No, it's not a dance workout — but during a tempo run, you'll definitely be moving. If you want to make strides in your running progress, try adding regular tempo runs to your training. (Whether you add your own tempo with your favorite playlist is optional.)
You'll get a slightly different answer based on who you ask, but one of the more widely accepted definitions of a tempo run is from Jack Daniels, PhD, in his book Daniels' Running Formula: A tempo run is a run done at your threshold pace that can be maintained for up to 30 or 40 minutes, if necessary.
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"Tempo runs push you outside your comfort zone just enough to create the proper stimulus within the body to gain the appropriate adaptations," Melissa Kendter, UESCA running coach, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Tempo training not only improves your physical fitness but also boosts your mental strength." These adaptations teach your body how to run faster for long durations.
Whether you're a total beginner or an advanced marathon runner, adding tempo runs to your training can help you gain speed and confidence. We chatted with top running coaches to explore more on tempo runs, including what they are, the benefits and a few example sessions.
What Is a Tempo Run?
Alexa Duckworth-Briggs, a qualified running coach with UK Athletics, describes tempo runs as "a training session that focuses on running at a sustained effort, rather than a specific pace."
This sustained effort should be within your threshold intensity — this pace is faster than your half marathon race pace but slower than your 5K or 10K pace, lasting anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes.
Regular tempo runs increase your running economy and your lactate threshold, both of which translate to improved speed and endurance.
When blood lactate levels increase, running economy deteriorates and muscular fatigue builds up, as found in a small May 2016 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Increasing your lactate threshold allows you to sustain more intense efforts before blood lactate increases to the point where fatigue kicks in — and your running economy breaks down.
Benefits of Tempo Runs
1. You Can Run Faster With Less Fatigue
When you run at your lactate threshold, your body quickly accumulates blood lactate (mmol/L) — that's the burning sensation you get in your muscles. The more you run at your threshold, the more efficient your body becomes at removing the lactate.
Regular tempo run workouts enable you to improve your lactate threshold, allowing you to sustain the same pace as before but with less fatigue (less lactic acid build-up).
A September 2021 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research supports this: Researchers investigated the effect of easy runs, tempo runs and short-interval sessions on world-class long-distance running performances. Runners reported their best running times (in different events), the number of deliberate practice runs (tempo runs and short interval sessions) and easy runs after three, five and seven years of systematic training.
The tempo runs and short-interval running were important for improving performance. (Easy runs were also found to be crucial for better performances, so make sure to include plenty of easy runs in your training.)
2. Increased Confidence
When done correctly, tempo runs can be a great confidence builder. "You gain psychological and physiological benefits that prepare you for race day," Kendter says.
Knowing you have to sustain a certain pace for a set distance can be overwhelming. But by successfully running close to your target race pace during training, you gain confidence knowing you can keep up that effort for an increasing duration. You might even run farther in your tempo sessions than in your target event.
When it comes to event preparation, tempo runs are one of the best ways to simulate an event in training.
3. You Can Add Progressive Overload Easily
"Tempo runs are great because you can easily and gradually add progressive overload to them to become faster and improve your endurance over time," Kendter says.
Progressive overload, a term commonly used in the gym, involves gradually increasing the stress placed on the musculoskeletal and nervous systems to maximize muscular growth. In running, instead of growing big muscles, progressively increasing the intensity of your tempo runs allows you to run faster for longer.
"The goal of tempo running is to gradually build up your speed in order to run for longer distances at a faster pace," Kendter says.
If you notice your tempo session becoming too easy, you can progressively add more time at your tempo pace to keep it challenging. As your lactate threshold increases, you'll need to increase your pace to continuously reap the adaptations.
Are there any downsides to tempo runs?
Few, if any. If you perform them incorrectly (running too quickly without warming up, for example), you increase your injury risk.
Tempo runs should typically be run at the lower end of your threshold. If you were to run on the higher end, you risk building up too much lactic acid, which negatively impacts your recovery and causes your form to break down, which also increases your risk of injury.
If you push too hard, you might enter the VO2 max or anaerobic zones, which is different from the goal of the session. Inevitably, this further decreases your recovery ability and does not provide the desired training adaptations.
How many miles should a tempo run be?
Instead of aiming for a set distance, try running for time. This is generally good advice for training if you're a total beginner: Focus less on distance covered and more on time spent running.
What’s the difference between Fartlek and tempo runs?
Fartlek runs are a form of unstructured speed training. The term “fartlek” is Swedish and translates to “speed play.” Fartlek runs are much less structured than tempo runs and are often run at a mix of intensities, sometimes including threshold efforts.
For example, in a fartlek run, you might decide to run fast to the nearest lamppost, jog to the yellow car and then sprint to the stop sign. In comparison, tempo runs require you to maintain a set intensity throughout the entire session.
Adding Tempo Runs to Your Training
Your tempo sessions will look different depending on your running goals and target race distance. And whether you're a beginner and have never run a tempo session before or you're a seasoned marathon runner, lots of factors impact what your run will look like. The first step is determining what pace to target.
Finding Your Tempo Pace
"A common mistake runners make when trying tempo runs is focusing more on pace than effort," says Anya Culling, running coach, international athlete and 2:34 marathon runner. "Your tempo pace is individual to you, your fitness level, and your goal race — unfortunately, there's not a simple formula to work it out."
Instead, she says, it's best to focus on perceived effort. If you're marathon training, try tempo runs at a 6 out of 10 effort level. If you're training for a 5K or 10K, this should be harder, an effort around 8 out of 10.
A good rule of thumb is to aim for that "comfortably hard" intensity that Daniels, Culling and other top coaches recommend. When running at your tempo pace, you shouldn't be able to hold a full conversation, but you should be able to speak a few short phrases. If we asked you to run another mile after your session was complete, and you couldn't, then your pace was definitely too quick.
If you really prefer heart rate training, then your tempo run heart rate should be approximately 88 percent to 90 percent your maximum heart rate, according to Daniels' Running Formula.
For those just starting out, stick to the most basic tempo run of 20 minutes at your threshold pace. You can also perform shorter intervals at threshold pace, such as the recommended session below.
As you become more well-trained, you can run multiple tempo runs in a single training session with jog recoveries between. Perform a warmup and cooldown jog before and after your run.
Culling also suggests an alternative session for beginners: 5 x 5 minutes with 2 minutes of active recovery between intervals. This should be run at a slightly faster pace — "comfortably uncomfortable" is one way to think about it, says Culling.
Half Marathon and Marathon Runners
"I enjoy sustained tempo efforts," Culling says. "These are [where you] hold the pace for a singular period of time, i.e., 40 minutes at a 6 out of 10 effort." This is one of her go-to sessions and is great for those training for longer events, such as half marathons and marathons.
If you're not training for a longer event, stick to the more basic versions of the tempo run for now. You can adapt your tempo sessions as needed to help meet your goals.
For advanced runners, Duckworth-Briggs recommends a progressive tempo run; it's as mentally challenging as it is physically.
"Start with a 20-minute warmup at an easy pace. Then, begin the tempo portion by running for 20 minutes at a pace that's slightly slower than your 10K race pace. Gradually increase your pace every 5 minutes," she says.
The last 5 minutes should be around your 5K race pace, perhaps faster. Finish with a short 10 to 15 minute cooldown.