Training for a 10K, half marathon, or marathon is serious business. Hit the pavement too often and you risk injury or burnout. Not enough and you might never see the finish line.
With all the plans, programs, and advice about everything from long runs and rest days to tempo runs and hill sprints, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
The good news? There are tons of experts with running experience who can offer up simple answers to your most complicated questions. We talked with a few of them to find out everything you need to know about tempo running.
A tempo run is a type of speed-building workout that can help you train for a race or become a faster runner overall. If you’re wondering who should include tempo runs in their weekly workout, the answer is anyone serious about training for an endurance event.
Improve speed or distance
To do this, you need to increase your anaerobic threshold, which helps your body adapt to running at a faster pace while not fatiguing as easily.
Steve Stonehouse, NASM CPT, USATF-certified run coach and director of education for STRIDE, says tempo runs are a great way to increase your aerobic fitness over long periods of time and preserve the fitness you’ve gained from other workouts.
Improve mental endurance
Tempo runs are “also a great way to build mental toughness since many of these workouts are done at a pace that could be more difficult than you’re used to,” Stonehouse said.
For tempo running to be safe and effective, you need to know the pace at which you should perform these types of training runs.
In general, Stonehouse says, that’s about 80 to 90 percent of your VO₂ max, or 85 to 90 percent of your max heart rate. If you don’t know either of these, you can shoot for a pace between your half marathon and 10K race pace.
If you’re training for a race time goal, Armesto says you’ll need to look at your goal pace per mile and then try to do your tempo runs about 15 to 30 seconds faster than your race goal.
For example, if your marathon time goal is 8:30 minutes per mile — finishing the marathon at 3:42:52 — you should be doing your tempo runs at about 8:00 to 8:15 minutes per mile.
But if you’re just trying to become a faster runner, in general, Armesto says you can pace yourself based on your perceived level of exertion. “A good guide is to run at a pace that is difficult to carry on a conversation with somebody,” she said.
Another guideline to follow is to run at a pace that makes you look forward to having your tempo workout end, as it should be hard but sustainable for the required time period.
“Tempo workouts should not be the hardest runs that you do, but instead, should provide you the base and support to do your hardest runs,” Armesto said. The actual pace that you do your tempo runs at will be subjective to your goals.
To find your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. This age-based method is one way to estimate what your maximum heart rate should be.
For example, a 37-year-old runner’s maximum heart rate would be:
- 220-37=183 heartbeats per minute (bpm)
To target their tempo run pace, they would calculate the decimal version of 85 percent with their max heart rate:
So, their maximum heart rate for a tempo run would be about 155 bpm.
Now that you know why you should include tempo runs in your overall training plan, it’s time to give them a try. Below, Armesto shares steps for completing one of her favorite tempo runs.
20- to 60-minute tempo run
- Warm up. As with all speed workouts, you must make sure you’re warmed up before you start to challenge yourself at running a faster than normal pace. Your tempo run warmup can simply consist of about 10 to 12 minutes or about 1 mile of easy-paced running.
- Increase speed. After you’ve warmed up, increase your speed to your tempo running pace.
- Work out. The tempo paced running portion of your workout should last about 20 to 40 minutes, and no more than 1 hour.
- Cool down. Bring your pace and heart rate down to normal by slowing your pace or walking for about 10 minutes.
Or do shorter segments
Armesto also says you can split your tempo run into segments. For example, if you have a 30-minute tempo run that you need to accomplish, you could do two sets of 15 minutes of tempo running. “Depending on your race distance or time goal, you can go farther and faster, but do so gradually,” she added.
Only do once or twice a week
Since tempo run workouts are typically high intensity, Stonehouse suggests limiting them to one to two times per week. Plus, when you combine these with your speed work and a weekly long run, you’ll need rest to make sure you’re not overtraining.
Start in the early weeks of training
If you’re training for a time goal, Armesto says you’ll definitely want to incorporate them in the first 2 to 3 weeks of your training and continue for the duration of your training plan, depending on the length plan.
Go a little longer or a little faster
For more advanced runners, Armesto says you can maximize your tempo runs by increasing the length of your run by a couple of minutes each time or by increasing your tempo running pace each time.
Whether you train before the sun comes up or your current weather situation is less than desirable — hello, torrential downpour! — using a treadmill to perform tempo runs is perfectly acceptable, with a few caveats.
“As long as you know the pace your tempo run needs to be, you can find that pace on the treadmill and get after it,” Stonehouse said.
Spend any amount of time in the running community, and you’re bound to hear all kinds of training terms. Tempo running and threshold training are often used interchangeably and for good reason. Tempo runs are a type of threshold training called maximal steady-state training.
The goal of threshold training is to perform tempo runs slightly below or at the lactate threshold level. Lactate threshold refers to the intensity of exercise at which there’s an abrupt increase in blood lactate levels. Being able to train at this level is one of the most consistent predictors of performance in endurance events.
Becoming a better runner requires time, effort, and an effective training plan. Your weekly workouts should consist of a variety of times and paces, including one to two tempo runs.
By performing tempo runs throughout your 10K, half marathon, or marathon training, you increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to push your body to run harder and faster for longer periods of time.