What Is A Tempo Run?

We’re probably all too familiar with the muscle fatigue that accompanies a workout. It’s that intense burning pain that slows you down, weakens the body, and reduces motivation. During a marathon or a half-marathon, muscle fatigue can feel unbearable.

Finding away around muscle fatigue isn’t necessarily about training more – it’s about training better. Teaching your body to understand pace, so it doesn’t succumb to a painful build-up of lactate. One of the best ways to do this is with tempo running.

Tempo running encourages you to find the middle ground, using paced running to gradually improve your body’s lactate threshold. This middle distance training method can be the key to improving your times, and your own physical wellbeing. But what is tempo running, and how can you incorporate it into your workouts?

What Exactly Is A Tempo Run?

Tempo running is all about finding that middle ground. It’s a run that doesn’t go easy, but doesn’t push you too hard. A tempo run is about running a middle distance, at a middle speed. They typically last for around 20 minutes, running at a pace you could maintain for an hour.

The tempo run was born out of research conducted in the 1980s into the effects of pace on lactate levels. It was found that running at a middle distance pace could improve the lactate threshold, reducing muscle fatigue. These results led to trainers incorporating these middle-ground workouts into regular training.

A tempo run uses an average pace, over a sustained period of time – often 20 minutes. The pace is almost fun, and is often described as comfortably-uncomfortable. At the end of a tempo run, you should feel tired, but not tired out. Think of the pace as around a 7 on the scale of walking to sprinting.

Tempo running is often used for those training marathons or half-marathons, but is useful for training for many forms of exercise. 10 km and 5 km runners can hugely benefit from the addition of a tempo run to their routine.

Why You Should Try Tempo Running?

Now you know what it is, you might be wondering what’s the point. When you haven’t tried tempo running before, it can be difficult to understand what the benefits are.

The most compelling reason for trying tempo running is the effect it has on the lactate threshold. All runners have, at some point, felt the pain from a buildup of lactic acid. Lactic acid is released into the bloodstream during exercise, and is what causes that burning sensation before and after a workout.

We don’t feel this pain after an easy session, because the body works to clear lactate as it builds. The burn starts when your body goes above its lactate threshold, accumulating lactate faster than it can be cleared.

The higher your lactate threshold, the longer you can maintain a stronger speed. During a marathon, this allows you to use an increased pace for more time.

Over shorter distances, we tend to run above the lactate threshold anyway, but tempo runs can still help, by improving the time it takes before muscle fatigue sets in.

The physical advantages of a tempo run are immense, but there’s also a distinct mental advantage. Regular tempo running helps you understand your own pace, and motivates you over long distances.

During a tempo run, the body should be outside its comfort zone. When you’re used to running with this feeling, it’s easier to push through. Particularly useful during the hardest stretches of a marathon.

How To Rempo Run, and How To Work It Into Your Routine?

Before starting tempo runs, you want to have a good base of training to build on. So, if you’ve taken some time away, then don’t dive straight in with a tempo run. For a start, it’s going to be painful. But also, you won’t have a clear idea of what level you should be running at. It’s easy to go too hard, and push yourself excessively.

On the other hand, when you aren’t sure what you can achieve, you might end up underestimating yourself. A tempo run doesn’t do much good if you’re running at too slow a pace.

When determining your tempo pace, it’s important to run alone. Running with others often causes us to adjust our own pace, even without realizing. If you’re working with a trainer, they might be able to use more scientific methods to find your perfect tempo pace. Measuring your blood lactate levels, and finding your VO2 max, can both help nail down a tempo pace.

Once you’ve found your pace, then it’s time to start running. Start with a dynamic warm up, and an easy run to ease you in.

A tempo run will typically last for 20 minutes at pace, with a slow warm up and cool down. For a beginner, 10 to 15 minutes at a tempo pace is best. You don’t want to be tiring yourself out.

As you improve, you can add time. However, tempo runs shouldn’t last for more than 40 minutes at speed. If you intend to run for longer, take regular recovery breaks. Try two 20-minute sessions, or four 10-minute sessions, with a long recovery at an easy pace between each run. 

Otherwise, try shorter distances with brief but frequent recoveries. Running 5 to 10 reps at your tempo pace, with a 60-second recovery, can be better for those who prefer shorter distances. 

An alternative method is to run over a set distance – one that will take you roughly 20 minutes. However, many find this a less helpful measurement. When you have a distance to complete, it’s tempting to speed up when you’re approaching the end (especially as you should still have fuel in the tank). This ends up defeating the point of tempo running.

Tempo runs are best attempted once a week. By the end of your run, you should feel tired, but not drained. Over time, there should be an improvement to your lactate threshold, and a better understanding of how to maintain pace.

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