Tempo runs: an in-depth analysis

Track Tuesdays
Track Tuesdays
Track Tuesdays Ep 1: Tempo Runs
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Tempo runs are a foundational component of training for serious runners. Broadly, a tempo run is a fast, continuous effort at a set pace, but what about the specifics–how fast, how far, how long? Is it still a tempo if you break it up into long intervals? We talked about all of this and more on our Track Tuesdays episode on tempo runs, so check it out for a run-down on the basics. Below, we (John and Noah) go in-depth on some of the more subtle aspects of tempo runs and how to incorporate them into your training.

Long Live the Tempo Run

On a cool Monday in October, the Carleton College Knights pack several campus vans and head out on their first workout of the week. Coach Dave Ricks and Josh Schoen are taking them to Sciota Trail, an infamous long tempo route known for its flat terrain and gravel surface. It is a ritual and staple of the Knights program. Dave kicks off the workout, hops into a van with Josh, and blasts the space jam soundtrack while the team takes off at paces ranging from 5:00-6:30/mi depending on their fitness.

Meanwhile, the Lafollette Lancers in Madison, Wisconsin head to the gazebo near the community Monona Pool to do their tempo workout. Their route, The LMR, is full of hills and hard concrete, often sprinkled with snow. It is a foil to the smooth gravel of Sciota. The pace for the high schoolers is described to be close to their 10k race pace, but Coach Brady Nichols simplifies that by reading each athlete’s expected pace from his worn brown clipboard. “Go LDC!” he shouts, as the athletes go out for between 3 to 5 miles through the treacherous hills.

Both teams are doing a “tempo run”, but they are structured very differently. When are each of these sessions appropriate, and for what kind of runner? Before incorporating tempo runs into your training, you need to understand a few key points: how fast, and how far, different kinds of tempo runs should be. 

Understanding tempo run pace

Ask ten different coaches to define “tempo run pace” and you’ll get ten different answers. For that reason, you’ve got to be specific when you’re talking about tempo runs and tempo pace. We each take a slightly different tack when defining tempo run pace:

John’s take: Traditionally, when I think “tempo pace” I’m assuming someone is referring to lactate threshold pace, which for most runners works out to about 92% of your current 5k pace. For example, if your current 5k fitness is 18:40 (around 6:00/mi), you can calculate your tempo pace for a traditional tempo run by doing 6*1.08 =  6.48 = 6:29/mi. However, this only holds for traditional tempo runs, of the “20-25 minutes at lactate threshold” variety. If you interpret “tempo run” more broadly to mean any kind of fast, continuous run at a set pace, a much wider range of speeds opens up. Here are a few examples for a 5k runner: 

  • 95% of 5k pace: For tempo runs of 4-6 km (or 2.5-4mi) in length. This speed is very close to 10k pace for most runners, and is also more or less equal to “critical velocity” or “CV” pace. 
  • 92% of 5k pace: For classic Jack Daniels-style tempo runs of 20-25 minutes in length. Also known as a “lactate threshold run” or “LT run.” This speed is equal to your lactate threshold pace, hence the name.
  • 90% of 5k pace: For longer tempos of 25-40 minutes in length. Renato Canova, coach of many top Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, often employs this style of long continuous run to boost “special endurance” for 5k and 10k runners. 
  • 85% of 5k pace: For “long tempo runs” or “aerobic threshold runs” of 35-70 minutes. This speed is close to your hypothetical marathon pace (though don’t confuse this for a marathon workout). 
  • 80% of 5k pace: For “long fast runs” of 60-90 minutes or longer. An often-neglected component of training that builds strong general fitness, and helps support your ability to do some of the shorter, faster tempo work above. 

Note that the durations recommended above are rough guidelines—beginners should do less, and experienced runners can often do more, depending on their mileage and training history. 

Noah’s take: There are several workouts that I characterize as tempo workouts:

  • Long Tempo or Aerobic Threshold ranging from 4 miles up to 10 miles. These should feel comfortable and the focus is on the quantity or the distance, versus the quality or the pace.
  • The Jack Daniels 20 minute lactic threshold workout, at a pace described as your conservative 10k pace. The focus of this workout is to be fairly uncomfortable for a decent period of time while maintaining an even pace.
  • Tempo Intervals with minimal rest. Usually these intervals range from 10-20 minutes with 1-3 minutes rest. These are usually reserved for newer runners, or runners getting back into shape. These are used to build a foundation for further tempo work.
  • A brief 2 – 4 minute interval with short rest. These are usually reserved for mid distance athletes during the track season. A long, continuous effort for a 400 meter runner can be 2 to 4 minutes and worth putting into a training program.

Tempos are a staple part of any training plan ranging from the 400 meter, to the marathon and beyond, although what they look like for runners focusing on different events can vary a lot.

Who should do tempo runs?

Though tempo runs are appropriate for runners of all ability levels, they serve different purposes for different categories of runners. 

Tempo runs for beginners: If you’re a beginner who’s new to running, you should start out with shorter tempo efforts (like the classic 20 minute lactate threshold run at 92% of 5k pace, as discussed above). Novices usually don’t have the mileage base or aerobic fitness to support longer tempo work, at least not initially.  

After you’ve racked up a few months of training, incorporating long tempo runs at 85% of current 5k pace is a great way to start building up your high-end aerobic fitness and beginning your journey from beginner to intermediate-level training.

Tempo runs for experienced runners: Experienced runners can incorporate a broader range of tempo run workouts into training. One trap more experienced runners fall into is failing to introduce variety into their training. They gained a good bit of fitness doing 20 minute lactate threshold runs, so they think a 22 minute or 24 minute lactate threshold run a few seconds faster per mile is a good way to improve on their fitness. 

