Lower Your Race Time with Tempo Running

Tempo running is a relatively new concept created in the late Nineties by Jack Daniels, PhD. Even so, this training method has quickly become standard practice for runners looking to decrease their race times. This type of training conditions the body to sustain intense cardiovascular activity, and builds discipline, patience, and character.

So, what exactly is tempo training and what is it used for? Tempo training makes a runner faster over the long haul (half marathon and longer distances typically). It is achieved by training just under anaerobic threshold pace for an extended period of time. This makes the body more efficient at clearing away lactic acid (the stuff that makes your muscles burn and extremely fatigued) and utilizing oxygen.

Let’s start off with the easiest part of this equation, time. How long should a tempo run be? Although there are many variations to tempo running today, the original concept limits a tempo run to no more than twenty minutes.

Now, on to the more technical stuff, anaerobic threshold pace. When training at higher efforts, the body produces lactic acid. Lactic acid is the by-product of anaerobic (without or lack of oxygen) glucose metabolism. Anaerobic threshold pace is the pace at which the body can no longer clear lactic acid from the muscles fast enough, causing lactic acid build up which decreases performance.

The most simple and clear cut definition of anaerobic threshold pace is, 90% of maximum heart rate. Theoretically, maximum heart rate is the maximum number of times a person’s heart can beat in one minute. This number is different for everyone. An easy way to calculate your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from 220. For example, if I am 25 years old, my maximum heart rate is 195. 90% of my maximum heart rate is 176, which would also be my anaerobic threshold pace or effort level. Using the heart rate model, I would train at an effort level to get my heart rate just below 176 bpm (170 to 175 bpm for example) for 20 minutes if I wanted to do a tempo run.

Tracking heart rate by taking pulse (i.e. from the neck) every so often is conceivable, but also very inconvenient. I highly recommend using a heart rate monitor when tempo running. They’re more accurate and allow a person to maintain form. Some heart rate monitors can be programmed to a specific heart rate or heart rate range, and alarm the runner when he or she has fallen below or exceeded it. When using a heart rate monitor to do tempo runs, I usually set it to 85% – 89% of MHR.

There are many variations to tempo training out there today, however. This is no surprise because each runner and each race is different and requires different strategies. Below are a few key pointers on tempo training that I’ve learned from talking to a number of runners with different backgrounds. Use them as guidelines to build your own tempo runs.

  • The most important part of tempo running is to maintain a consistent pace throughout the entire session. There should be very little or no variation between time per mile. You must stay disciplined to not slow down. You must also stay disciplined to not go faster than your planned pace, even if you are able to.


  • Stride length should be longer than normal. Stay light on your feet and make your foot transitions as smooth and quick as possible. All the while, stay relaxed. Take long, deep, rhythmic breaths.


  • Although the original concept of tempo running limits a tempo run to twenty minutes, many runners, especially long distance runners such as marathoners, feel that this is not enough training for the distances they cover. I personally disagree because twenty minutes at just under anaerobic threshold is a vigorous workout that pushes the threshold up a little more each time. Although the training heart rate percentage is consistent, you’re still running faster as the ceiling rises. If not careful, exceeding 20 minutes increases risk for injuries. However, I do appreciate the value of training at different paces for different lengths of time because it trains the runner how and when to rev up or shift down. I have found that many tempo training programs consist of 20-60 minute sessions done once a week, every 1-3 weeks.


  • Beginners may not be able to run for 20 minutes at tempo pace, simply because their bodies are not conditioned enough to maintain it. In this case, they’ll have to start small. For example, I had to start with 5 minutes my first week, then increase that time by 1-2 minutes every 1-2 weeks. However, with due diligence I was able to reach the minimum 20 minutes in a few months. Consider interval running, a form of speed training that alternates through cycles of high intensity running and low intensity running. It appeals to many runners because it is both physically and psychologically less demanding, but still serves as an excellent stepping stone to sustainable tempo running.


  • For those who prefer not to use heart rate monitors, they will have to use different methods of gauge. Below are some of the common ways runners define tempo pace.

         15-30 seconds slower than 10K race pace.

         30-45 seconds slower than 5K race pace.

         One minute slower than one mile race pace.

         Many marathoners find that tempo training is typically one hour at 15K (9.3 miles) to half marathon (13.1 miles) pace. Half marathoners to 15K-ers tend to train for one hour at 10K pace for one hour once a week, every 1-2 weeks.


  • Although tempo running is designed to address longer races, many runners that I’ve spoke to use it for a variety of distances. Here are the typical tempo workouts in distance that many runners do on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

         3 miles if you want to decrease 5K race times.

         4-6 miles if you want to decrease 10K race times.

         6-8 miles if you want to decrease half-marathon times.

         8-10 miles if you want to decrease marathon times.


  • A simpler approach many runners use is run only one quarter to one half of the race distance at actual race pace once per week, every 1-4 weeks. They usually replace their weekly slow long runs with this type of tempo run.


  • Tempo running is often approached informally. Find a difficult but controllable and comfortable pace and stick with it as long as you can. You should be heaving but not gasping for air. A friend of mine likes to keep counting to ten at a consistent speed, keeping his footsteps in sync with each second. Alternatively, take an mp3 player and run to the beat of your favorite tunes.


  • Always warm up for 5-10 minutes at slow to regular pace before you hit your tempo pace as there is an increased risk of injuries when running at higher speeds.


  • If you don’t have a heart rate monitor or speed-distance monitor, you’ll have to map out your course in advance and identify mile markers (or better yet, half mile markers). Road Runner Sports has a cool tool that will allow you to plot your route on an interactive map. You can access it by visitingwww.roadrunnersports.com/traininglog. Alternatively, you can use a regulation track at your local high school, university, or fitness center. Four laps equals one mile. Take a basic stopwatch with you so you can stay on pace. Another good alternative is by using a treadmill. Boring, but simple and accurate because you can program the treadmill to challenge you at different speeds, times, inclines, and heart rates (the more sophisticated ones that work with heart rate transmitters).


  • Never go too hard. The purpose of tempo running is to make you faster over longer distances, not to make you a speed demon of shorter distances. For one thing, running above lactate threshold improves short distance speed (i.e. sprinting), not long distance endurance. Secondly, you can never maintain a pace above lactate threshold for very long. It’s physiologically impossible because lactic acid will eventually build in excess and stop you in your tracks. Lastly, you won’t be able to find a good rhythmic pace when you run above lactate threshold. Muscles become too fatigued, which makes your form sluggish and breathing inconsistent.

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