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Everything You Need to Know About the Tempo Run

The workout is a staple of marathon training, but what is it and how do you incorporate it into your plan?

tempo run
Trevor Raab

A tempo run is a workout during which you sustain a comfortably hard pace for a continuous period of time, typically 20 minutes or longer. That’s right—unlike intervals or a Fartlek run, you’re running at a fast pace the entire time.

That doesn’t mean you treat a tempo run like you’re running a race, where your goal is to finish without any gas left in your tank. It’s a workout, and workouts are meant to prepare you for races, not turn into races.

Elliott Heath, former professional runner and current head coach of the Bowerman Track Club Elite calls the tempo run “a distance and pace at which you feel like you can go one or two more miles.” Here’s how to do it right to maximize benefits.

How do I figure out my pace for a tempo run?

There are a few different ways to figure out your tempo pace. Some involve science, others base your pace on feel.

A couple methods to help you figure it out:

Use feel to find tempo pace

You can determine your tempo pace without needing to calculate a bunch of numbers. For instance, legendary running coach Jack Daniels says in his popular book Daniels’ Running Formula that tempo pace is similar to how fast you can run for an hour-long race.

Heath makes it simpler. When first working with a runner, he has two instructions he gives them before a tempo run: It will feel fast at first, but you should feel like you can go an extra mile by the end.

Another way to measure feel is following your rate of perceived exertion, or RPE. On a scale of one to 10 it helps you measure how hard an activity is, with one being a leisurely activity that you could do all day and 10 being your all-out effort which you can only sustain for a short time.

Megan Roche, M.D., an athlete, endurance coach, and clinical researcher at Stanford University, tells Runner’s World that a tempo run would likely be in the 4 to 6 range. RPE is completely subjective, though, so figure out what easy and hard means relative to your training, and find a place in the middle for your tempo run effort.

Use VO2 max to find tempo pace

VO2 max is a measurement of how much oxygen your body uses to run at your limit. There are a couple ways you can find your VO2 max.

The simplest method is to use your GPS or smartwatch. Depending on the model you own, it should be able to provide an estimate of VO2 max based on your workout history.

Another way is the Cooper Test, during which you run as many laps as possible on a track in 12 minutes. Your resulting number of laps predicts VO2 max.

The most accurate method to finding your VO2 max: Go to a sports medicine clinic and run a treadmill test. You wear a mask that measures oxygen consumption, as you gradually increase speed and incline.

To actually find your tempo pace based on that VO2 max, take 83 to 88 percent of VO2 max and that range is your anaerobic threshold, according to Daniels. Also known as lactate threshold, it’s the borderline between low- and high-intensity exercise (aerobic running and sprinting, for example). When you pass your lactate threshold, your body creates more lactate in your blood than it can remove, causing that running-through-mud feeling of exhaustion. The pace it takes to run right at your anaerobic threshold is tempo pace.

VO2 max is measured in milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight. If you’re a three-hour marathoner, then your VO2 max is about 53 ml of oxygen per minute per kg of body weight. Using Daniels’ online calculator, that converts to a tempo pace of 6:29 per mile, which is in that 83 to 88 percent range of VO2 max.

Use heart rate to find tempo pace

When you do the VO2 max treadmill test, you’ll also discover your max heart rate. It’s a similar idea—the beats per minute of your heart rate when you’re running at your limit.

You can also do a test at home by jogging a warmup to a nearby hill. Once there, do as many one-minute uphill sprints as it takes for you to feel like you can’t do another. Take your heart rate immediately after finishing your final sprint, and that’s a good measure of max heart rate.

If you’re unable to run a max heart rate test, there’s also a simple calculation for beginners: Subtract your age from the number 220. (Not the most accurate method, but it gives you an idea.)

Tempo pace works out to be 90 percent of your max heart rate. If your max heart rate is 180 beats per minute, then you should aim to be at 162 beats per minute during a tempo run. Many GPS watches track heart rate from your wrist, but for extra accuracy you can pick up a chest strap.