However, the new stimulus is not very big—only two more minutes running at only a few seconds per mile faster. A better approach is to start mixing in longer tempo work at 85 and 80% of 5k pace, plus some shorter, faster runs at 95% of 5k pace. 

All the while, you can work on extending the duration you can run at the same speed in these tempo workouts (for example, moving from 35 minutes at 85% of 5k pace to 45 minutes at the same speed over the course of a few weeks). 

Tempo runs for sprinters: If you ask any sprinter how long of a run is too long, they’d probably say anything exceeding their race distance! However, there are benefits in learning how to run relaxed for a longer period of time, both mentally and physically.  

Noah’s take: A great tempo workout for a sprinter can be anywhere from a 400 meter run at a modified tempo pace up to 800 meters in length. The tempo pace is not the same as a distance athlete but something closer to their sprint pace. Using the concept of percent of 5k race pace can be applied to sprinters for their particular race distances. Most successful for us has been entering a conservative 400 meter race time into a running calculator like Jack Daniels, and looking at the T pace. I do not recommend using a 100 or 200 meter time because the times get too fast.

For example a 55 second 400 meter runner has a T pace of 1:13 for a 400, 1:49 for a 600, or 2:25 for an 800. 800’s and above could be used for athletes that need a challenge, but in our experience multiple 600’s at that pace can be challenging enough. A normal workout we could give sprinters is 2-3 x 600 @ the pace, with 2-3 minutes rest.

Many coaches think that to get a sprinter more aerobically fit they need to do easy running, say 2-3 miles. I think in the long term this is somewhat correct, but during a season an athlete can get much more benefit through a shorter tempo on the track, than easy running. I recommend having these workouts during the beginning of a season, not exceeding once a week.

John’s take: I’m in agreement with Noah on traditional tempo paces being too slow for sprinters. Suppose you have a good high school girl who runs 60 seconds for the 400m. Even if she’s a strong 800m runner, it’s unlikely that her traditional lactate threshold pace would be much better than 6:00/mi. But that’s fifty percent slower than her 400m race pace! 

A better solution that’s more relevant for race-specific endurance is occasionally incorporating a single longer repeat at around 80% of 800m race pace. You might have to estimate 800m race fitness from an athlete’s 200m and 400m times. For our running example, maybe your 60 sec 400m runner converts up moderately well and can do 2:24 in the 800m. 

In that case, a “tempo run” at 86 or 87 seconds per 400m, or about 5:45/mi (both being about 80% of 2:24 800m pace) is a good stimulus for endurance. The duration that’s appropriate is going to be highly dependent on the runner. This is a classic example of a workout where you can get huge benefits by gradually increasing the extension at the same speed. A long sprinter with poor endurance may barely be able to manage 1000m at this pace, whereas one who’s quite strong from an endurance perspective could go well over 2000m. As with anything, start conservative and build up gradually. 

Are Intervals Tempo Workouts?

Generally, we both agree that intervals are not tempo workouts and should not be used as a replacement. However newer runners, or those getting back into shape, can use tempo intervals as a way to create the foundation for more tempo workouts. Is this a tempo run? Well, depends who you ask! 

John’s take: I prefer to use different terminology for broken-up intervals (“cruise intervals” or “LT intervals” being classic ones) that are done at paces you could also sustain for a continuous run. These kinds of workouts are useful for racking up more volume than you otherwise could achieve in a continuous run, or for working into things as a less-experienced or less-fit runner. 

Noah’s take: For newer runners, it can be useful to do shorter tempo intervals, but that’s mostly due to mileage constraints. Doing 20 minutes of running can be daunting by itself, so doing 20 minutes of tempo can be even moreso! We can split a 20 minute tempo into 5 to 10 minute manageable chunks with a brief rest in between. This can create a great foundation for further tempo work.

If athletes only do interval workouts, shorter distances at a fast pace, then they get very good at interval workouts. This does not translate 100% to races as the body expects rest after shorter bursts of speed which can lead to blow ups on race day. If you are training for a marathon, you need to be able to run hours at a fast pace, not minutes. Intervals are great workouts but they should not be the only one you do. You should supplement interval training with tempo workouts!

Other Examples of Workouts that are not Tempo Workouts: Other sessions like race-specific intervals, VO2max intervals, and progression runs are not tempo workouts. These target other aspects of training and, in general, shouldn’t be used as replacements. We don’t consider these tempo workouts because the progression and the stimulus of these workouts are different from what we want to get with tempo workouts. 

Tempo runs: by effort or by pace? 

If you’re looking to get started with tempo runs and haven’t done them much before, we very much recommend starting by effort as opposed to following a pace calculator as if it were written in stone. You should run at the effort level that would produce the correct pace, in ideal conditions. If it’s cold, rainy, or windy, or if your legs are beat up from increasing your mileage, conditions definitely won’t be ideal. But that’s okay—for generating the right stimulus to your body, effort is the important part. 

Once you start race-specific training, then the absolute pace starts to become more important. At this point, it may not be correct to call these workouts “tempo runs” anymore—maybe “fast continuous run at race pace” would be better. Again, the term “tempo run” lacks specificity, and can lead to a lot of confusion. 

Recap

If you’re not doing some kind of tempo run on a regular basis, you should start right away! There are a wide range of tempo workouts you can choose from, but if you’re looking for something to do right now, it’s hard to go wrong with the classic 15-25 minute tempo run at lactate threshold pace if you’re completely new to tempo runs. You can also work your way into tempo training with broken-up intervals: repeats of 2-4 minutes in length, with very short rest (30-60 seconds). Especially early on in training, you’ll want to focus on effort, as opposed to pace. 

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