There are several key components to any runner’s weekly training plan: a long run, easy runs, and quality runs. One kind of quality run that you may encounter is called a tempo run. But what is a tempo run, exactly and why are they important?
Tempo runs are a quality session performed at a steady, comfortably hard pace (or the race pace you could hold for about an hour) typically for a duration of 10 – 30 minutes. Faster than an easy run and slower than a sprint, tempo runs increase your blood lactate threshold, challenge your body and mind and build confidence. Tempo runs help turn you into a faster runner with better endurance.
If you’ve heard of tempo runs but have never really been sure of what they are, their purpose or how to do them properly, then this guide is for you! At the end, we’ve included several sample tempo run workouts you can incorporate into your own training!
What is considered a tempo run?
Legendary physiologist and running coach Jack Daniels, who introduced the mainstream running community to the concept of tempo runs, says in his book, Daniel’s Running Formula, that a tempo run is “any run during which the pace of the entire run is performed at threshold pace.”
Tempo runs can be completed in a multitude of ways, such as longer tempos ranging from 10-30 minutes, or as tempo intervals with short recovery periods in between. A tempo run is usually a portion of your run completed between an easy warm up and final cool down.
Tempo runs, when incorporated into training and practiced regularly, help runners build speed, endurance, and metal toughness.
So, what is “threshold pace,” and how do I find mine?
A tempo run is done at “threshold” pace, but what pace is that?
Let’s begin by sharing how threshold is defined:
Daniels defines threshold pace as “a pace that produces an elevated yet steady state of blood lactate accumulation in your body.” This pace (that is specific to you) is the point at which blood lactate (aka lactic acid) accumulates in the muscles faster than it can be cleared away, which results in those uncomfortable feelings that make you want to slow down or stop, such as:
- a burning sensation in your muscles
These feelings are a natural defense mechanism that prevents permanent bodily damage during extreme exertion. The point in which this begins to occur is called your anaerobic or lactate threshold. So the goal of the tempo run is be right at this line of lactate accumulation without overdoing it.
By running at a sustained threshold pace, tempo runs teach your body to acclimate and adapt, raising your anaerobic threshold. Over time as you practice tempo runs, you will be able to run faster and longer before feeling that burning sensation.
Finding Your Threshold Pace
Threshold paces vary widely between runners. In order to perform the tempo run correctly and receive the maximum benefit from these runs, you’ll need to determine the proper pace for you.
The most accurate way to determine your threshold pace would be to get tested in a sports physiology laboratory. Since the majority of runners don’t have access to that kind of testing, here are some other ways you can approximate your threshold pace:
- Rule of Thumb: One easy way for runners to think about their tempo pace is that it’s the pace you could hold for about an hour in a race. So if you run a 10k in an hour, your 10k pace is the same as your tempo pace (close to 10:00/mile). Here’s another example: If you run a 10k in 45 minutes and a half marathon in 1 hour and 40 minutes, your tempo would be the pace between that which would be around 7:30/mile give or take.
- Heart Rate: Using heart rate training, a tempo run would bring your heart rate up to 80-90% of your maximum heart rate.
- Rate of perceived exertion (RPE): Your tempo run should feel like it’s somewhere between levels 6-7 out of 10 on a rate of perceived exertion scale; in other words, “comfortably hard.”
- Running calculator: Using a handy pace calculator and a recent race or time-trial result, you can find your threshold pace. We like the McMillan and VDOT calculators to get a good estimate.
The most important thing to remember when performing tempo runs is that you should not feel as if you’re going all-out in your effort. If your breathing is so labored that you can’t speak at all during your tempo run, then you’re going too fast and should back off the pace. You should never feel like you’re racing in training, or else you’re overdoing it and defeating the purpose of the workout.
Is a tempo run the same thing as a threshold run?
A tempo run is a kind of threshold run, according to Daniels. Tempos are meant to be run at a steady pace, for a moderately prolonged amount of time. But other running experts and runners don’t always agree on the terminology, and that can be a source of confusion. Some people use the terms ‘tempo run’ and ‘threshold run’ interchangeably. Others claim that tempo running means slightly slower for a longer distance than threshold running. Others still will call any steady run with a set pace a tempo run.
What you might hear people call a “true” tempo run really is essentially a threshold run, in which it’s run at your tempo/threshold pace, or the race pace you could sustain for about an hour.
Regardless of what it’s called, the gist of the tempo run is for runners to run at a steady and comfortably hard pace for a prescribed amount of time or distance as a way to improve your anaerobic threshold.
How long should a tempo run be?
There is no required amount of time or distance for tempo runs. It can depend upon your experience level as a runner; on what you’re training for; on the phase of your training cycle; and even on your coach’s training philosophy or method, to name a few factors.
Ideally, tempo runs range from about 15 minutes to 30 minutes long, but that isn’t always the case, especially for runners new to this type of workout. A runner just starting out performing tempos might start out with a tempo run of only 5-10 minutes, and build up slowly from there. Tempo intervals, which are shorter bouts of time done in repetitions, can also be highly beneficial.
It’s important to note that the time or distance prescribed for a tempo run does not usually include the distance covered by the warm-up or cool down jog aspects of your run. So although the tempo portion of a run may only last a certain amount of time or distance, the entire run itself from start to finish will be longer.