What are the benefits of tempo runs?

You’ll see benefits from tempo runs whether you’re training for a mile race or a marathon. Most races are aerobic in nature, therefore most of your training will be aerobic (such as steady and long runs). Your weekly tempo run is right on the cusp of aerobic and anaerobic exercise, so it works your aerobic system hard while just touching the anaerobic.

Running at a faster pace over a long period of time also teaches your body to be efficient. Your running form and economy will improve, so your body wastes less energy covering the distance. In addition, because running at anaerobic threshold pace pushes your lactic limit, you can sustain a faster pace without fear of the lactic acid build-up that causes fatigue.

Heath believes the biggest benefit of tempo running is learning how to control your pace. You teach your body to feel comfortable further into the race, so you can finish strong. “The more control that you have over a tempo session, the fuller that tank is going to be to really ramp it up and be competitive at the end of a race,” he says.

Tempo runs provide mental benefits as well. If you follow Heath’s advice of finishing a tempo run feeling like you could have gone another mile, then you’re building confidence that you can go farther when tired. Once you get to race time, you’ll be mentally prepared to go the extra mile needed to make it across the line.

How to Incorporate Tempo Runs Into Your Training

You should add a tempo workout at least once to your weekly schedule. There are a few different ways you can do that, each of which provides the same benefits, but with a different approach. Here, a few workouts to get you started.

Types of tempo run workouts

Make sure you properly warm up before jumping into these workouts.

Classic tempo run

A classic tempo run is setting out for a certain distance or time at anaerobic threshold pace. If you’re just starting out, you can try for 15 minutes, but here’s what Heath typically prescribes his athletes:

  • 25 to 30 minutes OR 4 to 5 miles at tempo pace

    As you improve, you can try different types of this classic tempo run. Heath says that might range from shorter, faster tempo runs under four miles to longer, slower tempo runs of 10 miles or more.

    Cruise intervals

    Cruise intervals split up your tempo run into even chunks with rest in between. They’re a great choice for beginners who want to start running tempo pace, but can’t quite handle it yet.

    That doesn’t mean cruise intervals are only for beginners. They give you a similar aerobic benefit that you would get from tempo runs, so you can use them to shake up your normal routine.

    Cruise intervals can be split up by time or distance. Heath mentions that when doing cruise intervals, it’s fine to run 15 or 20 seconds faster per mile than your tempo pace because you have the rest in between each repetition. A common workout is 5-6 x 1 mile with a one minute recovery in between, but Heath shares a favorite of his that’s a little different:

    • 2 x 1 mile OR 5 minutes at tempo pace (90 seconds rest, walking or jogging)
    • 1 x 2 miles OR 10 minutes at tempo pace (90 seconds rest, walking or jogging)
    • 2 x 1 mile OR 5 minutes at tempo pace (90 seconds rest, walking or jogging)

      “The fact that you’re running twice the distance [in the middle] really puts a little extra sting in the workout,” he says. “It’s a really good mental exercise to kind of handle that pace without panicking [and] having the workout get away from you.”

      Progression run

      Progression runs are a great choice for marathoners. They’re longer runs where you start at an easy pace and gradually work down to tempo pace. If your long run is 60 minutes, break it up into two 30-minute chunks: the first 30 minutes are easy, then progress from your easy pace down to your tempo pace over the course of the second 30 minutes. Here’s another example for an 80-minute run:

      • 30 minutes easy
      • 30 minute progression from easy to marathon pace
      • 20 minute progression from marathon pace to tempo pace

        This type of workout lends itself to Heath’s belief that tempos teach you control: “There is some semblance of control over a pace, no matter what distance you’re running, and the ability to progress off of that. So with a tempo, it’s just important that it’s not the session to go out and hammer to see how much you can hang on.”

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