The Science and Art of a Tempo Run

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.

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About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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22 Responses to The Science and Art of a Tempo Run

  1. Justine says:

    I learned a lot in this post.

    I am a slower runner (more than 9 min miles for a 10k, but I can easily run for much longer than an hour) and I do tempo runs once a week because it teaches me to run hard, and keep running. Track work also builds speed but I don’t get any practice at holding an uncomfortable pace. My tempo pace is much slower than yours, but it is still a hard pace for me and knowing that I can run hard and not have to stop is valuable in and of itself. I don’t feel like it takes me a long time to recover from these runs.

    If I have to wait until I can run sub 9 minute miles for a 10k it could be years before I’m ready for a tempo run. Are track workouts really that much better for me? How do I teach my body and mind to run hard for any real length?

    Thanks for your comments.

  2. Dean Hebert says:

    Justine,
    If you run your “tempo” runs around 9 per mile you are getting benefits from it.

    Yes, faster “track” workouts are better physiologically. You benefit more systems (in fact recent research in using sprints shows benefits in building an endurance base!).

    You won’t get faster by running slower or just modest paces. Since it appears you already have a decent base of training (able to run an hour) until your upper end speed moves up (faster), your 10k pace will not move up. As far as getting used to running hard for any length that again is how a comprehensive training program helps. You start with shorter reps (400s @ 5k pace for example) then move towards longer reps (up to mile reps or even 1.5 miles @ 5k pace). Then you shorten rest periods from say 1:30 between reps on down to 15 seconds between reps. The combination of these elements will more than get you to be able to handle hard paces over longer periods… AND those “hard paces” will end up even faster.

    The fact that you can run an hour indicates that in fact speed NOT endurance is what you are lacking in your training program. Start gradual …but add 5k paced repetitions once a week into your routine. I’ll guarantee you’ll start to see a difference in your running.

  3. Justine says:

    My 10k pace is actually over 10 min miles, but not a lot over. Before you say ‘so slow!” remember I’m working hard to get to that pace and hold it for the whole 6 miles.

    Since you are *guaranteeing* I’ll get faster if I get myself to the track, I’m going to start doing so. Tempo runs are out, fast reps are in.

    I’ll start slow (my speciality), stick with it and report back in the Spring sometime to update you on my progress (no doubt, you’ll be on the edge of your seat until then).

    Thanks for your advice.

  4. Dean Hebert says:

    Ok,
    Here’s a pretty safe way to start: warm up well (include at least a mile of running) then run 5×400 with 1:00 rest between each of them. I would recommend a pace of about 2:00 per 400 (it may be a little aggressive but it should feel like a good stretch). You will breath hard and legs may feel a bit rubbery at the end. Good! Then jog an easy mile to cool down.

    Every other week increase by one more 400 until you are doing as many as 16. But, by then, you’ll be strong enough to have been changing up the distances of the reps as well.

    This is a good start. My runners see, feel and race better within just 8 weeks of something like this… I have no doubt if you are diligent… you’ll run breakthrough races!

    Stay in touch! I’ll use a seat belt to be sure I don’t fall off my seat!

  5. David says:

    I always thought most of those race time equivalent calculators were unrealistic.

    I do my pacing in terms of kilometers. It appears you would you have 5K runners add close to 12.5 seconds per K for their 10K pace. I have an 8K Thanksgiving Day race coming up. What time would you expect a 17:00 5K runner to run an 8K?

    Many thanks!

  6. Dean Hebert says:

    David,
    There are caveats any time you use the calculators. I use Howill’s because it’s easy to use and GENERALLY accurate as I mention; it is very accurate with elite runners. though most age groupers I see as slower than the projections as mentioned above. (I believe the actual formula states to add 4 seconds per 400 when you double the distance.)
    1. You’ve trained for that other distance specifically.
    2. Conditions (i.e. weather) are conducive to best efforts.
    3. Course is conducive (i.e. not all hills) to fast times.
    4. Everyone has different strengths and the individual must be considered (i.e. some are better due to genetics at shorter distances…).
    5. These are only ESTIMATES of capabilities.
    6. It’s an optimal effort day – not a bad day at the races.
    Given that….
    5:29/mile = 17:00 that would project to ABOUT 5:45/mile for a 10k (35:39); 8k (about 5 miles) is not double but (3/5 more than the 5k estimate or 60% of the doubling formula of 16 seconds; that is about 10 seconds. So, 5:39 would be the “ideal day” pace for the 8k.

    I would expect that you could run about 3:32/K according to the formula which is 28:15.

    Drop a line and share how close this comes. Good luck!

  7. Bob says:

    Coach,

    Yet another excellent article. Of all the running info on the web, I find yours is the most valuable. I relied on your knowledge while training for my first marathon this past August, and so I’d like to say “Thank you” for all the help.

    My tempo runs are, 1 mile warm, 3 miles tempo (10K pace, 7:52), 1 mile cool. I ran one of these each week and feel it helped a great deal in my marathon preparation. I also did track intervals at faster paces.

    Can’t wait for your book!

  8. Dean Hebert says:

    Bob,
    Well done… it makes me smile when I know I’ve helped someone get better and achieve goals.

    Book should be out from the publisher by Jan. ’09.
    Thanks for your comments and dropping by to tell me how things have gone!

  9. Jimmy Holub says:

    Another article that gives me smiles! Thank you, Dean. I am a big fan of accuracy.

    I have a hypothetical application-specific question:

    This is for a beginning marathoner who is still in the first half of Speed-Strength (base conditioning) phase. He has completed a time trial from which to extrapolate 10k race pace. The runner plans to EVENTUALLY alternate the weekly “longer” runs between Long Slow Distance and Goal Pace runs.

