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The Impact of Tempo Running on Enhancing Speed and Efficiency in Running

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Heavy panting, perspiration dripping, thoughts racing: Jogging enhances your physical and mental strength by enhancing your cardiovascular well-being and challenging you to overcome discomfort. However, tempo runs, a specific form of running that you complete at a demanding pace, unlock another level of resilience and toughness that you may not achieve from long and steady runs or brief and intense sprints. Whether you aim to enhance your endurance or achieve a personal best in your upcoming race, tempo runs are a fantastic method for developing your tolerance for the challenging aspects of running swiftly.

Here’s all the information you require about tempo runs, their advantages, and how to include them in your training.

What Are Tempo Runs?

Also known as a threshold run or a lactic acid threshold run, the term “tempo” actually denotes the intensity of the run. In a tempo run, you’re jogging at an intensity of approximately 8 or 9 on a scale of 1 to 10 on the rate of perceived exertion scale, or 85 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate (the highest heart rate you reach while jogging), as indicated by Steve Stonehouse, a certified jogging coach and director of education at STRIDE.

In other words, tempo runs are incredibly demanding, so you’ll need to gradually increase the duration of jogging at a tempo pace. They are longer than sprints but shorter than traditional long runs. If you’re new to tempo runs — or jogging in general — you should begin by alternating between intervals of high intensity and a slower, more comfortable pace, according to Stonehouse.

“For instance, if you’re completing a three-mile jog, the initial mile should be at an easy pace, the second mile at a tempo pace, and then the third mile at an easy pace again,” he explains. “So you essentially embed shorter tempo phases in your workout.”

On the other hand, more experienced joggers may be able to sustain the tempo pace for longer distances, such as three or four miles at a time.

“The term ‘comfortably hard’ is frequently used to describe tempo runs,” says Stonehouse. “It’s not an all-out sprint, but it’s that threshold between an aerobic pace (a pace you can comfortably maintain for an extended period) and an anaerobic pace (a brief burst of intense effort). The workout is performed at the threshold of transitioning from an aerobic to an anaerobic pace.”

Tempo runs can also be executed at a slightly lower intensity — around 75 percent of your maximum effort — when maintaining that pace for longer durations, according to Danny Mackey, head coach of the Brooks Beasts Track Club, a Seattle-based team of professional runners.

To provide context, “a customary rhythm is approximately 25 to 30 seconds per mile slower than your 5K speed for a duration of 20 to 30 minutes,” affirms Mackey.

How to Calculate Your Tempo Speed

The optimal method to determine your tempo run speed is to utilize a heart rate monitor or a speed calculator, which can conveniently be found on the internet. To employ a heart monitor, jog 1.5 miles at your racing pace, take note of your heart rate, and then compute what is 75 to 85 percent of that intensity to acquire your tempo speed range, recommends Mackey. For instance, if you are jogging 1.5 miles at your maximum heart rate, which is approximately 160 bpm, then your tempo speed would hover around 136 bpm (85 percent).

An alternate way to calculate tempo speed is to jog a mile at 70 to 75 percent of your maximum intensity, as assessed with your heart rate monitor, and then escalate your pace, says Stonehouse. For example, if you jog a mile at 112 bpm (70 percent of your maximum heart rate of 160 bpm), you could heighten your velocity so that you reach about 120 (75 percent) to 136 bpm (85 percent) for your tempo speed.

“Monitor your heart rate and increase your pace until your heart rate reaches those mid to high 80s [in terms of percentage of maximum heart rate],” explains Stonehouse. “If you notice it surpasses 90 percent, decelerate slightly and maintain that speed as long as you can. Initially, this might only be a quarter or half a mile. As you become more fit, you can gradually extend it.”

Using a heart rate monitor or a smartwatch can provide you with real-time feedback on whether you should decelerate or intensify your pace. With that information, you can adjust your speed and effort as necessary. It is advisable to reassess your maximum effort every three weeks so that you can adapt the pace of your tempo runs accordingly, says Mackey.

Another aspect to bear in mind is that your tempo speed might vary from day to day depending on various factors, such as the quality of your sleep the previous night or your level of stress at work. “Your tempo run this Thursday might differ from your tempo run next Thursday,” says Stonehouse. One day, I might discover that running at an 8:45 per mile speed is my ideal tempo run speed, but I might encounter a day where I’m stressed and that 8:45 [per mile speed] requires a 90 percent effort. In that situation, I would need to decelerate.”

The Advantages of Tempo Runs

While tempo runs may not sound particularly exciting, incorporating these high-effort runs into your routine yields numerous benefits. Here are the primary reasons why you should include tempo runs in your training.

Tempo Runs Enhance Your Aerobic Fitness

Because tempo runs are performed at that “threshold” speed, you are conditioning your body to run faster for a longer duration, thereby enhancing your capacity to run at demanding paces. While tempo runs may not drastically reduce your race time, they can undoubtedly enhance it because you are able to sustain a faster speed for a longer period.