How fast should a tempo run be?
A tempo run is typically completed at your threshold pace (as discussed above). That’s the race pace you could sustain for about an hour, or about 25-30 seconds slower per mile than your 5k pace.
However, depending on the situation and purpose of the workout, the tempo runs on your training plan might be slightly slower or faster than your threshold pace (which we prefer to call steady-state runs to avoid confusion).
For example, someone with a marathon coming up might have a workout where they have to run at marathon pace for 5 miles within a longer training run. Because it is a sustained and steady pace for a set distance, those 5 miles would be considered a type of tempo run, even though marathon pace is typically slower than most people’s threshold pace.
Your body can still improve and benefit from tempo runs, regardless of whether they are run at your true threshold pace.
Who should do tempo runs?
Runners of all ability levels perform and have success with tempo runs, from recreational runners to elites!
Tempo runs are beneficial for pretty much everyone, except for brand-new runners who are working on building up a solid training base. Newer runners should only focus on building up a lot of slow, easy miles before tackling any kind of workout (except for perhaps adding strides to the end of a workout a couple of times per week.)
For more experienced runners with a solid base of weekly miles who have never done them before, it would be best to slowly introduce tempo runs to your training. You want to avoid injuring yourself, and jumping straight into a 30-minute tempo run when you’re not ready could be disastrous, both mentally and physically!
How do tempo runs make you faster?
By running steadily at your threshold pace, your body adapts and becomes more efficient at clearing blood lactate, according to running expert Jason Fitzgerald at StrengthRunning. When you clear blood lactate more efficiently, your body takes longer to fatigue and feel the burning sensation associated with high intensity running.
In other words, you are able to run faster for longer.
Scientific research confirms the physical benefits of tempo running. In a 1982 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, eight well-trained middle and long distance male runners were assigned to perform steady 20 minute runs, once weekly, at a speed calculated to cause an onset of blood lactate accumulation. After 14 weeks of collecting data on these runners, scientists confirmed that steady-state training approximating lactate threshold increases the lactate threshold. The scientists also noted improvements to the slow-twitch muscles in the quad muscles of the runners. (Slow-twitch fibers are responsible for endurance capacity and fatigue resistance, according to the American Council on Exercise, or A.C.E.).
In a more recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2021, scientists studied elite-standard and world-class distance runners over the first 7 years of their sports careers. They measured and analyzed the effects of the runners’ “deliberate practice” runs (such as tempo runs, and short and long-interval runs) and easy runs on their competitive performances. Based on their data, the scientists concluded that tempo runs and easy runs were the two types of runs that had the largest impact on improving the runners’ competitive performances.
Tempo runs not only make you faster, but they build your physical endurance, too. They are a key component of 80/20 running, which is the best way to approach run training to get faster and run longer.
Are there any other benefits to tempo runs?
Tempo runs aren’t just physically beneficial for runners.
Coach Jack Daniels says that tempo runs can also provide benefits such as helping runners avoid overtraining, have more satisfying workouts, and maintain better consistency.
Psychologically, the benefits of tempo runs are huge.
Tempo runs can help build your mental toughness because you are having to stay steady at a comfortably hard pace for a given amount of time or distance. Mental toughness – and the feelings of pride and accomplishment that come at the completion of your tempo runs – can help increase your confidence in yourself, which is especially important when it comes to race day. You’ll have a better idea of what you’re capable of, and be more sure of yourself as you race.
These runs are a great way to learn how to manage your emotions when things get difficult and you want to quit.
Finally, tempo runs teach you about pacing.
You’ll learn how certain paces feel. You’ll also learn how to control your pace by practicing keeping a steady pace during your tempo runs.
Sample Steady Tempo Runs and Tempo Intervals
Here are several sample tempo runs that you can complete as part of your own training. Keep in mind that even though tempo runs are extremely beneficial, they should only be performed once per week and should always be followed up by a recovery run before completing another hard effort or long run.
Beginner Steady Tempo Run
- Begin with a 1 mile warm up jog
- Tempo run: 10 minutes at your threshold pace
- End with a 1 mile cool down
Intermediate/Advanced Steady Tempo Run
- Easy-paced warm up for 2 miles
- Tempo run: 20-30 minutes at your threshold pace, depending upon your experience level
- Finish with an easy 1-2 mile cool down
Beginner Tempo Intervals
- Start with an easy warm up for 1.5 miles
- Tempo intervals: Run at your threshold pace for 2 minutes. Jog for 30 seconds. Repeat the sequence 4-5 times.
- End with an easy 1 mile cool down
Intermediate/Advanced Tempo Intervals
- Do an easy warm up for 2 miles
- Tempo intervals: Run at your threshold pace for 10 minutes. Jog for 2 minutes. Repeat 3 times.
- Finish with an easy cool down of 1-2 miles
One last point about tempo runs is that the entire run is continuous. You should not stop after a warm-up or at any time to catch your breath. If you are doing this, it’s a sure sign that you are taking the tempo portion too fast and you are defeating the purpose of the tempo run.
Need help navigating your training? Reach out about coaching!