A term that often creates a great deal of confusion among runners, a tempo run is simply a sustained effort for a set distance or time. A tempo is run faster than a typical easy or recovery run but not as fast as speed work such as intervals, fartleks or repeats.
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The most important outcome of any tempo run is to gradually become more comfortable and efficient running at a faster pace for a longer period of time. There are several types of tempo to consider:
Perhaps the toughest type of tempo is the lactate-threshold run. Lactate threshold (LT) is the pace at which the body is just (barely) able to clear lactate—a by-product of energy metabolism—from the blood faster than it accumulates. While not the direct cause, lactate contributes to fatigue and muscle exhaustion. LT is about the pace you could run for a full hour of hard running. It usually falls between 10K and 10 mile race pace.
A sample LT workout would be to warm-up for 10-15 minutes then run at LT pace for 10-40 minutes followed by a 10-15 minute cool down. You could also break the workout into two 15-20 minute or three 10-15 minute intervals with a short, 3-5 minute, break in between.
Race pace tempo
Another common tempo workout is half- or marathon race pace runs. Running at or very close to race pace will help you become comfortable, confident and more efficient running at that speed. You can aim to run anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour at goal race pace (but usually not more than 75 per cent of the total race distance). You could again break the tempo into smaller intervals taking a short break in between.
Example workouts include:
10-15 minute warm-up then 20-40 minutes at half marathon pace (HMP) or 30-60 minutes at marathon pace (MP) with a 10-15 minute cool down
10-15 minute warm-up then 3 x 15 minutes at HMP or 2 x 40 minutes at MP with a 5-10 minute break in between and with a 10-15 minute cool-down
A third and less common type of tempo run is one in which you run slower than (marathon) race pace but still faster than easy or recovery run pace. Sometimes called an aerobic or “up-tempo” run, this requires more focus/concentration and putting in a harder effort than a typical easy day. The goal is to stimulate and develop the aerobic/endurance system without putting too much strain on it and allowing for faster recovery before a subsequent hard effort.
An example of an aerobic tempo would be a 5-10 minutes of very easy running then a 40-60 minute segment at marathon pace (MP) plus 15-30 seconds per K, followed by a final 5-10 minutes of easy running.