What is a tempo run?

beginner runner running tips Nov 01, 2023



Did you know that incorporating tempo runs into your training plan can take your running performance to the next level? But what are tempo runs and why should you do them?

Simply put, a tempo run is where you maintain a pace that is ‘comfortably hard’ for an extended period of time. This can sometimes be referred to as ‘threshold pace’.   It’s not about sprinting and going all out, this should be a challenging pace that pushes you but feels sustainable.

How can they help?

Adding in a tempo run will help with improving your speed and endurance because it will condition your body to sustain a faster pace over longer distances.

They can be mentally challenging – and we all know that running is 90% mental and 10% physical, so tempo runs will help with that.

They are great for race preparation as they closely simulate how you will be running on the day.

When we put together running plans, we add in a variety of runs to ensure that different energy systems are being worked. A 30-40 tempo run is used to push the body a little out of what is a comfortable pace, but not so much that you burn out.

By increasing your pace for a sustained period, we are looking to improve your aerobic capacity (how oxygen is delivered to your muscles) for improved cardiovascular fitness.

How often should you do them?

It's a good idea to add a tempo run weekly to your plan. You shouldn't be pushing on every run that you do - this can lead to injury. Once or twice (at a push) is fine.

Make a tempo sandwich

It's a good idea to put a tempo run between two easy runs.  It could look something like this... 

Warm up... 10-minute easy pace... 20-30 minute tempo pace... 10-minute easy pace... cool down.

Maintaining the pace

The trick with tempo runs is being able to maintain the pace and not slip back into easy runs, or even push too hard so that you are now working a different energy system.

Here are a few ways you can check you're at the right pace for your tempo...

Probably the easiest way to assess your pace is to do the Talk Test. No fancy kit is required, just your ability to hold a conversation. When running at a tempo pace, your chance of chatting will be limited. You should still be able to say a few words or short phrases, but holding a full conversation will be more challenging. If you’re able to hold a conversation, or at the other end of the scale and can barely say a word, then you have slipped out of your tempo pace.

Perceived exertion is another way to assess your speed. In the most basic terms, you are rating your effort from 0-10, with 10 being maximal effort.  In terms of a tempo run, your perceived exertion would be at a 7-8 on the scale.  You are breathing deeper than you would at an easy pace, and the ability to hold a conversation is limited.

Using your heart rate as a guide is another way to maintain your tempo pace, but this is where we start to get a little more technical.  You first need to establish your maximum heart rate (MHR) but subtracting your age from 220. So if you are 40, your MHR would be 180.  For a tempo run, your heart rate should be around 80-90% of your MHR – so you would multiply 180 by 0.8 and 0.9 for your ideal heart rate range for a tempo run.

You will then need to invest in a heart rate monitor to track your heart rate during your runs that you can pair up with a watch or smartphone app.

Once you are warmed up you can begin your tempo portion of the run. Remember to check your watch to ensure you are within your target range.  You can then increase your pace if it's on the low side or slow things down if you’re exceeding the numbers.

There are a few things to consider when using a monitor.  Your heart rate can be influenced by other factors such as temperature, dehydration, fatigue, terrain and humidity.  Take these things into consideration and lower your range where necessary. There may also be a delay in the reading on your monitor verses how you are feeling in the moment, so bear this in mind as well.

Our recommendation

Of all the methods above, the easier is to go with a talk test (or maybe sing to yourself if you’re running solo) as a way to monitor your pace.  If the pace feels too hard for you to maintain, then slow it down. Yes, it is meant to feel uncomfortable, but not at the expense of your health and well-being.

If you would like help with your running, or putting together a plan, we have a coaching service called ‘The Inside Track’. With a group of coaches in your back pocket, you will be well-equipped with the tools you need to smash your next running goal.

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