Up the Tempo

As a running coach, I work with a lot of runners looking to increase speed. To run faster you have to run faster, and many runners are hoping to do just that, myself included! We’ve all heard the terms tossed around – tempo, fartlek, and intervals, but many runners aren’t sure how to combine those runs to make a training plan that not only makes sense, but helps them get faster. To start, its essential to understand the different types of runs and the purpose behind them.

Let’s talk tempo. A tempo run is a run that is done at a “comfortably hard” pace. Depending on who you ask, there are several different types of tempo runs. I will focus on the most traditional, the lactate-threshold (LT), or threshold, run.

Most runners have heard of lactate. Lactate is often blamed for muscle fatigue, though it’s really lactate plus some other acidic by-products of metabolism that build up in the muscles. At any rate, as your body works harder, acidic stuff builds up in the muscles and makes them less able to work as hard. You slow down when lactate accumulates faster than your body is able to clear it. When you run at lactate-threshold pace, you’re training your body to run at the fastest pace at which you can keep blood lactate levels pretty stable, thus keeping the muscles going and the pace steady.

A LT tempo run is designed to help your muscles get better at using/clearing the by-products of metabolism so you can run for longer at a faster pace. The more training you do at a quick pace, the longer you can keep blood lactate stable and the higher your “threshold”, or the level at which muscles reach their acidic limit. Basically, by running at your current threshold pace, you increase your threshold pace. Higher lactate threshold leads to the ability to run faster, longer, at easier effort.

To get this great effect, you have to train at the right intensity. There are several ways to determine if the intensity is right. Most experts say that a good tempo/LT pace is the pace at which you could run for an hour, but no more. For me, that’s hard to pinpoint, so I use some other, well established, methods to find the right pace.

  • Recent race pace – LT pace is usually about 25-40 seconds slower than your all-out 5k pace
  • Heart rate – LT pace is around 85% of your maximum heart rate

LT pace will vary based on how you feel, the terrain you’re running, and other factors related to training and stress. To make it a little easier, I often use simpler tests to determine my tempo pace. Tempo pace is about an 8 on a 1-to-10 scale of rate of perceived exertion (if 3-5 is easy and 9-10 is racing a 5k). Tempo pace is also the pace at which you can only utter a few words (and those words make sense), but can’t form a complete sentence.

Once you’ve found the right intensity, the next step is to determine the amount of time to spend running at that pace. A good tempo run should have an easy warm up and cool down, with a period of comfortably hard running in the middle. There are three usual types of tempo runs, short tempo runs, classic tempo runs, and long tempo runs. Easy, right? A short tempo run might be a 12-25 minute run with a pace at the fast end of the LT range. These shorter tempo runs are best for short distance race preparation, like 5k or 10k training. A classic tempo run includes 25-40 minutes of steady running at LT pace, and is a great run to include in the training plan for any distance. Finally, the longer tempo run, a tempo run that’s done at the high end of the LT pace range, with that pace held for 40-60 minutes, is a great run for runners training for longer distances. Longer tempo runs have the added benefit of training the body to run in a slightly uncomfortable state for longer periods of time, a mental and physical skill essential for success at half marathon and longer distances.

If you’re hoping to get faster, a tempo run is a great run to add to your training plan. Start with one every 10 days or so, and move up to one tempo run, or other speed-development run, per 5-7 days of training. Now, let’s get speedy!