Many runners place emphasis on the hardest and toughest workouts they do such as the epic 400s, 800s and mile repeats on the track or grueling repeats on the roads. Simple hill sprints, strides or easy runs don’t get much attention or applause given their short duration or pedestrian pace.
Tempo running is another often misunderstood and overlooked workout category that doesn’t afford the same bragging rights that doing 10 x 800m does. Yet, a tempo run is one of the most important and effective workouts one can do on the road to self-improvement.
For simplicity, we define a tempo run as a sustained effort at a set speed/pace for a given–often prolonged–distance or time. It does not need to be a specific distance or at any particular pace. Many assume that a ‘true’ tempo run is done at or around lactate threshold pace–about the pace that one can sustain for an hour of hard running–which depending on one’s fitness is anywhere from 10K to half marathon pace. While running at that particular pace does afford certain benefits, so too does running a tempo run at a slower pace than that.
Perhaps the most important benefit of tempo runs are to teach us what it feels like to run at a certain pace and thus to help us feel more comfortable doing so. This is particularly important for distances such as the half and marathon, given that one needs to maintain that pace for such as long period of time–sometimes up to several hours. Tempo running is often said to improve one’s ‘speed endurance’ which basically means the ability to maintain a faster pace–faster than easy or aerobic running paces–for a longer period of time which is necessary for racing faster.
Generally a tempo run lasts for a minimum of about 10 minutes and to a maximum of 40 minutes at a pace that feels comfortably hard and is run continuously without breaks. Occasionally, a tempo run is done as a series of intervals with short rest breaks. Some tempos, such as those done at half or marathon pace, are run as long as 60 minutes or even more. Most important for a successful run is to run the entire tempo at around the same pace without starting too fast or finishing slow.
The following are examples of several tempo run workouts to attempt when preparing for various race distances. These should be done once every two-to-three weeks to assess one’s fitness and improvements:
5-10 minute warm-up – 20-30 minutes continuously or 2-3 x 10 minutes with 2 minutes rest at (lactate) threshold (10K to 10 mile) pace – 5-10 minute cool-down
5-10 minute warm-up – 30-45 minutes continuously or 3 x 15 minutes with 3 minutes rest at half-marathon pace – 5-10 minute cool-down
5-10 minute warm-up – 45-60minutes continuously or 2 x 25-30 minutes with 5 minutes rest at marathon pace – 5-10 minute cool-down