Though recognized as a key training tool tempo runs rarely get fully explained or understood by coaches and athletes alike. There are lots of slang and semi-technical terms to describe these efforts-steady state runs, tempo runs, high aerobic runs, lactate threshold runs, aerobic threshold runs...the list could go on for at least a paragraph. But no matter how many names we have for the same thing tempo, runs still remain one of the most abused and misunderstood workouts on the runner's menu of training choices. In this article the concept of tempo runs will be explored from coaching theory after which I will offer some practical tips about the nuts and bolts of the how and when to use tempo runs to improve your running.
Tempo runs are essentially runs ranging anywhere from 10k pace (for slower runners) to marathon pace (for world class athletes). When you go out for a tempo run you will benefit from the workout in a couple of clear-cut ways:
- you will train your body to withstand the fatigue of faster running without the risk of injury
- you will begin training your body's physiological systems so that later in the year it can run longer without "dying"
- you train your body's muscles and cardiovascular system to remove and process waste products more efficiently and effectively
- your body increases its ability to metabolize oxygen from a highly glycolitic blood supply without decreasing its performance
A bit of history might help show where tempo running came from and how we have arrived at our current ideas of using this training technique. In the 1940's and 1950's interval training was essentially the only type of running athletes used to build their fitness levels. It wasn't until Percy Cerutty and Arthur Lydiard advocated longer, continuous runs that interval-based training was questioned at great length. After Lydiard's athletes demonstrated the tremendous benefits of aerobic development the American coach Bill Bowerman-and later his protégé, Bill Dellinger-would fine tune the use of longer aerobic running. Throughout the 1970's and in the early 1980's Dellinger's athletes dominated American track and field. One of his key workouts was the tempo run. Dellinger described the tempo run as a "hurt but hold" effort.
With the rise of exercise physiology around the same time Dellinger worked closely with Athletics West, an elite group of athletes based on the West Coast. During this time exercise scientists discovered that tempo running was the missing key to bridging short, speed-based interval training with long, slow distance (LSD). Jack Daniels came to suggest that a tempo run could be defined as "A tempo run is nothing more than 20 minutes of steady running at threshold pace." (http://www.runningtimes.com/issues/99dec/tempo.htm) This "threshold pace" corresponds roughly with the speed you can run all out for approximately one hour. It generally is 90% maximum heart rate.
Daniels nailed this effort down to a specific "speed zone" and later developed several experimentally-based performance charts for easily determining the ideal pace to train for tempo runs. He advocates a few basic approaches to training at this intensity:
- Run short intervals at threshold pace with very brief recoveries. For example, a 10k runner might run 5 to 6 times a mile with a one-minute jog or rest between runs.
- Depending on what event you are training for, Daniels offers various lengths most ideal for race preparation:
- 1500-3000m runners should shoot for 1000m to 1 mile repeats (or 3-5 minutes) with one minute rests in between
- 5000-15000m runners should aim to run 1 mile to 3 mile repeats (or 5-15 minute repeats) w/ one to 3 minute rests in between
- Half-marathon and marathon runners should work on running 1 to 4 mile repeats (or 5-20 minute repeats) with 1-5 minutes of rest in between.
- For shorter distance runners (1500m-15000m) Daniels advocates regular 20-minute tempo runs one week alternated with sets of repeated intervals the following week. 20 minutes should be the upper time limit because he documented researched showing the benefits of running longer than this were minimal at best.
One down side of Daniels' research is that he marks very distinct zones. Several other coaches recognize finer shades of "tempo" running that can benefit athletes across the board. Tony Benson, for example, developed a system closely resembling Arthur Lydiard's build-up pattern. Within this phase he has athletes run long aerobic efforts of anywhere from 25 to 50 minutes at 85-87% maximum heart rate. Benson's training program assumes this pace to be roughly equivalent to marathon race pace.
For Benson, runners should approach these longer aerobic runs based largely on their ability level and mileage loads. Below is a list of distances and the corresponding times one should ideally be able to run before using "tempo" runs of various lengths.
