What is A Tempo Run?

What is a tempo run is a common question a lot of beginner athletes ask. Often times, athletes that are experienced in our sport don’t always know the inner workings of this workout.

what is a tempo run

I place the tempo run right up there with the long run in terms of overall importance in running fast. The key tactic when implementing a tempo run strategy is lactic acid tolerance.

The main focus behind tempo runs is to help the body clear lactic acid faster than it is building up in the blood stream. This is why so many runners miss their target. In addition to that, they begin to second guess themselves.

I’m not running enough mileage.

I do not have what it takes.

Am I running too much mileage?

Perhaps I need to go out slower and pick it up at the end of the race.

These are only a few common examples of questions and doubts runners deal with.

The facts are if you do your homework in training the results will come in the race. I am very blunt about this.

Training should be the hardest part of running success. You should test your limits in training and it should always be the most difficult part of the process.

The race?

That is the easy part.

Improving the Lactate Threshold

I’m not an exercise physiologist but I do have a bachelors degree in Physical Education. In addition to that, over 28 years experience in elite sport.

I’ve studied the body, effects specific training methods have on the body and understand what tempo runs do.


I live what I write about here at rundreamachieve. That being said, the power of tempo runs is teaching the body to handle ever-increasing amounts of lactic acid.

These workouts are not fun. If you have already done a few you already know this as fact. They challenge your breathing and to focus on your running form.

The main reason the top runners you see competing make racing look so easy is because of tempo runs.

Of course, there are many other reasons for what looks like their totally relaxed but fast performances.

What is a tempo run?

It is a run that can be anywhere from a couple miles to several miles and is conducted at a heart rate of between 167 to 174 beats per minute.

Dr. Joe Vigil, one of my mentors as a professional runner, stated that most runners run at or around this effort during their races.

Why are tempo runs so important? They recruit more fast twitch muscle fibers. The more of these you can recruit the more economical (efficient) you will run.

Easy, relaxed running does not produce this type of physiological effect. That being said, there is still huge importance in slow running as well.

We get so wrapped up with workouts, mile splits and how many miles run we forget this one fact.

The Benefits

All the benefits from the workouts we do come within the rest.

Remember that.

So, the next time you feel like running faster than you need to on your recovery days you could very well sabotage your hard work.

It is not uncommon for runners to run too slow or too fast on their recovery days. Often times, it takes just as much discipline and focus to back off as it does to train hard.

Tempo runs are aggressive efforts. So, the fact that they create trauma to your muscle fibers means you have to back off and rest.

In addition to that, you have to place equal emphasis on your nutrition and hydration practices.

How many athletes or non-athletes do you know who know anything about Glutathione?

It is the body’s master antioxidant and yet most runners have never heard of it. Billions of cells within the body and every one of them create it.

The benefits of tempo runs come within the rest, not the workout itself.

Tempo Run Workout Examples

There are numerous ways to conduct tempo runs. The best way to answer what is a tempo run is to explain what it is not.

A tempo run should not feel relaxed nor easy. It should feel moderately hard. Early on, many athletes should focus on trying to run 3 to 4 miles at their anaerobic threshold.

It takes time, focus and patience to conduct these workouts because they are so demanding.

Here are my personal bests and the types of tempo runs I use to get better.

10 miles – 50:54 (5:05 mile pace)

Half-marathon – 1:07:06 (5:07 mile pace)

20 miles – 1:44:05 (5:11 mile pace)

marathon – 2:19:35 (5:19 mile pace)

As stated earlier, tempo runs are right up there with long runs in terms of importance.

The reason I have been able to produce the above mentioned times are account of these workouts.

Focus on AT

Tempo runs should be conducted at your anaerobic threshold. Your heart rate should be between 167 to 174 beats per minute.

If you are going above 174 you are starting to train your Aerobic Capacity. Your aerobic capacity is your maximum physiological capability.

Runners cannot run very far at this intensity, myself included. Tempo runs should not be this aggressive but you do want to push your body.

The reason being is it helps make your goal race pace feel easier.

Below are a few examples of the types of tempo runs I recommend for runners.

Progression Tempo Runs

These workouts get gradually harder. You start off at a brisk pace and drop 5 to 10 seconds per mile run.

