: 1-2 miles easy
Main workout: 5-6 miles at 10 mile to half marathon effort (90 minute to 2-hour race effort)
Cooldown: 1-2 miles easy

Linking up with CoachesCorner

Do you include tempo runs in your training?
What workout makes you feel race ready?

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8 Responses

  1. I know I need to do more of these kinds of runs but I really don’t. Sometimes I do them by accident with hills. Thanks for the great workout ideas. Will pin for later!

  2. I often times do tempo runs spontaneously, when/if I have a relatively short run on the schedule (2-4 miles) and things just feel good from the start and my legs just let loose.

  3. Tempo runs are fantastic and I know they made a huge difference in my training for the NJ Marathon last year (thank you!). I need to share this with my husband – he wants to get faster in the half distance but I think he needs some clear workouts to add to his training.

  4. Hello there,

    Firstly thanks for your informative article, it’s been very helpful.

    I know what tempo runs are – but I’m also reading so many different explanations of them by different coaches that I’m just a little confused. Alternatively it seems you should be running just under full-out pace or – someone else says – take it at “hour race pace” or even “run all day pace”. Sorry, but what does “hour race pace” really mean? Does that mean slow or fast? I’m guessing the latter so if my 10k race pace is 7:15 I should be just under that? I also saw someone say “your 5k pace plus 15-20 seconds per mile”. And for how long? Sorry, it doesn’t seem clear to me.

    Specifically, I’m aiming for a 45-minute 10k, so c. 7:15 average/mile. What pace should my tempo runs be?

    Thanks in advance and sorry for the confusion, I’m just looking for some clarity.

    1. Hello! Thank you for commmenting!

      The definition of tempo runs will vary, but typically it is at your lactate threshold. This roughly equates to hour race pace. Hour race pace means the pace you could sustain for an hour if racing. If it takes you 45 minute to race a 10K, it will likely be around your 15K pace, so slightly slower than your 10K pace. The VDOT calculator can be helpful for determining the pace for tempo runs.

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