Think back to a time when you were struggling on a run. Maybe you were feeling pain, out of breath or just tired. You were probably fighting an inner voice that was telling you how you really should stop now. In my case this was literally any time my high school PE teacher would decide today was a cross country day. Adding the tempo run to your training routine could make this happen less often in your races, and leave you better prepared to get through these moments.
So what even is a tempo run anyway?
Below we take a look at how the tempo run is described by 3 running experts.
In this post Kevin Beck, gives a relatively simple explanation:
So what is a true tempo run? A tempo run—also known as an anaerobic threshold or lactate-threshold run—is a pace about 25 to 30 seconds per mile slower than your current 5K race pace
Kevin Beck, writing for www.runnersworld.com
Now, the issue here is I have not gone ‘all out’ on a 5K yet. The above seems reasonably simple to implement… but at a later date when I have ‘raced’ the distance.
In this post, Jason Fitzgerald gives 3 definitions for a tempo run. The most helpful for a beginner is when he says it involves running…
Comfortably hard. A pace that’s faster than “moderate” but not exactly “hard.” If you have a high training age and prefer running by feel or perceived effort, this may be the most helpful definition for you.
Jason Fitzgerald, writing for strengthrunning.com
The most complex explanation I found was from Hal Higdon in this post.
I define a Tempo Run as a workout where the tempo of the workout (the pace at which you run) changes almost continuously. You begin easily, then as you warm up, you gradually (and “gradually” is the key) begin to accelerate until you reach a peak pace that is about 15 seconds slower than what would be your pace in a 10-K race. You hold that pace for the 3-5 minutes I prescribe, and it would be very difficult to hold that pace for 3-5 miles in a workout. Once over the peak you gradually allow your pace to slow, finishing at the same easy jogging pace from the start of the workout.
Hal Higdon, writing for www.trainingpeaks.com
Now if that made little sense to you… you’re not alone! However, its pretty safe to say Hal Higdon knows what he is talking about when it comes to running. (Check out the about section of his personal website here.)
Conclusion: However you dress it up, running ‘comfortably hard’ does not look too far off anyone’s description. For a beginner this seems like a good place to start. For more advanced runners, keeping a close eye on a watch looks to be a good way to get the full benefit of these sessions.
Why Add Tempo Runs To A Routine?
When doing anything in life, it is important to know why you are doing it. I thought to myself there must be a reason so many websites are advocating these types of runs as a way to become faster, and I’ve commented on two explanations to their benefits below.
In this article, runbritain outline a few benefits.
Once you have built up a good aerobic base and are able to cover your chosen distance without stopping you will benefit from continuous tempo running.
Tempo running improves not only your physical fitness but also improves concentration and your pacing skill.Tempo runs are better than Interval training in developing your mental strengths as you are not allowed the regular recoveries and so you stay focused for a longer period of time. Tempo runs may last for anything from 10 minutes to 40 minutes but you should build up to them gently.
An aspect I hadn’t considered there is that while you aren’t running all out like when you are running intervals, you are putting in an effort for a longer time. So while intervals do get tough, at least the next rest period is never that far away. If you run for 5 minute spells in a tempo run situation and you start to feel bad 1 minute in… those next 4 minutes are certainly going to develop your ability to fight through the ‘I want to quit’ thoughts that will hit you during long runs.
In this post, Hollie Sick outlines a key reason for adding tempo runs to your routine:
The main idea behind a tempo run is to improve lactic threshold levels. Lactic acid threshold is the point at which your body starts producing lactic acid faster than your body can remove it.
This is when your body starts to feel tired and fatigued, and it becomes harder to maintain your current pace. This is what you feel in the middle of a race when things start to become harder.
Holly Sick, writing for halfmarathons.net
Lactate is what builds up in the muscles when the body is performing exercise that requires more energy than the oxygen it is currently accessing can provide, causing the pain felt during prolonged exercise (source – Scientific American). Obviously taking the body’s ability to deal with this to a higher level is going to be useful for somebody looking to run long distances.
Conclusion: Tempo runs are an ideal way to improve your mental and physical ability to deal with longer runs. Whether this is necessary if your only goal is to run a 5K is up for debate, but if you have any intention of running longer distances eventually it may be a good idea to introduce these into your training.
As I’ve always said, starting small is always a good idea. In my first session of this type I’m just going to run 2 7/10 efforts for a small amount of time. Why make things harder than they need to be?
You want specifics?
OK.. I’m going to reverse engineer back from my planned attempt at a 25 minute 5k, with the aim of running 2 x 15 minute efforts the week before.
Why 2 x 15?
If I’m able to run for 15 minutes at a decent pace… then have a little break inbetween… then run for another 15 minutes… it’d seem reasonable to expect I could get a decent 5K time surely?
We’ll find out!
Disclaimer – It is essential that you do not take on board any advice given on this website without first seeking the advice of a medical professional. Any descriptions of different ways in which I manage my type 1 diabetes on this website, including in the comments, are given in good faith, and are shared merely as suggestions which should be ran past a doctor or diabetes specialist nurse.