“[Tempo runs] support race-specific, high-repetition type training,” says Mackey. “Many athletes engage in HIIT, and while that is beneficial, it is nowhere near as effective as when you combine that training with tempo work,” he adds.

They Aid in Lactate Clearance

When you engage in high-intensity exercise, your body generates lactic acid, a byproduct of glycolysis, which is the process that generates energy during intense physical activity, as stated by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Lactic acid consists of lactate and hydrogen ions, which lower the pH of muscle tissue. The decrease in muscle tissue pH may result in a burning sensation during intense exercise, according to NASM. By performing tempo runs, you enhance your aerobic fitness, allowing your body to process and clear the lactate produced by your muscles more efficiently, as explained by Mackey.

“In essence, it takes longer for fatigue to set in and for the deep muscle burn to occur,” Mackey said. “Lactate is a byproduct of anaerobic effort. An excess of lactate causes discomfort and burning, preventing you from running at high speeds. Therefore, the higher your aerobic fitness level, the better you can support and withstand intense anaerobic exercise.”

Tempo Runs Enhance Mental Stamina

The mental aspect of training also benefits from tempo runs. These runs help sharpen your mental focus due to their extended duration and high-intensity nature. Regardless of the race you are preparing for, tempo runs foster mental resilience and enable you to surpass discomfort.

Who Should Incorporate Tempo Runs?

Tempo runs offer advantages to individuals of all fitness levels, from beginners to experienced runners. However, it is crucial to gradually integrate tempo runs into your routine. If you are new to running or have not previously performed tempo runs, you cannot simply start with a three-mile tempo run. Instead, begin with intervals, alternating between tempo pace and an easier pace.

Consider whether you have a specific race goal, such as a 10K, half marathon, or full marathon. Individuals training for a race can benefit more from incorporating tempo runs into their regimen compared to those who incorporate running solely as part of their general workout routine.

“For recreational runners, one may argue whether there is a need to vary the intensity of their workouts,” Stonehouse stated. “The argument could be made that they may not require it since they are not training for anything specific. They only run a few times a week, so it may be less urgent for them to engage in higher intensities. However, I always remember my coach telling me, ‘If all you do are slow, long runs, you will become a slow, long-distance runner.'”

TL;DR: The inclusion of tempo runs in your regular routine depends on your specific goals. If you run for enjoyment and have no concerns about setting personal records, you can choose to skip tempo runs unless you enjoy a good challenge. However, if you aim to achieve specific race times, incorporating tempo runs into your training is highly recommended.

How to Integrate Tempo Runs into Your Routine

Doing one tempo run a week is sufficient to observe results, according to Mackey. Modifying the distance and intensity of your tempo runs can also be beneficial.

“I would alter the varieties [of tempo runs],” states Mackey. “For one week, you may engage in tempo mile repeats. Another week, attempt a 20- to 30-minute tempo run. Then, have a week without tempo, followed by a longer, slower tempo week. This will reveal your areas of improvement and indicate what you should focus on in your workouts.”

An alternative method is to perform a four-mile tempo run at a comfortably challenging, consistent pace for one week. In the following week, complete two-mile repeats at the tempo pace for however many repetitions you desire. For some individuals, this may mean two two-mile repeats, while for others, it could be three.

“You would run two miles at the tempo pace, rest for approximately five or six minutes, and then run another two miles at the tempo pace,” explains Stonehouse.

To incorporate tempo runs into your half or full marathon training, you can divide your long runs with tempo intervals. For example, if you are running eight miles, you can utilize the first mile as your warm-up and designate miles two and three as your tempo run. Then, ease your pace to allow your heart rate to decrease and recover for a few minutes. Afterward, resume with another two-mile tempo run. Repeat this pattern until you reach eight miles, advises Stonehouse.

If you are preparing for longer races, such as a marathon, it is important to schedule adequate recovery days. “As a general guideline, always follow higher-intensity days with a recovery run,” suggests Stonehouse. “Engaging in an easy workout after a high-intensity run aids in leg recovery. The day following the recovery run should be a rest day.”

Due to the demanding nature of tempo runs, it is crucial to properly warm up before increasing your pace. Begin with a running-specific dynamic warm-up and gradually transition into your run after completing at least one mile at your warm-up pace.

Tempo runs are undeniably challenging, but the rewards they offer are worthwhile, particularly if you are training for a specific race and aiming to enhance your time. Embracing the discomfort of running at a high intensity may be just the key to overcoming mental obstacles.

“It’s similar to when you consistently swing kettlebells and develop calluses on your hands,” remarks Stonehouse. “You are conditioning your hands to withstand the strain of the workout. Likewise, tempo runs toughen you up by training your body to endure a comfortably hard pace. They enable you to build endurance for longer periods of discomfort.