How Tempo Running Can Make You a Faster, More Efficient Runner

If you want to get physically and mentally tougher, try adding tempo runs into your training.

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Heavy breathing, sweat dripping, mind racing: Running makes you physically and mentally strong by improving your cardiovascular health and challenging you to overcome discomfort. But tempo runs, a specific type of run that you complete at a challenging pace, unlock another level of toughness and resilience that you might not get from long, steady runs or short, intense sprints. Whether you're looking to improve your stamina or earn a personal record in your next race, tempo runs are an excellent way to build your tolerance for the uncomfortable parts of running fast.

Here's everything you need to know about tempo runs, their benefits, and how to incorporate them into your training.

What Are Tempo Runs?

Also known as a threshold run or a lactic acid threshold run, the word "tempo" actually refers to the intensity of the run. In a tempo run, you're running somewhere between an 8 or 9 on a scale of 1 to 10 on the rate of perceived exertion scale, or 85 to 90 percent of your max heart rate (your highest heart rate while running), says Steve Stonehouse, a certified run coach and director of education at STRIDE.

In other words, tempo runs are challenging AF, so you'll have to work up to longer stretches of running at a tempo pace. They're longer than a sprint, but they're not as long as traditional long runs. If you're new to tempo runs — or running, in general — you'll want to start by alternating between intervals of high intensity with a slower and more comfortable pace, says Stonehouse.

"For example, if you're doing a three-mile run, the first mile is going to be at an easy pace, the second mile is going to be at a tempo pace, and then the third mile is at an easy pace again," he says. "So you kind of bury shorter tempo phases in a workout."

On the other hand, more experienced runners might be able to log longer durations, such as three or four miles at a time, at a tempo pace.

"An expression that gets used a lot when you talk about tempo runs is 'comfortably hard,'" says Stonehouse. "It's not a full-out sprint, but it's that threshold of running between an aerobic pace (a pace you can comfortably hold for a long period of time) and an anaerobic pace (a short burst of hard effort). The workout is done at the threshold of changing your pace from aerobic to anaerobic."

Tempo runs can also be done at a slightly lower intensity — around 75 percent of your max effort — when you're holding that pace for longer durations, according to Danny Mackey, head coach of the Brooks Beasts Track Club, a Seattle-based team of professional runners. For perspective, "a traditional tempo is around 25 to 30 seconds a mile slower than your 5K pace for 20 to 30 minutes in duration," says Mackey.

How to Calculate Your Tempo Pace

The best way to find out your tempo run pace is to use a heart rate monitor or a pace calculator, which can easily be found online. To use a heart monitor, run 1.5 miles at your race pace, note your heart rate, and then calculate what is 75 to 85 percent of that intensity is to get to your tempo pace range, suggests Mackey. For example, if you're running 1.5 miles at your max heart rate, which is around 160 bpm, then your tempo pace would hover around 136 bpm (85 percent).

Another way you can calculate tempo pace is to run a mile at 70 to 75 percent of your max intensity, as measured with your heart rate monitor, and then increase your pace, says Stonehouse. For example, if you run a mile at 112 bpm (70 percent of your max heart rate of 160 bpm), you could bump up your speed so that you hit about 120 (75 percent) to 136 bpm (85 percent) for your tempo pace.

"Watch your heart rate monitor and speed up until your heart rate gets into those mid to high 80s [in terms of percentage of max heart rate]," explains Stonehouse. "If you notice it's going over 90 percent, slow down a little bit and hold that pace as long as you can. This might be a quarter or half a mile in the beginning. As you get fitter, you can slowly stretch it out."

Using a heart rate monitor or a smart watch can give you real-time feedback on whether you should slow down or push your pace. With that information, you can adjust pace and effort as needed. It's a good idea to re-evaluate your max effort every three weeks so you can adjust the pace of your tempo runs accordingly, says Mackey.

Another thing to keep in mind is that your tempo pace might change day to day depending on several factors, such as how well you slept the night before or whether you're stressed at work. "Your tempo run this Thursday might be different than your tempo run next Thursday," says Stonehouse. "One day, I might find that running at an 8:45 per mile pace is my ideal tempo run pace, but I might just have a day where I'm stressed and that 8:45 [per mile pace] has me at a 90 percent effort. In that case, I would need to slow down."

The Benefits of Tempo Runs

While tempo runs don't exactly sound like something you'd do backflips over, incorporating these hard-effort runs into your routine has some great payoffs. Here are the top reasons you should add tempo runs to your training.

Tempo Runs Make You More Aerobically Fit

Because tempo runs are done at that "threshold" pace, you're conditioning your body to run faster for a longer period of time, which builds your tolerance for running at hard paces. While tempo runs might not drop your race time significantly, they can certainly improve it because you're able to run at a faster pace for longer.

