tempo runs, saltmarshrunning.com, training

The tempo run is a staple of almost every training plan from 5K to marathon distance. This article will define the tempo run, explain the correct way to complete a tempo run, and offer some common sense strategies to incorporating this essential workout into your training plans.

Pace and Effort

The tempo run is often misunderstood. Many runners mistakenly identify any run that feels faster than usual as a tempo run. Here’s the definition of a tempo run according to running godfather, Jack Daniels, author of Daniels’ Running Formula: “A tempo run is nothing more than 20 minutes of steady running at threshold pace.” Daniels suggests a pace about 25-30 seconds per mile slower than your 5K race pace.

“A tempo run is nothing more than 20 minutes of steady running at threshold pace.” – Jack Daniels, Daniel’s Running Formula

Threshold pace refers to that speed or effort of running that is just below the point where lactate begins to accumulate in the bloodstream. This translates to a ‘comfortably hard’ pace, one that allows you to speak in only one or two word bursts, like “good work… keep it… up.” In breathing rhythm, you may only take 2 or 3 steps per breath cycle in and out.

The Workout Plan

Tempo runs require discipline. The pace and distance should be determined prior to setting off on your run. For example, some runners might be prepping for a marathon and decide to run 20 miles with miles 5-15 at a tempo pace of 5:30 per mile. Others might be prepping for a 10K distance and run 8 miles with miles 3-6 at a tempo pace of 8:00 per mile. Whatever your goal, a concise time and distance should be identified so that you have a purpose for your tempo run.

Tempo Run Plateau
Think of the Waterberg Plateau as a visual for your effort on a tempo run.

Kenyan runners have used the classic tempo run for many years as a standard part of their training routine. A typical tempo run begins with a slow warmup period, a challenging but controlled tempo period, and a slow cool down period. Adding tempo runs to your training should improve your race performance.

“…tempo running is crucial to racing success because it trains your body to sustain speed over distance.” – Toby Tanser

Many runners do not reap the rewards of the tempo run workout because they are either running too slow during the tempo phase or they aren’t running long enough at the tempo pace. The length of the tempo is based on the end goal. 10K runners may require four to six miles at tempo pace, whereas endurance runners may require six to eight miles or more.

When to Use It

Tempo runs require a warm up, tempo, and cool down period. So, in my opinion, if you are a beginning runner and want to try adding tempo runs you’ll need to be able to cover at least 6-7 miles comfortably before adding this workout to your training plan. Tempo runs are challenging and require significant effort. Be sure to plan accordingly and give your body time to recover by building in a rest day or a few easy training days following a tempo run.

Controlling the pace of your run is easier if you have a course with little variation. Hills, changing surfaces, and traffic lights can throw you off your pace. Tracks, treadmills, or flat routes will give you more control to stay on pace and nail your workout goals.

Tempo runs are a good bread and butter workout for runners. But, they should be used as part of a balanced overall training plan along with other essential workouts.

11 thoughts on “Boost Your Racing Performance with a Tempo Run

  1. This is really helpful, thanks. I love Hal Higdon’s plans but his tempo definition always perplexed me.

  2. Thanks for the clear explanation. As a newbie runner, I’ve been confused by the term because it seems like many people just throw it around, and that some even make their own definition of it. Not sure I have the endurance yet for a tempo run (my training focus is on run-walk intervals right now), but now that I clearly understand what it is I can consider incorporating it in the future.

    1. It took me 3 years to get to the point of including tempo runs in my training. Are you using Jeff Galloway’s plan now? Lots of runners find success with a run-walk approach. Keep it up!

      1. Thanks for the encouragement! Since I’ll be running the Disney World 10k and half I’m following a modified version of his Dumbo Double Dare plan. So far it seems to be working for me!

  3. I’m doing the Hal Higdon Advanced 1 Training schedule. it only calls for a 45 min tempo run. Would you recommend changing one of the 10 mile runs to a 90min-120min tempo run instead? (I run slow, target race pace of 9min/mi).

    1. Your best bet is probably to stick with the plan. I used a HH plan when I ran my first half and it got me across the line. If you have a tempo run of 45 minutes, just make sure you push during the tempo phase to reap the benefits. What race are you training for?

      1. I’m training for Chicago. I’ve just started with tempo runs (never did them before) and the first two were definitely too slow and too short so next time around on the HH plan, i’ll look to extend the tempo portion of it and run it faster.
        Also, my intervals were also too slow so i’ll look to really push it on my next go-around on the HH plan.

Thoughts?