Three Tempo Run Workouts to Improve Speed

If you’ve been running for any decent period of time, chances are you’re looking for ways of improving your pace and speed.  If this is you, you’ve probably come across the term “tempo run,” as a suggestion for helping you achieve your goal.  And while it is 100% true that a good tempo run can help you start shaving some time off your PR, a lot of runners mistake the purpose, method, and execution of a good tempo run.

Much like other speed-based workouts, there are a lot of ways to shape tempo runs around your goals.  But if you don’t have a solid understanding of the workout itself, you might just end up short changing yourself in the result.  Which is a pretty big bummer when you consider how much effort speed workouts can take.  I mean, who wants to set their lungs on fire without seeing some sort of result?

Since I’m not a fan of walking the line of diminishing returns, I’m here to spill all the tea to help you in your goal of moving faster across those finish lines.  Starting with how to execute the perfect tempo run.

What A Tempo Run Is

Well, first let’s cover what it’s not. A tempo run is not a track workout. The distance of a tempo is far enough that running on circles on a track will make you feel dizzier than an intoxicated greyhound. It’s also not a long run at all out effort. That’s called suicide. Don’t do that either.

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It is, however a workout that is longer and somewhat slower than track repeats, but is still fast enough to be a challenge. It is a sustained challenging effort, that should leave you feeling like you conquered a mountain, but didn’t get run over by a snow plow on the way up. In order to find the most appropriate pace, you’ll want to look at your goal pace and 10k pace.

You can take your goal race pace, and use it to calculate an estimate of what your 10k pace should be around if you haven’t run a race recently.  If you’re training for a half-marathon, you’ll want to build your tempo distances up to between 2-3 miles, shooting to hold your 10k pace.  If you’re training for a full marathon, I’d recommend extending that distance to 4-6 miles, with a goal of 10k pace + 20-30 seconds.

For example, if your 10k pace is a 7:00 min/mile, you’d try to hold somewhere between a 7:20-7:30 pace.  Could you go faster?  Maybe.  Probably, on a good day.  But then you’re missing the point and purpose of a tempo run, which is what we’ll talk about next.

The Purpose Of A Tempo Run

Once again, we’ll start with what the purpose is not. The purpose of a tempo run is not to run so hard that you are tasting metal in the back of your mouth and wondering if your legs will get you back home, or if you’ll need to call an Uber. The purpose is to run so that you are close or at your lactate threshold, which basically means your body is producing the maximum amount of lactate that can be cleared from your muscles during the workout.

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If you’ve ever completed a track workout, and felt that sensation of all the energy just leaving your legs and being replaced with cramping, you’ve gone over the lactate threshold.  Your body isn’t able to clear out all of the lactate it’s producing, which may result in you walking back to your car looking like new born giraffe.  Running is fun!

The reason that you want to keep tempo runs at or below lactate threshold is that it helps your body learn how to more efficiently clear all that lactate.  Which can help you avoid the giraffe situation the next time you’re on the track.  It can also help increase your aerobic threshold, which translates to utilizing oxygen more efficiently.  IE, less sucking wind when you go fast.

Tempo runs are great for helping you improve both your endurance and speed simultaneously; making tempo workouts the unicorn of speed work.  They teach your body to keep running at a challenging pace, even when it’s feeling fatigued.  Because of this, they can also be a great way to teach your mind not to quit when your body is in the middle of a hard effort. 

This is the true secret sauce of a strong half or full marathon performance. Because any seasoned runner will tell you that it’s absolutely true that your mind will tell you that you have nothing left long before your body actually has nothing left. And tempo run workouts give you a great opportunity to help your body learn how to run closer to race pace without giving up.

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Creating Tempo Workouts

So now that you know more about the unicorn of speed work, there are several ways you can program these kinds of workouts. 

  • Traditional – For a traditional tempo run, you would run a mile or two to warm up, gradually increasing pace until you get to your ideal tempo pace.  Then you’d hold it for a designated period of time, and follow it up with a cool down at an easy pace.
  • Cyclical – If you want to keep things a little more varied and interesting, you can try cycling tempo periods.  For this kind of workout, you’d run a mile or two warm up, hit your tempo pace, hold it for a shorter period of time, then run an easy recovery period, followed by another round of two of tempo cycles.  These workouts can require a little more focus, but they can help break up a challenging run, and also allow you to get more cumulative time at tempo pace without defeating the lactate threshold purpose.
  • Long Run – For the most adventurous runners, you can designate a portion of your long run to a tempo pace.  This type workout shouldn’t be done every week, as most long runs should be easy efforts.  But sprinkled throughout a training plan, runners can carve out the middle 3-6 miles of a long run to be run at tempo pace.  For a 10 mile long, run for example, you might want to run easy for 3 miles, tempo pace for 4 miles, and then easy for the last 3.
  • Tempo workouts can be run for distance, meaning you would have a certain distance that you want to hold your tempo pace.  For example, a traditional tempo workout for distance might be a 1 mile warm up, 2 miles at tempo pace, followed by a 2 mile cool down.
  • They can also be run for time instead.  Again, you’d plan to hold your tempo pace for a designated period of time, rather than distance.  For a cyclical tempo workout for time, you might plan to run a 15 min warm up, followed by three sets of 12 min tempo pace with 3 min recoveries, and then a 20 min cool down.

With all of that in mind, I want to share my three favorite tempo workouts.  If you have questions about how to program tempo runs into your running program, or would like an individualized coaching plan to help you meet your goals, feel free to reach out via my Contact Me Page.

My Favorite Tempo Workouts

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