"[Tempo runs] support race-specific, hard-repetition type training," says Mackey. "You see a lot of athletes do HIIT and that is great, but it's not nearly as effective as when you do that training in addition to tempo work," he adds.

They Help You Clear Lactate

Whenever you exercise at a high intensity, your body produces lactic acid, a byproduct of glycolysis, which is the process your body undergoes to produce energy during intense exercise, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Lactic acid is made of lactate and hydrogen ions, which lowers the pH of muscle tissue. When the pH of your muscle tissue lowers, you may start to feel a burning sensation in your muscles during intense exercise, according to NASM.Because doing tempo runs makes you more aerobically fit, your body processes the lactate your muscles produce more effectively, explains Mackey.

"Basically, it will take longer for you to get fatigued and have the deep muscle burn," says Mackey. "Lactate is a byproduct of anaerobic work. Too much [lactate] hurts and burns, so you can't run as fast anymore. So the more aerobically fit you are, [the more] you can support and help the very intense anaerobic work."

Tempo Runs Build Mental Endurance

The toughness associated with tempo runs goes for the mental side of training too. Tempo runs will help sharpen your mental focus because the duration is long and you're running at a hard effort. No matter what type of race you're training for, tempo runs will help you stay mentally resilient and push through the discomfort.

Who Should Do Tempo Runs?

Everyone from beginners to seasoned runners can benefit from doing tempo runs. The key, however, is to ease into tempo runs. Someone who hasn't been running or has never done a tempo run isn't going to be able to lace up their shoes and do a three-mile tempo run right off the bat. Instead, start by doing intervals, alternating between tempo and easy pace.

You should also consider whether you're training for a specific race, such as a 10K, half marathon or full marathon. People who are training for a race can benefit more from doing tempo runs versus those who are running as part of their workout routine.

"For a casual runner, you could probably make the argument that, 'Hey, does this person really need to vary the intensities of their workouts?'" says Stonehouse. "You could argue that they don't because they're not specifically training for anything. They're just running a few times a week, so it's maybe a little less urgent for them to get into those higher intensities. But I always had a coach tell me, 'Hey, if all you ever do is go on long, slow runs, then all you're ever going to be is a long, slow runner.'"

TL; DR: Whether or not tempo runs should be a part of your regular routine depends on your specific goals. Are you running for fun and not worried about setting PRs? Feel free to skip tempo runs unless you love a good challenge. If you're aiming for a specific race and finish time, however, add tempo runs to your training.

How to Incorporate Tempo Runs Into Your Routine

Doing one tempo run a week is enough to see results, says Mackey. Varying the distance and dosage of your tempo runs can also be helpful.

"I would change the types [of tempo runs]," says Mackey. "One week, you could do tempo mile repeats. Another week [you could do] a 20- to 30-minute tempo run. [Then] one week is no tempo, then maybe one week of a longer, slower tempo. You will see what your growth areas are and what you need to do more of in your workouts."

Another example is you can do a four-mile tempo run at a comfortably hard, steady pace for one week. The next week, you can do two-mile repeats at tempo pace for however many rounds you'd like. For some people, that might be two two-mile repeats and for others, it's three.

"So you would run two miles at a tempo pace and then rest for about five or six minutes, and then run two miles at a tempo pace again," says Stonehouse.

Another way you can add tempo runs to your half or full marathon training is to break up long runs with tempo intervals. If you're running eight miles, for instance, you can use your first mile as your warm-up and have miles two and three as your tempo run. Then you can recover a bit by reducing your pace to allow your heart rate to come back down. After five minutes or so, you can go back to doing a tempo run for another two miles. Repeat the same pattern until you hit eight miles, says Stonehouse.

If you're training for longer races, such as a marathon, you also want to ensure you have enough recovery days baked into your schedule. "As a general rule, you always want your higher-intensity days to be followed by a recovery run," says Stonehouse. "An easy workout after a higher-intensity run helps flush your legs. Then, the day after your recovery run is your rest day."

Because tempo runs are especially challenging, make sure you're properly warmed up before pushing the pace. Start with a running-specific dynamic warm-up, then ease into your run after at least a mile at your warm-up pace.

Tempo runs are hard, yes, but their benefits are worth it, especially if you're training for a specific race and want to improve your time. Leaning into the discomfort of running at a high intensity might be just what you need to get past challenging mental blocks.

"It's like if you swing kettlebells for a while, you start getting callouses on your hands," says Stonehouse. "You're conditioning your hands to just get beat up through this workout. Well, tempo runs make you tough because you're training your body to run at a comfortably hard pace. Tempo runs allow you to train your body to tolerate that pain longer."

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