Tempo runs are a popular training run. I often overhear runners commenting on their “tempo” workouts. However, the more I listen, the more I hear how misused, misunderstood or misapplied this training workout is by runners and triathletes. Any of these comments sound familiar?
- I ran a 10 mile tempo run.
- I can’t maintain my tempo pace for 10 minutes.
- Every week I do lots of tempo training.
- I use tempo runs to improve my 5k times.
Let’s first define a tempo run, then describe how and when to use them. A tempo run is variously defined by coaches and sports physiologists. But there is overall consensus. A tempo run is a single run lasting 20-25 minutes in duration. The intensity is defined as between 10k and 15k RACE pace or, approximately a RACE of about one hour duration. Though any readers of my articles know I do not ascribe to heart rate training, tempo pace has also been defined as approximately 90% of your maximum HR; which by the way is closer to the 10k not 15k race pace.
So, the message is this. A tempo run is a quality run. It primarily improves lactate threshold. Another term associated with tempo run training is “maximal steady state” running. Total weekly training distance (add up multiple workouts) at this pace should not exceed approximately 10% of your total weekly training volume by miles (not time, not calories). And remember, as your conditioning improves, your pace needs to be quickened on a tempo run – you do not lengthen it!!!!
You can figure out your tempo run pace in many ways. Since by definition, there is a range do not get to anal over this. You can use your 10k and 15k PRs. Or use your 5k PR + 16-20 seconds per mile for an estimate of your 10k pace (NOTE: Horwill’s “doubling” Law would use 16 seconds but my experience is that for the vast majority of age group runners it is closer to 20 seconds. Since tempo training is a range, we are OK.). Add another 10 seconds per mile for your 15K pace. Example: 5k PR of 17:00 = 5:30/mile (rounded); 5:30 + :16 or :20 = 5:46-50/mile is your calculated 10k pace; 5:46-50 + :10 = 5:56-6:00/mile for 15k; your tempo pace should be 5:46-6:00/mile pace.
Be flexible with applying the range. The point to make this workout not too hard and not too easy is to use this range as your guide. If this person runs faster than 5:46 there is no doubt it is too fast; and if this person runs slower than 6:00 it is too slow and falls into what I call garbage miles. This is by far the most common error in tempo runs. They end up “hard” longer runs on up to even 10 miles!
Many beginning runners go wrong in using 15k pace for tempo runs when that pace for them is up around an hour thirty minutes. This of course is simply too slow. That pace would not be “tempo.” Errors in pace judgment carry over to experienced runners. Most often I hear triathletes bragging about their 8, 9 or 10 mile “tempo” run. 10 miles of course would be an impossibility by definition – even at the slowest estimates of tempo pacing; how do you maintain your 100% all out 15k pace (9.3 miles) for another seven tenths of a mile? You can’t. Moreover, if you are running 8-9 miles you are not doing a tempo run, you are virtually doing a 15k RACE. Others dash along at paces nearing 5k race pace, so fast they cannot maintain it for the 20-25 minutes recommended. This last scenario is by far the least frequent abuse of tempo runs.
All runners can benefit from tempo runs. However, if you race shorter than 10k races primarily, these runs lose much of their value. If you race 10ks, then a tempo run is simultaneously a goal paced run. This is good training. If you run half-marathons and marathons it is an excellent augmentation to your training.
If you race 5ks, think of it this way: you cannot run faster by running slower. Of course, you do need some easy miles as part of a comprehensive training program – for 5k racers or even milers. However, since a tempo run counts as a quality workout, shorter than 10k racers should focus their quality workouts on 5k pace and faster workouts – primarily in the form of track repeats of various sorts. Take your valuable energy and put it into higher intensity – bigger bang for the buck – workouts. Similarly, I overhear sprint triathletes chatting about their tempo runs, their running portion of the race is only 5k. This is not giving these folks as big a bang for the buck. they will be far better served to run faster stuff on the track than do 10k-15k paced runs.
For novice runners, anyone who cannot run for an hour and I would add anyone who runs slower than approximately 9:00 minute miles for 10k – this workout is not very effective. These athletes do not have the background to perform a tempo run and get the most out of a “quality” workout. Here is where a coach needs to know their athletes. It’s the art meeting science. I err on the side of 5k paced workouts. I avoid tempo runs completely for this group. The faster shorter repeats on a track are more manageable; they have a very high physiological payoff; do not incur injuries at any higher rate than any other running (it’s not an all out sprint) for beginners; and it is efficient training time. The other real bonus is that neuro-muscularly they are getting the added benefit of training their muscles and nerves to fire at a faster rate. This will dramatically and rapidly show improvement in their running which further motivates a beginning runner.
Now, go back to your training logs or schedules. Review your use of tempo runs. Assess the pace you should run them. Assess the times/distances you run them. Assess the percentage of weekly miles run as tempo.