You’ve heard the term a hundred times. And yet, every time the explanation seems to differ slightly.
So what the heck is a tempo run? (And, more importantly, why should you do one?)
After hearing numerous variations, the most straightforward definition of a tempo is any run that lasts for an extended period–usually 10-15 minutes minimum–and that is run at a constant and somewhat hard pace.
The run does not need to be for a certain period of time, cover a set distance or be run at a specific speed/pace. A tempo run can also and probably should be proceeded by a short warm-up and followed with a cool-down session. In this sense, a tempo run is simply another type of workout, much like doing hill repeats or intervals on the track.
What a tempo run is not is an easy or recovery run. Those runs while also run at a consistent pace are meant to be entirely comfortable and allow the body time to recover. Nor is a tempo run done during a race. A race is meant to be an all-out effort and will generally be run faster or farther than a pre-planned tempo run.
A tempo run is usually run at a pace that is somewhere between easy and all-out. A few examples might be:
A run, usually done continuously, at roughly the pace you can sustain for an hour of hard running. This usually falls between your 10K and half-marathon race pace. These runs refer to the pace where the body is just barely able to clear lactate, a by-product of energy metabolism and known to correlate with increasing fatigue and slowing down. Doing runs at this pace improves your lactate threshold which means you can run at faster paces for longer periods of time.
E.g. 10-minute warm-up – 20-30 minutes at threshold/1 hour race pace – 10-minute cool-down
Half- or marathon paced runs
These runs can last from 15 minutes to upwards of an hour (or more) and can also be broken up by a brief period(s) of rest in between. They help us practice what it feels like to run at race pace for a sustained period and are an integral part of marathon and half-marathon training.
E.g. 10 minutes warm-up – 40 minutes at marathon pace – 10 minutes cool-down
Sometimes referred to as threshold intervals, these repeats generally last between five and 15 minutes at about 10K pace and are broken up by several shorter recovery intervals in between. These intervals help develop speed for shorter race distances and teach the body to clear lactate and other by-products of fatigue.
E.g. 10-minute warm-up – 4-5 x 5 minutes at 10K pace with 2 minutes easy between – 10-minute cool-down
Aerobic or up-tempo runs
This is the easiest type of tempo run, done at a pace that is faster than a typical easy or recovery run, but slower than marathon race pace. These runs require a higher degree of concentration but do not induce a high level of stress on the body. Some argue that these types of efforts are in fact “junk-mileage” so should be used sparingly.
What does this mean for you?
If you’re not already doing tempo runs as part of your training, it’s definitely time to start. Depending on how long and how fast you plan to race, consider incorporating at least one tempo run in your weekly training and follow it up with a few days of easy/recovery running. This could mean doing a midweek tempo workout—maybe 4 x 5 minute long intervals or a 20-30 minute lactate-threshold run—or adding 20-40 minutes of marathon or half-marathon race pace to your long run.