How To Run A Tempo Workout

How To Run A Tempo Workout: A Complete Guide

Tempo workouts are a staple in running training plans, spanning distances from 5K races to ultramarathons. Despite their widespread use, many runners find them challenging to pace correctly. In this article, we’ll explore a practical approach to running a tempo workout.

What Is a Tempo Workout?

A tempo run involves sustaining a continuous effort at a moderate to moderately hard intensity. While some variations include longer intervals with short rests, the overall intensity remains within the moderate range. The duration and intensity of a tempo run can be adjusted to align with specific training objectives. For instance, it might consist of a brief but intense 20-minute threshold effort or a more moderate 45-60 minute run at marathon pace. For a deeper dive into the science behind tempo runs, you can refer to this blog post.

However, it’s essential to clarify what a tempo workout is not: it’s not a time trial. The goal is not to push yourself to your absolute maximum speed for a set period. During a tempo run, you should finish with the sensation that you could maintain that pace for a bit longer. Pushing too hard during tempo runs can turn them into strenuous efforts, requiring more recovery time. Over time, overly intense tempo runs can hinder aerobic development, increase the risk of injury, and lead to burnout.


How to Execute a Tempo Workout

Similar to interval workouts, a tempo session should commence with a warm-up and conclude with a cooldown. A 10-20 minute easy-paced run before the tempo segment serves to prepare your muscles and initiate aerobic metabolism. Following the main tempo portion, a 10-20 minute cooldown facilitates a gradual shift from exertion to recovery. For marathon or ultramarathon training, extending the cooldown can enhance overall training volume and enhance fatigue tolerance.

During the actual tempo workout, the core concept is straightforward: maintain a moderate to moderately hard effort for the designated time. It’s crucial to stay within the prescribed intensity range. Pacing a tempo workout requires more control than interval training, but, like any skill in running, it improves with practice, eventually becoming intuitive.

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Determining the Right Effort Level

What does it feel like to sustain a moderate to moderately hard effort? In terms of perceived exertion, this intensity level typically falls within a 5-7 on a scale of 10. It’s more challenging than an easy-paced run, but it should feel significantly more sustainable than the effort exerted during short intervals. On the lower end of this spectrum, it’s akin to half marathon to marathon effort (depending on your fitness level). Towards the higher end, it’s similar to the effort you’d put forth during a one-hour race. Many tempo runs come with specific guidelines, such as aiming for marathon effort or an hour-race effort. If it feels excessively demanding, you’re likely running too fast for a tempo workout.


Key Principles for Pacing a Tempo Workout

Err on the side of caution: It’s better to run slightly slower than to risk pushing yourself too hard to test your fitness.

Begin with controlled effort: Start with a slightly controlled pace for the first few minutes and gradually ease into the desired effort level.

Maintain a moderate to moderately hard effort: Throughout the run, you should be able to speak in short phrases, indicating that the effort remains manageable.

Stay in control: Regularly assess your effort level during the run. Conduct a talk test or check your breathing every 3-5 minutes to ensure you’re within the target intensity range.


Avoiding Common Mistakes in Tempo Workouts

Despite the apparent simplicity of tempo run workouts, there are some common pitfalls to steer clear of. If you’ve made any of these errors in the past, view them as opportunities for improvement. While you can’t change your past training, you can make the necessary adjustments moving forward.

1. Treating Tempo Workouts as Fitness Tests

It’s essential to remember that workouts are primarily meant for building fitness, not for testing it. Unless a deliberate time trial is scheduled in your training plan, pushing too hard during tempo runs can be counterproductive. If you find yourself tempted to push the pace, remind yourself of the workout’s purpose. If that’s not enough, consider adjusting your watch settings so you can’t see your pace and focus solely on maintaining a moderate to moderately hard effort level.

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2. Forcing a Specific Pace

While tools like the VDOT calculator are valuable for training, they have limitations. They can provide pacing guidelines, but it’s crucial to understand that these suggested paces should not be rigidly adhered to in every workout. Your body isn’t a machine that operates solely based on input pace and output adaptation. Factors like weather conditions, training fatigue, terrain, and other variables can influence the appropriate pace for a given effort level in a tempo run. Instead of trying to force a specific pace, consider prioritizing effort and allowing paces to vary, especially when dealing with uphill segments, hot weather, or windy conditions.

3. Overemphasizing Tempo Workouts

While tempo runs offer substantial benefits for long-distance runners, they shouldn’t be the sole focus of your training regimen. While tempo runs can provide an aerobic stimulus, they don’t deliver the same neuromuscular advantages as shorter interval workouts or hill repeats. To ensure a well-rounded training plan, incorporate variety and periodization. Your training approach may involve fewer tempo runs in the months leading up to a race and more as the race date approaches. Diversifying your workouts can help you become a more versatile and adaptable runner.


Examples of Tempo Workouts

A tempo run can be quite straightforward, with a solid choice being 20-30 minutes at a moderately hard effort. However, you can infuse creativity and variety into your tempo runs to keep them engaging and challenging.

Progressive Tempo Run

This slight variation of the traditional tempo workout is suitable for intermediate to advanced athletes looking to fine-tune their race-day pacing skills. Before attempting this variation, it’s important to have good control over pacing during a standard tempo run.

The progressive tempo run starts at your usual effort level, typically equivalent to an hour-race effort. However, during the final 5-10 minutes, you gradually increase the effort, pushing it slightly higher, approaching critical speed, which is akin to a 30-40 minute race effort. The key here is maintaining control; it should still be a demanding but manageable effort.

Sample: Begin with a 20-minute warm-up, followed by a 30-minute tempo run (with the first 25 minutes at an hour-race effort and the final 5 minutes at a 30-40 minute race effort), and finish with a 20-minute cooldown.

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Tempo + Short Intervals (Flat or Uphill)

There are situations, particularly during peak weeks of marathon-specific training, where fitting both interval and tempo runs into your schedule can be challenging. In such cases, combining short intervals with a tempo run in a single session can provide a neuromuscular stimulus while consolidating the training stress into one workout.

Similar to the previous variation, this workout is best suited for intermediate to advanced runners. The key to success here is to avoid going too hard during the intervals. The aim is to stimulate biomechanical adaptation, not push yourself to breakdown. Keep the intervals short, lasting 30-60 seconds, with recovery periods of 1:1 to 1:2 in duration. You can perform these intervals on flat terrain or incorporate uphill intervals, which can be beneficial for those prone to injury.

Sample: Start with a 20-minute warm-up, followed by a 20-minute tempo run at an hour-race effort. Then, take a 3-4 minute recovery jog before completing 4-6 x 30-second intervals at 5K effort, each followed by a 60-second jog. Finish with a 20-minute cooldown.

The Hilly Tempo

For runners preparing for trail races or hilly road events, mastering pacing on hills during race day is crucial. Pushing too hard on inclines too early can lead to rapid fatigue due to the buildup of excess lactate and metabolites. This tempo run variation simply places the standard tempo run on hilly terrain. You can choose rolling hills and aim for consistent effort on both uphills and downhills, understanding that your pace will naturally vary. Alternatively, you can opt for an uphill route, particularly if you’re training for a trail race.

Sample: Commence with a 20-minute warm-up, followed by a 20-minute tempo run on rolling hills at an hour-race effort. Conclude with a 20-minute cooldown.


Final Words – How To Run A Tempo Workout

It’s important to remember that a single tempo workout is just one piece of the puzzle in your training plan. Consistency in your training is key. You may have tempo runs that feel fantastic and others that pose challenges. Avoid placing excessive emphasis on any individual workout and instead focus on the bigger picture of your overall training regimen.

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