No matter what distance you run each week, whether you’re a beginner runner or pro athlete, tempo runs are an important workout to complete during training. With so many different tempo run variations, these workouts prove to be versatile and function well for any type of runner.
Tempo runs are one of my favorite workouts to challenge myself and improve during training for any race, and even when I’m running just to maintain fitness. There are few feelings more satisfying to a runner than improving each week, and the tempo run is a great tool to achieve success.
A tempo run is a term so commonly mentioned among runners, and yet it can be difficult to really determine the nitty gritty details of what you need to do in order to complete them.
You may be asking yourself, what exactly is a tempo run?
Maybe you’re just trying to figure out how to know your tempo pace (like I did for years and years!) or how to actually run a tempo run.
With so many tempo run variations and workouts out there, it can be overwhelming trying to narrow it down. Your training plan may include really specific details that are hard to understand, or may be vague and leave you questioning how to interpret the workout.
Whatever the case, here are some simple break downs of the 4 main tempo run variations. There are endless variations of tempo runs out there, but all are a part of one of these 4 main styles. Here are the variations you need to know for your next tempo run.
4 Tempo Run Variations
Tempo Runs Based on Pace
One of the most basic tempo run variations is to run based on pace. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably heard of a tempo run before and even know a little bit about it. Seeing a tempo run on your training schedule means that this will be a fast paced run – one where your push your body to run faster than normal. But how in the world are you supposed to know your tempo pace?
Is it 15 seconds faster than your long run pace? The same speed you usually run? 3 minutes faster than you’ve ever run before?
In a time where information is accessible at our fingertips, finding an answer to this question seems to be rather challenging. After struggling to find the answer to this question myself for many years, I have a simple resource for you that will answer all your questions.
Here is an excellent pace calculator to help you determine your tempo pace.
All you have to do is input a finish time for a recent race (of any distance) and it will break that down and tell you an approximate pace to aim for on your next tempo run. If you don’t have a race time you can input your mile time or 3 mile time based on recent runs.
In general, I have found my tempo pace to be about 60 to 90 seconds faster than my easy, regular run pace. Your tempo run pace should be something that you are able to sustain for multiple miles without feeling like you are going to fall over, but one that is challenging enough that you are breathing hard and unable to maintain a conversation.
It will take a bit of experimentation to determine your tempo run pace, but once you run a few tempo runs you will start to see a common speed. Next time you see a tempo run on your training plan, you can head out the door with a pace goal in mind.
Tempo Runs Based on Heart Rate
A slightly more advanced tempo run variation is to run based on heart rate. Heart rate training has really taken off these past few years, and after finally getting a Garmin GPS Watch with the heart rate monitor in the wrist, I can see why.
Analyzing my stats after a run has become even more interesting now with the added component of heart rate. It is so interesting to me to see which circumstances led to a higher heart rate, and which led to a slower one.
Another popular variation for the tempo run is to train based on your heart rate. Rather than aiming for a certain pace or distance, this tempo run variation calls for a certain heart rate zone. During a tempo run, your heart rate should be within 80-90% of your maximum heart rate, which is also known as your threshold pace.
While that statistic is great, calculating 85% of your maximum heart rate is a little more challenging because it requires you to collect data and be able to determine your maximum heart rate.
So how do you calculate your maximum heart rate?
The most frequently used method to determine your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from 220. For example, if you are 25 years old, your maximum heart rate calculation would look like this: 220 – 25 = 195. If you are 40 years old, your calculation would look like this: 220 – 40 = 180, etc.
This formula is a great starting point. Obviously heart rate varies from person to person, even if they are the same age, so this formula grants a very rough estimation of your maximum heart rate.
From here, you can further define your maximum heart rate by wearing a heart rate monitor and tracking your heart rate during a variety of runs. In general, the highest heart rate recorded during each of these runs should equal your maximum heart rate.
If you want to calculate your maximum heart rate accurately but quickly, you can experiment by exercising very hard for three minutes, resting for 3 minutes, and exercising very hard for 3 minutes a second time. Wear a heart rate monitor and give your full effort for each of the 3 minute intervals. In general, your highest heart rate during the second 3 minute interval is your maximum heart rate.
Once you know your maximum heart rate, here’s how to use it on a tempo run.