    During this first half of Speed-Strength phase, what do you think of the idea of the runner doing a tempo run in place of what will eventually become goal pace runs at the end of speed-strength phase?

    Sorry if it’s weird. I was thinking about it and now I’m very curious.

  10. Coach Dean says:

    Jimmy,
    Not a weird question at all. I think it depends on the strengths and weaknesses of that athlete. If they are a bit behind where they should be and you want to accelerate their progress tempo runs might be the way to go. On the other hand, if they have a history of not being able to pace themselves… go out too fast, too slow, vary too much, can’t hold pace… then I’d start them on goal pacing early and grow those miles. Efficiency in running is pace specific. So, the more cumulative miles that athlete runs at goal pace the better.

  11. Andrea says:

    Tempo runs are also a drop dead simple way to avoid some of the problems with the wintertime blues: running in the dark in the morning, or in the dark in the evening. How? You can do a full tempo run over your lunch hour at the office!

    I believe RW also just did a little feature on this in their current issue – they advocate 10 minutes to warmup and cooldown and then your 20 minutes of the “good stuff”, in this case a nice tempo run. I warm up really slowly, so I’d take my 20 minutes and make at least 15 the warmup and chop the cooldown significantly…. but your mileage may vary. 🙂

  12. Dean Hebert says:

    Excellent points… it is indeed an ideal workout in a limited time. Makes for great bang for the buck!

  13. Dave says:

    I want to make sure I understand the tempo run correctly. In the HM training program I am using it calls for a 30 minute tempo run. I was running a slower pace for 15 minutes working up to my 10K pace which I held for 5 minutes and then started to slow down for another 10 minutes. Am I doing this correctly.

  14. Dean Hebert says:

    So, you might be at a good starting point but the optimal tempo run is 20-25 minutes AT your 10k pace. For many people that means something in the ball park of running about half a 10k at your 10k race pace. If you can maintain “tempo” pace for ONLY 5 minutes you are most likely going far too fast or you have miscalculated what tempo pace is for you.

    So, if it says a 30 minute tempo run – first for all but perhaps the very most conditioned runners – it would HAVE to include warming up and cooling down. Given that, 10 minutes easy at the beginning and end with middle miles at 10k pace is what I would be looking at.

    Those MIDDLE miles is actually the “tempo” run… it excludes warm up and cool down miles. Very typically I prescribe a 4-6 mile run with the middle 1.5 miles @ 10k pace slowly increasing to 3 full miles @ 10k pace over a period of weeks. Voila… for most runners you are 20-25 minutes @ tempo pace.

    By the way , that means you don’t gradually build up pace to 10k/tempo pace. You go and run 10k pace for the distance that you can within the parameters given (20-25 minutes).

    I hope this helps a bit. Stay in touch and tell me how it goes.

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  16. mel says:

    Hi im in need of some advice for tepo run training for triathlon (10k run), Im a begginer but have good fitness and can run 10k in about 55 min

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Mel,
      Easy… run at your 10k pace for 3 miles in the middle of a 6 mile run. 1-2 warm up and cool down.
      You might start with only 2 miles and get as far as 3.5… doubt you will hit 4.
      You are on the border of using 10k pace. Do not go slower!!!! You will not gain the benefits you need.

  17. AK says:

    I’m really wondering what happened to Justine now… 3,5 years and counting. She must be running 15K in an hour by now! 😉

    Anyway, thanks for this article, it is exactly what I needed to put things in the right order.
    I’ve only started running about a year ago (hit 40 and starting thinking… no need to loose weight, just need to get moving more!), and started adding distance at my current pace (around the 09:00/mile you mention) to try and get to my first goal on 12K (or 7,5mi) /hr.

    As I’m not much of an interval or fartlek person by nature I found myself kicking into my normal pace and just trying to last. I do gain some more speed over the months but it’s not really adding up.
    Over my last few runs I’ve actually shortened the route to 3-4 miles and increased my pace and found that I can actually get to around 7,5min/mi pace and it’s way more fun AND takes less time… The speed feels good!

    So I’m going to set aside my plans for a 10 mile run for now and first try some 3-6 mile routes with some variances in pace and see where I end up.
    If the weather is great I might end up with a slow-long run “by accident” but I’m not setting it as a primary goal anymore.

    Thanks again for posting this. I’m not promising to report back here in a few months, but actually might 🙂

  18. Himanshu says:

    HI My name is Himanshu. I am impressed with this article. Not Sure if this blog is still active. I am intermidiate runner. I understood with article what it temp and how to use it. I wanna know more about Why to use it. What it does in body. If i can get something on this line will be great.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Himanshu,
      Thank you for your note. Tempo runs, when done correctly are mainly aimed at improving your lactate threshold. Lactate is not a bad thing it is a byproduct that ends up an energy source but we must train our bodies to use it or it goes to waste. Since all paces faster than LT (tempo) pace positively affect LT; LT paced runs are best suited for distance runners and not as much for those who run shorter than 10k races.

  19. George Gundry says:

    I coach unemployed athletes in South Africa and read up extensively. I found your information on Tempo Running interesting.

  20. Tae Koepke says:

    Thanks for the article. I had a stress fracture and was following Pfitzinger’s 7-week training program and I didn’t understand how to do the Tempo Run (15 min warm-up, 15 min @ 15 km race pace). I can run 15 km but my pacing is slow at 11:00. I have endurance no speed. This article helps a lot.

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