For example, a 10 mile run hitting splits of 6:20,6:10,6:00,5:50,5:40,5:30,5:20,5:10,5:00,4:50

Obviously, paces and distances can vary. If you are seeking to break the 4 hour marathon barrier a progression tempo run may look like this.


How To Become A Faster Runner

Steady Tempo Runs

These tempo runs can range from 4 to 16 miles in length and are focused on heart rate. I started training with a heart rate monitor in 1996.

Jack Hazen, the USA assistant track and field coach for the 2000 Olympic Games got me hooked on them.

Jack just so happened to be my collegiate coach while I attended Malone University from 1995 to 2000.

What you have to keep in mind regarding tempo runs is patience is key.

No one, not me or anyone else can start off week one doing 15-mile tempo runs. There is a progressive process that must take place.

It takes the body approximately 21 days to adapt to any stress load that is placed upon it. So, that being said, you really need to give yourself time and don’t doubt yourself.

The results will come but not overnight.

An example of a steady tempo run for me in the past may be a 10-mile tempo run in 53 to 55 minutes the heart rate mentioned in this post.

Additionally, I have done 20-mile long runs as fast as 1:50:02 in training leading up to my marathons.

1:50:02 is the fastest I ever did a long run in at a heart rate between 160 to 163 beats per minute. This is just below tempo effort but very close to it.

Why Steady Tempo Runs Are Important

They teach you to stay at constant, focused effort for a long period of time.

The reason why I am a huge supporter of heart rate monitor training is it takes the focus off of mile splits.

The athlete focuses on staying within the prescribed heart rate zone (167 to 174 BPM) instead.

It also prevents the athlete from running too hard. That being said, you will quickly find out that running at this heart rate effort will feel extremely demanding already.

So, the what matters is giving yourself time to adapt to these forms of workouts.

You may have a hard time running 1 to 2 miles at your anaerobic threshold early on in your fitness build up.

Later, you may be able to hold it for 8 to 15 miles.

Tempo Run Variation Workouts

Examples of these types of tempo runs would like this if I were conducting them.

3x4miles on the road at 167-74 BPM with 1 mile jog recovery between each rep

2×6 miles at goal marathon race pace (5:15 mile pace) with a 1 mile jog in between or complete rest until my heart rate was at 120 beats per minute.

The common rule is to take your age and subtract it from 220 and that is what your max heart rate should be.

That being said, there is no test or measure of the mind of the athlete. There are pace calculators and race equation charts that provide guides to how fast you can run.

No test can measure how powerful the mind is. So, with that being said, this post is just a guide and to provide some suggestions to you.

You want to mix up how you train. You cannot expect to run 8-minute mile pace for a marathon by doing 22-mile long runs at 9:45 mile pace.

The idea is to use tempo runs which is just about your race pace effort, often.

You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Tempo runs really teach us how to stay focused on our form, breathing and staying relaxed under pressure.

Why Train At Your Anaerobic Threshold?

The biggest reason is that you are able to sustain pace for a longer period of time.

If you perfect your taper correctly your body will be rested and your glycogen stores will be high. The hard work and dedication will pay off in the end.

In addition to that, it makes race pace feel comfortable rather than so taxing you can’t keep up.

Everyone feels like this early on when they are not fit. That being said, things change when you start training at higher intensities more often each week.

The best runners in the world make it look easy for a reason. A large portion of their weekly training volume is spent at or below their goal race pace.

They are continually focused on training at or even faster than their anaerobic threshold.

The challenge is getting out there and getting used to the intensity of a tempo run.

So, what is a tempo run? Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the mechanics behind this important workout.

Remember, the best runners make it look easy because they train the anaerobic systems of the body often. Peak fitness comes with time, patience and a long-term vision.

The best runners believe in delayed gratification. They fully understand this isn’t an overnight process.

It isn’t necessarily because they are more genetically-gifted than you. I don’t have a lot of talent myself. What you lack in talent you have to make up with hard work.

It is unrelenting, focused work that you cannot let up for a second if you really want to make the big jump in your fitness.

This is not going to be easy but I promise you that if you focus on the above mentioned workouts you will start to see big results.

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