Tempo run training is an effective way for runners to get faster, gain endurance and improve their mental game. However, with so different styles and variations to consider, understanding the meaning of a tempo run is crucial for success.
How do you run a tempo run?
The purpose of a tempo run is the same whether you’re a beginner or pro athlete, although it is often defined in a few different ways. A tempo run, sometimes referred to as a lactate-threshold run or anaerobic threshold run, involves running at a sustained effort for longer periods of time.
Tempo run training usually involves workouts lasting anywhere between 20-60 minutes, during which runners maintain a challenging pace. Tempo run pace varies for each runner, but can be calculated fairly easily using your current race and/or training paces.
To complete a tempo run, you’ll simply need to run at a high level of effort for the designated amount of time (usually somewhere between 20-60 minutes).
Regardless of your specific definition of a tempo run, just about all runners agree that the key meaning of a tempo run is that the pace remains consistently challenging, while still feeling attainable.
Key Elements of Tempo Run Training
- Completed at a challenging, attainable pace (use a tempo pace calculator or previous race time to find your correct pace)
- Check that your heart rate stays within 80-90% of your maximum
- Maintain tempo pace for 20 – 60 minutes
- Complete a warm up and cool down before/after tempo runs
If you’re hoping to begin tempo run training for the first time, or simply dive deeper into the workouts, understanding these key elements will help you make the most of your workouts. Here’s how to calculate your tempo run pace, heart rate, distance and more.
Tempo Run Pace
One of the key elements of tempo run training is your pace. Understanding how to calculate your tempo pace will help ensure you get the most out of your workouts without overtraining.
It’s important that runners correctly calculate their tempo run pace before beginning any workouts. Running too fast during a tempo workout might set you up for overtraining, a plateau in the future, or even injury. Running too slowly during a workout will keep your progress minimal and prevent you from getting faster over time.
Tempo Run Pace Calculators
Your tempo pace can be calculated in a number of different ways. The easiest way is to use a tempo run pace calculator. To use a tempo pace calculator, all you have to do is plug in a time from your most recent run or race and the calculator will generate a tempo pace.
These pace calculators are a great way to get started for runners who have no previous experience with tempo run training.
>> Try this pace calculator from Runner’s World!
Another way to calculate your tempo pace is to use a current training pace or recent race pace.
How to calculate tempo run pace:
- Same as 10k pace
- 25 – 30 seconds slower than 5k pace
- The pace you can comfortably sustain for an hour
These guidelines provide runners with a helpful starting point when trying to find their tempo pace. If you have never completed a race before, start with a pace you can comfortably maintain for an hour and work your way down from there.
On the other hand, if your first tempo pace feels a bit too easy, try completing your next tempo workout about 10-15 seconds per mile faster. If the tempo pace was too difficult to maintain, slow things down 10-15 seconds per mile.
Keep in mind that your tempo pace will change as your fitness improves during training. It’s normal for goals to change with different training seasons, just as we get faster or slower depending on our current physical fitness, training regimen, race goals, and season of life.
The key to finding the perfect tempo run pace is to listen to your body and adjust accordingly.
Tempo Run Heart Rate
Another way to define a tempo run is to based on your heart rate. Rather than aiming for a certain pace during ever workout, heart rate training calls for completing each tempo run in a certain 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 this definition is a bit more specific, it does require you to utilize heart rate training long enough to know your average stats. Calculating 85% of your maximum heart rate means that you’ll need a bit of time to collect data, but will likely end up with an accurate result.
How to calculate maximum heart rate:
- Subtract your age from 220
- Wear a heart rate monitor during a variety of training runs –> record your highest heart rate
- Exercise hard for 3 minutes / rest for 3 minutes / exercise hard for 3 minutes –> record your highest 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 be: 220 – 25 = 195.
This formula is a great starting point. It is simple, straightforward and provides a helpful starting point for beginners. However, keep in mind that this formula provides you with a very rough estimate – you will likely need to adjust along the way.
How to calculate tempo run heart rate:
- Tempo Run HR = Max HR x 0.85
How to use heart rate for a tempo run
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 (this range is known as your threshold pace) for the duration of the run.
Calculate what this range is for you, and monitor your heart rate throughout your tempo run.
For example, if my maximum heart rate is 190, my tempo run heart rate would range from 152 – 171. If I noticed my heart rate peaking above 171, I would decrease my tempo pace until my heart rate was back in the correct zone. If my heart rate was lower than 152, I’d increase my pace until it returned to the zone.
As you cardiovascular system becomes more efficient and your physical abilities improve, you’ll find that your tempo run heart rate is lower for the same pace. If you notice your heart rate starting to drop, be sure to adjust your tempo pace accordingly.
Tempo Run Examples
Once you understand your tempo pace, you’ll be able to put it into context with tempo run training. Most runners find that completing a tempo run workout about once a week or alternating with other types of speed workouts helps them get faster and gain endurance.
Tempo run workouts can be structured in a few different ways. You might find that your training calls for a specific distance at tempo pace, designates a certain amount of time, or throws some tempo into your weekly long runs.
Tempo Runs Based on Time
Most tempo run workouts are fairly easy to interpret, as they are structured simply based on time and effort. Giving an appropriate amount of effort is relatively straightforward once you determine your tempo run pace.
More often than not, once you know your pace, all that’s left is to figure out the length of time you’ll need to maintain that pace.
A lot of training plans schedule tempo runs based on time and not distance. Since every runner has a different tempo pace, designating a certain distance for the tempo run would result in some running for 60 minutes while others only run for 35. To avoid this, many training plans simply designate a time length for the tempo run.
When completing any tempo workout based on time, be sure to add a warm up and cool down. Plan for an extra 5-10 minutes before beginning the tempo portion, as well as 5-10 minutes afterwards.
30 minute tempo run example:
- 10 minute warm up at easy pace
- 30 minutes at tempo pace
- 5 minute cool down at easy pace
Tempo Runs Based on Distance
Another way your tempo runs may be structured is based on distance. You might find that your training plan simply states 3 mile tempo on speed workout days.
Following a training plan with tempo runs based on distance is very much the same as when runs are based on time – be sure to include a warm up and cool down.
Some runners find that they prefer this structure because it is less open-ended and allows them to plan exactly how far they will be going. However, if you find yourself running longer than 50-60 minutes to accomplish the schedule distance, it would be beneficial to cut the run short in order to best maintain the integrity and purpose of a tempo run.
3 mile tempo run example:
- 1/2 mile warm up at easy pace
- 3 miles at tempo pace
- 1/2 mile cool down at easy pace
Tempo run training is so beneficial for runners. Whether you are training for your first 5k or a marathon, understanding the meaning of tempo runs can take your running to the next level.
The most important thing to remember is that tempo runs should always be challenging, yet attainable. If you find yourself really struggling to maintain your pace – slow down. If you find yourself able to sing and run with ease – speed up.
When implemented correctly, tempo run training can help you achieve your next running goal. You might be surprised by how quickly your body adapts to the efforts as your heart rate lowers and you find yourself hitting new paces.
Try adding tempo runs to your next training cycle and see what you can accomplish!
More tempo run training tips:
- 4 Tempo Run Workouts to Increase Your Speed
- 6 Tips to Conquer Running Speed Workouts
- Running Heart Rate Zones: A Guide to Heart Rate Training