Tempo Runs: What Most Runners Don’t Know

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The what, why, when and how of tempo runs. Tempo runs are essential for boosting your race times and daily running routine. They are a critical bridge between aerobic endurance efforts (80% easy running) and high-intensity training (20% hard running). I’ll go deep into how tempo runs will transform your running efficiency, mental resilience, and overall fitness from 5k fun runners to marathon and even ultra-runners.

This is a supplemental piece based on my long-form conversation with exercise scientist and pro-running coach Mike Trees (aka @run.nrg on Instagram). Click above ⬆️ and below ⬇️ to watch or listen.

What is a Tempo Run?

Tempo runs find the sweet spot in your training— they are challenging-ish yet not overwhelming. They are usually the runs that most beginner and even intermediate runners naturally fall into with their gait and stride. This type of run targets a pace that is sustainably hard: tough enough to push your limits but controlled enough to finish feeling strong. According to running coach Mike Trees, a tempo run is a pace you can maintain and still feel capable of continuing for another 10-15 minutes afterwards.

If you are advanced and want to think in terms of threshold and know yourself quite well, this is right at or slightly below your threshold of running all out for 60 minutes. I don’t do an all-out 60-minute race at any time in my training or ever in my life, so I like the effort-based definition along with a few parameters that I’ll touch on later in this post. This balance is key as it builds endurance and speed without leading to excessive fatigue.

The Science of Running

Understanding the basic physiological science behind running, such as the lactate and glycolytic systems, can help you handle fatigue and optimize your training. This understanding also makes you more efficient and recover better, which we will get to. Tempo runs, positioned between aerobic base building and near-threshold efforts, help condition your body to manage lactate effectively (between LT1 and LT2), preventing it from becoming the thing that slows you down later in a race.

Tempo runs are most effective for 10k to marathon runners and less effective for 5k and shorter races as well as not being so effective for ultra-marathoners. However, if executed right, they do have their place with the shorter and longer races at different times in your running seasons. This is where a coach comes in to make sure you’re doing the right run for the right outcome.

Pacing

The right pacing in tempo runs is subjective to you. Your tempo pace should reflect your current fitness level and racing goals, adapting as you improve. This specific pacing helps train your body to sustain effort efficiently, making race-pace efforts feel like you can physically and, more importantly, mentally do it. It’s about finding a rhythm that feels like a controlled push—intense yet sustainable—teaching your muscles and mind to maintain this effort across varying distances. I like to tell runners that I coach that a tempo run should start out at a six out of ten and end up at an eight out of ten in effort. But this could vary from person to person.

Breaking tempo runs into different types

I also like to get a bit more granular and break tempo runs into three types of pacing: slow tempo, medium tempo, and fast tempo. Slow-tempo runs are between your current marathon and half-marathon race fitness. Medium-tempo runs are between your current half-marathon and 10k race fitness. Fast-tempo runs are between your 10k and 5k race fitness. This can be a combination of pace, effort, heart rate, and power or focus on one metric.

Don’t know what your current race fitness is? Awesome – go and do a time trial between one mile and 10k as fast as you can. Don’t start off sprinting and instead start off at an 8/10 then end at a 10/10 effort. Do these time trials every 6-8 weeks to make sure your workout paces for tempo runs and other workouts are accurate.

You don’t have to do this, but this allows me to have the precise and right tools (workout type) for the right job (outcome I want to achieve).

Recovery

Recovery is not just downtime (even though that’s exactly what it is); it’s a critical component of training adaptation. More runners should treat their off days like workouts; it’s that serious. Ironically, long tempo runs (30 minutes or more) are particularly more glycogen-depleting intensive than higher intensity efforts, meaning you need to plan your nutrition pre, during, and post-workout as well as your weekly training around this run. Mike Trees emphasizes the importance of following tempo runs with one day or, sometimes, for older runners, two recovery and/or rest days. This approach makes sure that your body has the time to rebuild glycogen stores, repair muscles, and return stronger.

Training Strategies

Integrating technology into your training can refine your training approach. You can use a combination of heart rate, pace, effort and power to find the right lactate zone for the workout. If you have the budget, mental capacity and don’t mind a blood-inducing needle prick, you can use a real-time lactate monitor to provide instant feedback on your training intensity. This will make sure that you’re within the optimal zone for your specific upcoming race goals.

It’s best to get a lactate threshold test done on a treadmill in a sports lab to make sure you get super-accurate readings. From there, you can structure your training plans around these lactate and heart rate zones/levels. In the future, I’m looking to do this at the beginning of my race block and then about two weeks out from my race to see if I can tweak my race pace strategy and maximize running economy/efficiency.

Conclusion: It’s All Connected

Improving your running isn’t just about ticking off workouts on a calendar or just showing up to your race undertrained and not ready. It’s about getting smart with the whole package: understanding the science, customizing your pace, having a strategy and not skimping on recovery. Seriously, get this stuff right, and you’re not just running better—you’re setting up for that whole training, racing and life balance thing that I talk about all the time. Dial into the details, from how your body handles lactate to how it recovers after a hard push, and you’ll see your performance skyrocket. E

Above infographics from Trainright/Carmichael Coaching

Timestamps of The Good Stuff You Will Learn

  • [00:00] Introduction to tempo runs and their importance in training.
  • [02:09] Understanding the role of tempo runs in base training and race preparation.
  • [04:06] Exploring the relationship between tempo runs and the gray zone.
  • [06:06] Implementing different paced tempo runs for specific race goals.
  • [07:11] Importance of tempo runs for different race distances.
  • [08:30] Delving into the science behind lactate and the glycolytic system.
  • [10:08] Debunking myths about lactate and lactic acid in running.
  • [13:02] Personal insights on slow, medium, and fast tempo runs.
  • [16:19] The impact of tempo runs on glycogen depletion and recovery.
  • [20:47] Understanding when to avoid tempo runs for optimal performance.

Links & Learnings

Trainright – Lactate threshold and how cyclists train it

What is a tempo run and why you should add them to your training – Marathon Handbook

NRG Coaching Services

The One Percent Better Runner Newsletter

DLake Runs on Instagram

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