Distance 10k Time 4 miles 60:00 8000m (5 miles) 50:00 10000m (6.2 miles) 40:00 12000m (7.5 miles) 35:00 16000m (10 miles) 31:30
According to Benson, a 10k runner who can run 33:00 should focus on running 12000m tempo runs. Once this runner reaches the range of 31:30 they can move up to 16000m at marathon pace.
Benson does encourage marathoners and more experienced runners to use longer time periods-of up to one hour and fifteen minutes-but the paces and heart rates of these efforts are not as strenuous. These longer effort are almost mirror images of another Bill Bowerman protégé, Bob Williams. Bob Williams coined the term, marathon pace, as he and Jack Daniels use it, to describe runs of 10 to 15 miles at goal pace for the marathon. Runners training specifically for the marathon start out running a given distance, often relatively short, perhaps one third of the marathons length (8 miles or 13km) and build up to 15m (25km) at goal marathon pace. It is believed that these paces ideally correspond with 80% of one's max heart rate.
As you can see, there is really an endless variety of training that you can do at "threshold" paces. However, as with any training program, it is invaluable to use these workouts as wisely and efficiently as possible. Here are some of the key things to consider when using tempo runs:
- How much are you running every week? Ideally, you never want to run more than 16-20% of your mileage at tempo paces. For a marathoner doing 120 miles a week, that might mean one workout of 6 x 1 mile of repeats and a 10 mile marathon pace run whereas for a high school girl running 30 miles a week, that might mean as little as 3 miles and as much as 6. Be sure to scale these efforts to your level of experience and need.
- What are you training for? As I touched on earlier, the event you are training for will help identify how much tempo running will truly benefit you. Usually the longer the race the more important tempo runs become for full-preparation. However, even for middle distance runners, tempo runs are an excellent transition tool from base or early season easy mileage to more challenging workouts later in the year.
- What are your strengths and weakness? Every runner is unique and you must figure out what truly helps you and what hurts you. I know that tempo runs and long intervals are the backbone of good training for me. Other runners have to build their race readiness on natural speed. Be sure to know what kind of runner you are before you take something good too far.
- Know your paces. There are dozens of tools, both online and off, that can help you figure out just how fast you need to run these workouts. If you need references, e-mail me.
- Know why you are doing what you are doing. I remember a workout in college where we ran 20 x 400m at 80 seconds. We rested 30 seconds before we took off again. My team mates and I used to race this workout never understanding why we did it. 80 seconds was too slow to be "speed work", but he insisted we do it. He never explained we were doing tempo runs. Even short intervals can be tempo workouts, they just have to have short enough recoveries. Had we known that running too fast was self-defeating, we might have slowed down. This is where tip # 1 comes into play.
- Have a game plan. Tempo runs are not easy. They hurt and will challenge you mentally. To simply start running hard and figure it will be a tempo run might miss the point of the session. If you run 20 minutes at marathon pace, you might get 25 percent of the benefit of the potential workout whereas running 20 minutes at threshold pace would do the trick. Know beforehand so you don't miss the mark and waste another good day of training.
- Use tempo runs late in the season. One of the biggest mistakes younger athletes make is to overuse anaerobic interval work. This means hard 200's, 300's, 400's, 600's and 800's all season long. These workouts should be done briefly. Once you have developed your Max VO2, use tempo runs or threshold "cruise" intervals to maintain fitness without killing your legs. By the end of the season too much anaerobic work will destroy a winter (or a summer's) worth of hard work if taken to extremes.
- Mix it up. Jack Daniels offers an interesting suggestion for using tempo runs and interval training late in the year. The two choices are:
- Do a workout where you run 2 miles with each 400m segment getting faster until the last one is at 3km goal pace. After this you run 2-4 x 1000-1200m runs at threashold pace and you wrap up the session with 4-6 x 200m runs at mile goal pace. You touch all the based but you don't burn yourself out.
- Run 2-4 x 1600m at tempo pace, 2-4 x 1000-1200m at interval pace (5k race pace) and you finish this with 4-6 x 200m at mile pace.
- One word: fartleks. Early in the season it is a good idea to use short speed (strides) and tempo paced fartleks to refamiliarize yourself with some slightly faster running. This will reduce the degree of injury risk that might come with faster intervals while offering you the benefits of some quality work.
Happy running and best wishes.