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What is a tempo run and how do you do it?

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You’ll see tempo runs on almost any training plan, whether you’re training for a 5k, a 10k, a half marathon, or an even longer distance. But what are they – and why are they so important for runners, whatever your pace? We take a look at everything you need to know about this key workout, covering everything from what they are to how to do a tempo run.

What is a tempo run?

So, first things first: we need to dive into the tempo run meaning. 

A tempo run, also known as a threshold run, is a moderate to hard intensity run. You should be able to maintain your tempo run pace for at least 20 minutes, and usually for between 40–60 minutes. That’s the difference between tempo runs and speed work – while you need to go all-out for speed sessions, it’s usually for a shorter length of time, with breaks in between hard efforts. For example, you might sprint for 200 metres, followed by a light jog for 100 metres. Or you might run 10 hard uphill efforts for 30 seconds, jogging back downhill between reps which acts as your recovery.

With tempo runs on the other hand, you need to be able to maintain a comfortably hard pace for a longer duration. So, a tempo run pace isn’t a hard sprint, but neither is it an easy run – it falls somewhere in the middle. 

What pace is a tempo run?

If you think of it as a scale of 1–10, where 1 is a slow walk, and 10 is the fastest you can possibly run, you should aim for around 6–8 when doing tempo runs.

Everyone has a different tempo run pace, but it’s generally said that it should be a pace that you could sustain for an hour. That means it’s likely to fall somewhere between your half marathon pace and your 10k pace, and some experts suggest that your tempo pace should be 15–20 seconds slower per mile than your 10k race pace.

If you usually run to heart rate, and know your maximum heart rate, then your tempo pace should be run at roughly 80–85% of your maximum HR.

You can also simply run to feel. A tempo run should feel hard, but not so fast that it’s a sprint, and not so slow that it’s a recovery run. Aim for an effort that feels comfortably hard and use your intuition to determine what pace is best for you on any given tempo run – after all, this might change from week to week.

Benefits of tempo runs

Why should you incorporate tempo runs into your training plan?

Well, one of the key reasons is that the best way to learn how to run faster is to practise running faster! If you run all your runs at an easy pace, it can be hard to kick it up a notch when it comes to race day. But tempo runs help to train your body to run at a faster pace for longer by building your lactate threshold.

Lactate is produced when you run hard, breaking down glucose to turn into muscle. When you feel burning and fatigue during a tough run – that’s lactate. Your lactate threshold is the maximum speed you can run at before lactate begins to accumulate in the blood faster than it can be removed.

Tempo runs, then, are run at a pace that’s just below your lactate threshold. That’s important because over time, tempo runs can help to push your threshold up, meaning you can run at a faster pace for longer before fatiguing.

Another big benefit of tempo training is that they can help to develop your mental strength. You get used to running outside your comfort zone when you go at a tempo run pace, which can come in handy on race day when you’ll typically be running faster than in your training sessions. By incorporating tempo runs into your training plan, you’ll get used to pushing through when it feels uncomfortable – which can pay dividends when you’re trying to smash your PB.

How to do a tempo run: different types of tempo runs

There are lots of ways you can add tempo runs into your training. After all, the only real requirement is that you hold a hard pace for a specific period of time. Did you just start running and not sure how often you should run? Read this blog then first!

A classic tempo run

A classic tempo run might be structured in the following way:

  • Warm up for 10 minutes
  • Run easy for 10 minutes
  • Tempo pace for 20 minutes
  • Run easy for 10 minutes
  • Cool down for 10 minutes

You can follow a similar structure whether you plan your runs around mileage or opt for time-based training – the key either way is to build up to your tempo pace with some easier running, and to cool down afterwards. 

A girl relaxing after a tempo run

A beginner’s tempo run

If you’re new to tempo running, you might not want to dive straight into a 20-minute sustained hard effort. In that case, you could break your run with tempo intervals instead, with a session that looks something like this:

  • Warm up for 10 minutes
  • Easy run for 5 minutes
  • 5 minutes at tempo pace
  • Easy run or walk for 60 seconds
  • 5 minutes at tempo pace
  • Easy run or walk for 60 seconds
  • Easy run for 5 minutes
  • Cool down for 10 minutes

You can start out with two periods of tempo pace, and either add more in or increase the length of your tempo intervals gradually as you get more used to this type of running. This approach is slightly easier mentally, as it breaks up the hard efforts, and it can also help to prevent injury as you build up to faster paced running. 

A marathon tempo run

If you’re training for a marathon, you might want to add in two longer periods of tempo paced running into a longer run, in which you might run something like:

  • 10 minutes warm up
  • Tempo pace for 20 minutes
  • Easy pace for 30 minutes to one hour
  • Tempo pace for 20 minutes
  • 10 minutes cool down

This will help to train your legs to run faster when they’re already tired, something you’ll be thankful for when it comes to running 26.2 and you’re pushing to the finish line.

Most training plans include one tempo run per week, along with one speed session, a long run and one to three easy paced runs. Some people may want to push the pace with two tempo runs a week, but it’s important to listen to your body – after all, you don’t want to finish your sessions feeling broken and unable to go again the next day.

However often you do tempo runs, remember to warm up and cool down properly – including stretching properly after your run – to prevent injury and reduce muscle soreness.

What gear do you need for a tempo run? 

One of the great things about running is that it requires very little specialist gear, and tempo runs are no exception! All you need is a good pair of running shoes, comfortable running clothing, and a watch to keep track of timings – once you’ve got all that, you’re good to go! 

Tempo training is a sure-fire way to get stronger and faster, no matter what distance you’re training for. Want to discover more tips for running at your best? Check out the Run Happy Blog for stories to transform your run.