While calculating a very accurate maximum heart rate may take some time and knowledge of your body, having a general idea of your maximum heart rate is still incredibly beneficial. Once you have an idea of your maximum heart rate, you can determine what 80-90% of this will be. During your tempo runs, aim to keep your heart rate within 80-90% of your maximum heart rate (or your threshold pace) for the duration of the run.
As you cardiovascular and physical abilities improve, you will find that you are able to run faster paces while remaining in the same heart rate zone. This is the goal! While heart rate training requires a bit more work and dedication, it is a great way to ensure you are getting everything you can out of your tempo run.
Tempo Runs Based on Time
One of my favorite tempo run variations is to run by time and effort. I love having a 30 minute tempo run planned, because it allows me the opportunity to push myself to see how far I am able to run in 30 minutes.
Running tempo runs based on time provides us with the opportunity to run based on feel and not pace. When I am just starting a new training plan, I often run by feel for the first few tempo runs to get an idea of what my current fitness level is. Just because I ran a half marathon at a certain pace 6 months ago does not mean that I am able to do that again now.
Our bodies change along with our training schedule and lives, and responding to that will set us up for the greatest success during training. Trying to run a pace that is beyond your current ability may lead to injury, while running a pace that is too easy will never allow you to see how fast you could really run.
With any scheduled tempo run, always add a warm up and cool down.
If my tempo run is scheduled based on time (for example, a 30 minute tempo run is on my training schedule), I add a 5 minute warm up and 5 mile cool down. This 30 minute tempo run turns into a total of 40 minutes of running.
During my warm up and cool down I run a very comfortable, easy pace. My goal is to get blood flowing to my legs and mentally prepare for the tempo miles ahead. As soon as the warm up is completed, I increase my pace and begin my tempo run.
When running based on feel, I like to start my tempo runs at a pace that takes more concentration and focus than my usual, easy pace, but does not leaving me huffing and puffing right away. After the first mile is complete, I push just a little bit harder. If possible, I continue this trend until I have completed the designated time.
This is a great method for determining your current paces if you have never completed a race, are new to running, or are coming back after a long break.
Tempo Runs Based on Distance
The final tempo run variation is based on distance. When browsing through your training plan, you may see something like “3 mile tempo run” on the schedule for next Tuesday. Or, perhaps you found a 10 mile tempo run workout online that you want to incorporate during marathon training.
Either way, the biggest mistake runners can make when setting out for tempo runs based on distance is running the scheduled distance and that distance only.
By this, I mean that when you see a 3 mile tempo run on the schedule, you head outside or to the gym, and get started on mile 1 of your tempo run as soon as you begin. Once you’ve completed 3 miles, you stop running and head home.
Warming up and cooling down are especially important during tempo runs. During a tempo run, we ask our body to run paces that are challenging and a little uncomfortable. Our muscles exert more energy than they do on our regular runs.
Pushing yourself on cold, tight muscles is a recipe for injury. If you are lucky enough to avoid injury, you will end up finding that your body is not running it’s best until a full mile or two into your run when it is finally warmed up.
Take note of the distance scheduled for your tempo run and add at least a half mile warm up and cool down to your run. If you are hoping to keep your distance short, add just a half mile warm up and cool down, but compete a few warm up exercises and stretches before starting your run. If you are okay with adding a little distance, add a full mile warm up and cool down, leaving you with a total of 5 miles for a scheduled 3 mile tempo run.
Tempo Run Warm Up and Cool Down Exercises:
- Some great warm up exercises can be found here.
- Take some time at the end of your run to cool down and stretch out those tired muscles with these 10 amazing lower body stretches.
Whether you choose to run a tempo run variation based on pace, heart rate, time or distance, you will reap the benefits of this workout. The many different variations on tempo runs make them easy for any runner to incorporate into their training, whether they’re training for their first 5k or a marathon.
While tempo runs may be challenging at first, remember that the point of these runs is to push your body to new limits. Running faster than normal will feel uncomfortable at first, but growth is rarely experienced in those moments of comfort. Put these tempo run variations to the test and you won’t regret it.
More reading on speed work for runners:
- The Best 30 Minute Interval Run to Increase Your Speed
- What Speed Means to Me
- 36 Essential Resources for Runners
Ready to get training? Download one of my free training plans that incorporate these tempo run variations!