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What Are Tempo Runs And What Are The Benefits Of Doing Them?

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If you’ve ever attempted to follow any kind of training plan for a running event, the odds are it will have had tempo runs on it. That’s because tempo runs are useful for all kinds of runners, whether you’re tackling short distances like 5Ks or one-mile events, or a marathon. Simply put, if you want to get faster, stronger and fitter, a tempo run should be part of your training schedule.

What Is A Tempo Run?

There are a few ways to define a tempo run, some very easy to understand, others less so. If you judge the different types of run on feel, a tempo run is commonly described as a comfortably uncomfortable pace. It shouldn’t be killing you to maintain it for around 20-30 minutes, but it shouldn’t feel like a breeze either.

A more precise way to judge tempo runs is to run them at the pace you could sustain for an hour, which will usually be somewhere between your 10K and half marathon pace. If you’ve only done 5K races, then you can use that pace plus 15-20 seconds per kilometre for a rough guide to your tempo pace.

You can also use heart rate to judge your tempo effort, which will be useful on hillier routes than trying to stick to a certain pace. Tempo runs are done at 85-90% of your maximum heart rate, so you’ll be hitting the higher zones but not going all out.

If you want to get precise, tempo runs are done at around or just below your lactate threshold. This is the point at which your body can clear the lactate at the rate it’s producing it, so you don’t get the burning sensation in your muscles that you do if you push past that threshold by sprinting or hitting your 5K pace. You can find out your lactate threshold pace with a dedicated test, where your blood is tested every few minutes as you increase your pace.

What Are The Benefits Of Tempo Runs?

We hope you didn’t skip over that bit about lactate threshold, because the main benefit of tempo running is that it increases your lactate threshold. That’s particularly important for half marathon and marathon runners, because this increases the pace you can run long distances at without the lactate build-up in your muscles becoming unmanageable.

This benefit is less useful in shorter races like 5K, where you run well above your lactate threshold pace, but it does still help you to maintain your speed and increase the chances of running a PB.

There are also mental benefits to tempo runs, because while you aren’t going flat out like you might in an interval session, you are pushing your body out of its comfort zone for extended periods. If you can do them regularly you’ll build the resilience to help you handle tough spells in races.

How To Add Tempo Runs To Your Training

Since tempo runs are done at roughly your one-hour pace, they should be significantly shorter than an hour so you avoid burning out in training. A common type of tempo run is to run a 20- to 40-minute block at tempo pace during a longer run, with easy sections before and after. Don’t go past 40 minutes, and if you want to do the full 40 minutes, the best method is generally doing two sets of 20 minutes or four sets of ten minutes at tempo pace with long recovery sections at an easy pace.

If you’re completely new to tempo runs, start with ten to 15 minutes and make sure you’re not overdoing the effort – you shouldn’t be broken at the end of that run.

You can use distance to measure your tempo runs, but in our experience using time makes it easier to focus on getting the pace right. Sometimes if you know you have a distance to complete, the temptation is to go faster than tempo pace to get it done sooner.

Another way to use tempo pace in training runs is to do shorter reps at tempo pace with shorter recoveries. You could complete a set of five to ten 1km reps at your tempo pace, taking 60 to 90 seconds of recovery in between. This can be less mentally difficult than facing a 20- to 30-minute block of tempo running.

Nick Harris-Fry
Nick Harris-Fry

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.