Tempo Run: A Simple, Effective Way to Improve Your Race Time

Whether you’re an avid marathoner or a weekend jogger, tempo runs can transform your training. While many runners have heard the term “tempo run,” some have misconceptions about what it really is. And many make mistakes during tempo runs by running them too quickly, which can make it harder to achieve your goals with a consistent pace.

At the same time, taking a tempo run too slowly can prevent you from reaching milestones, which is especially crucial when you’re training for a race. Understanding the importance of tempo runs can help you incorporate them into your routine for better running, both in training and on race day. Here’s why tempo runs matter, and how to master the art of race-pace running.

What Are Tempo Runs?

Tempo runs mean different things to different people — some see it as a slow and steady run, others see it as an opportunity to test out race pace. That’s why it’s important to get clear on what tempo runs really are and how they fit into the picture of tracking your long-term health.

A tempo run is a training run completed at a pace 25-30 seconds slower per mile than your target 5k pace, and at 85%-90% of your target heart rate. In other words, it’s a pace that you could sustain for an hour, but don’t. Many coaches describe the feeling of tempo runs as “comfortably hard.”

Depending on the length of your race and your long-term goals, tempo runs last between 20-45 minutes on average. These challenging, but not impossible training runs are based on lactate threshold, the point at which the body accumulates more lactate than it can clear, producing waste byproducts as a result. This is when you’ll start to feel an overwhelming burning sensation and you’ll want to stop. It’s also when mental toughness becomes key to maintaining sustained tempo.

Benefits of Tempo Runs

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Lactate threshold can be easily calculated with a test. Run a 30-minute timed run, then measure your average heart rate for the last 20 minutes. This number is your lactate threshold. This is an important measure in tempo run workouts and long-distance running not only because it shows where you are now, but because it provides a baseline that can be improved through training.

“Running at an intensity very close to your lactate threshold will provide the training adaptations that will delay the onset of blood lactate accumulation and, in doing so, increase the running pace that you can maintain for a given effort level,” explains James Dunn of the Kinetic Revolution blog.

While increasing your lactate threshold is doable, it isn’t exactly easy. Dunn recommends incorporating one lactate threshold running workout into your weekly schedule (alongside adequate rest time).

The simplest way to complete a tempo run is to run consistently for 30-60 minutes at your lactate threshold. You can also run at 85%-90% of your maximum heart rate.

Tempo Workouts for a Marathon Training Plan

Many people run marathons without a target time and are in it simply for the sake of accomplishing it. While it’s certainly fine to not have a time goal, incorporating tempo runs into your training plan is important for anyone running a long-distance race or marathon, explains coach David Chaflen.

“Only doing three or four runs beyond the half-marathon distance in preparation for a marathon does leave you underprepared — and you may need to acknowledge that when you set your own expectations.”

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He says that the biggest mistake runners make when running marathons is taking their long practice runs too slowly, which makes it harder to finish the run on race day. Tempo runs push runners to a higher standard, leaving them better prepared to complete the race and hit their targets. If you’re not fond of speed workouts, committing to regular tempo workouts throughout your training can help you finish longer races at a faster pace.

The easiest way to incorporate an effective tempo run into your training schedule is to try a simple format: 5 minutes at an easy warmup, 30 minutes at your 10K or half marathon pace, and 5 minutes back at the same easy pace to cool down. When you need something more difficult, you can swap the 30 minutes for four 1600-meter intervals at the same pace. Jog in between these intervals at a recovery rate.

Yasso Workouts

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An effective marathon training plan will include multiple long runs over 20 miles, says running coach Jay Johnson. This ensures you’ll log multiple runs between 14 and 20 miles by race day, helping effectively prepare your body for the marathon.

He also suggests a running workout called Yasso — 800-meter repeats on a track. To get a target time for your Yasso workout, take the number of your target marathon time in hours and minutes (3 hours, 40 minutes, for example) and put that number into minutes and seconds (3 minutes and 40 seconds). In between and after Yasso workouts, an 800-meter run at marathon pace can help you recover.

“In between these workouts, you should be able to do some other high-level aerobic running. Examples include faster running done at 10K race pace or half-marathon race pace, or simply running marathon pace with a focus on relaxation,” Johnson adds.

Adding Yasso workouts to your marathon training plan can ensure you effectively predict and target your race pace.

Fartlek Runs

One of the best training runs that also increases lactate threshold is the fartlek. This tempo and lactate threshold run requires you to alternate between 2 minutes at 10k pace and 4 minutes at marathon pace. While you should start this run at 30 minutes early in the training cycle, you can gradually work up to 90 minutes the more you do the fartlek.

If you’re running on a track or road, consider a marathon, lactate-threshold training, compound set. “Run 1,600 meters or one mile at 10K pace and then slow to marathon pace for 3,200 meters or two miles. Start with two sets early in your cycle and gradually increase to three sets for an intermediate runner or five sets for a highly experienced runner,” says Rick Morris at Running Planet.

When you’re finished, you can recover with 3-5 minutes of rest. Start with five minutes and gradually lower your rest time to three minutes as you increase sets over time.

Tempo Runs for Trail Running

Tempo run training programs for trail runners will be slightly different, as they’ll involve technical details around terrain. According to David Roche at Trail Runner, the steady freddie is one training run that involves thirty minutes at lactate threshold on a terrain similar to the race terrain. While this workout is difficult, it should feel achievable. (If not, you’re running too fast.)

Another run is the crooked buzzsaw, which requires three minutes uphill running at lactate threshold, repeated 8-12 times. “This workout is relatively low stress with reduced pounding, so is a great option for low volume runners or runners over 50,” adds Roche.

Mastering the Tempo Run for Faster Running

While many people are in disagreement about what a tempo run is, the science shows that this training works. From helping increase your lactate threshold to making marathons more achievable, tempo runs are essential to your long-distance running regimen.

While tempo runs aren’t as hard as a race, they’re meant to keep you comfortably uncomfortable so you can increase your endurance and reach your goals as a distance runner.

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