What Are Tempo Runs, and How Can You Incorporate Them Into Your Training?
  • February 15, 2016
  • Stop me if you’ve read this before on A Sweat Life: I signed up for a race again.

    via GIPHY

    Not a marathon (trust me, I’m still recovering from Grand Rapids), but for a half marathon with a few friends out in Naperville. A low-key race, compared to my training schedule for the past year, but not quite one I can go out and wing. The fact that I’m just now easing into running after a two month break, combined with the distance and the fact that I’ve been wanting to break 1:50 in a half marathon for about two years now, led me to realize that I actually need to find and follow a training plan for this race.

    The plan that I eventually settled on (shoutout Hal Higdon) includes something I’ve never seriously tackled before in my training: tempo runs. A tempo run is defined as a faster-paced workout at your lactate-threshold or, a “comfortably hard” run. You know when your group fitness instructor yells at you that in order to improve, you have to make the uncomfortable, comfortable? That’s a tempo run, and they’re great to include once a week or so in your training.

    Why should you include tempo runs in your training?

    Most of your training runs will be at an easy, comfortable pace, and you’ll have one speed workout a week, but how will you learn to run and maintain your race pace? The answer lies in tempo runs.

    Along the same lines of making the uncomfortable, comfortable, tempo runs make you faster by teaching your body to be more efficient when exerting more effort. You improve your aerobic capacity, and your body learns to clear out your lactate buildup more quickly so that your legs don’t burn out.

    Tempo runs also help ramp up your VO2 max (or, in English, your body’s ability to use oxygen to make energy in your muscles). By doing more tempo runs during training, you teach your body to make more capillaries (thin blood vessels that pass blood from arteries in your heart to muscle tissues) in the muscle, meaning that your muscles get more oxygenated blood while you’re in the midst of a workout.

    Mentally, tempo runs are great confidence builders. After pushing your pace for 20 to 45 minutes at a time, you’ll end your run feeling confident that you can hit (and maintain) that pace during an actual race.

    How do you find your tempo pace?

    According to Runner’s World, there are a few ways.

    • Use a recent race pace: Add 30 to 40 seconds to your current 5-K pace or 15 to 20 seconds to your 10-K pace.
    • Heart rate monitor: Run at a pace that keeps your heart rate at 85-90% of your max.
    • Perceived exertion: Tempo runs should be an 8 on a 1-to-10 scale (where a comfortable effort is a 5 and racing is a 10).
    • Talk test: You can speak in short bursts, but you can’t carry on a conversation.

    How do I do a tempo run?

    The most basic kind of tempo run will include a one-mile warm-up, anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes at tempo pace, and a one-mile cool down. (Note that tempo runs are typically based on time rather than mileage, but hey, you do whatever you want). During a training cycle, you may begin incorporating 20-minute tempo runs, and gradually work your way up to 45 minutes.

    For those of you who get bored running at the same speed, you can also do a tempo interval run. Alternate five minutes at tempo pace and five minutes at a slow pace for the duration of your tempo portion.

    Tempo runs are also a great way to teach your body to run negative splits. After your warmup, run for your allotted time/mileage at a comfortable pace, and finish with an equal time/distance at a tempo pace. You can also increase your speed every so often to finish at your fastest pace; I love doing this on the treadmill especially, because increasing my pace every five minutes breaks my run into manageable chunks and keeps me from getting bored.


    Tempo runs aren’t easy, but they aren’t supposed to be. If you’re not breathing hardas you work into your tempo run, it’s time to pick up the pace.

    About Kristen Geil

    A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Kristen moved to Chicago in 2011 and received her MA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse from DePaul while trying to maintain her southern accent. Kristen grew up playing sports, and since moving to Chicago, she’s fallen in love with the lakefront running path and the lively group fitness scene. Now, as a currently retired marathoner and sweat junkie, you can usually find her trying new workouts around the city and meticulously crafting Instagram-friendly smoothie bowls. Kristen came on to A Sweat Life full-time in 2018 as Editor-in-Chief, and she spends her days managing writers, building content strategy, and fighting for the Oxford comma.

    4 thoughts on “What Are Tempo Runs, and How Can You Incorporate Them Into Your Training?

    1. Kelly Magnus

      Ok, fine. I suppose I should probably stop skipping/modifying my tempo runs too. Time to pick up the pace. Thanks for the reminder and tips, Kristen!!

    2. Maggie Umberger

      I typically hate running outside in the cold, but this might just be the thing to get me to try it more often. Seems like it will be a great way to keep my mind on a goal instead of dwelling on the feeling of my nose freezing off:) Thank you Kristen!

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