Most running training programs include multiple forms of speed work, including tempo runs, intervals, fartleks, hills, and running races. It can be difficult to discern the right pace for each of these workouts, and the optimal frequency in which to conduct them.
Whether you’re training for a 5k or a marathon, your running training program could benefit from the a change of pace. These runs can be a very flexible and effective way to conduct a productive speed workout without having the hassle of going to a track or a measured course.
Because tempo runs usually involve a sustained increased effort over multiple miles, they will have a different training impact than an interval, fartlek, or hill sprint. Intervals usually alternate high-intensity efforts at VO2 Max pace with recovery periods, whereas tempo runs can last anywhere from 2-10 miles. The pace should be somewhere between our easy running pace and our interval pace. If we train at this pace, we can improve our performance and delay the on-set of a lactic acid build-up which has often been associated with our threshold of performance.
Tempo runs can vary from a short 3-4 mile run to a longer 5-12 miler. Depending on the length of the run, I usually take at least the first and last miles as the warm-up and cool-down, respectively. The middle miles then become the actual tempo part of the run or pick-up. The pace of this pick-up can be challenging to define. If you run it too fast…you’ll lose your steam, slow down, and get down on yourself (mentally). If you run too slow, you’ll be missing the opportunity to maximize the training benefit of the workout and get faster. So what pace should we sustain for these workouts??
The pace for these workouts should be in a range that pushes our lactate threshold. This will usually be somewhere from your 5k pace + 30 seconds to your marathon goal pace (MGP). Another means to gauge this is by looking at your heart rate. I find that my heart rate is between 80-85% of my maximum heart rate (MHR) during the tempo portion of the run (MHR = 220 - age). If you wear a heart rate (HR) monitor and have some familiarity with your heart rate during training runs and intervals, try to target the range between your long run and intervals HR levels.
The nice thing about tempo workouts is their flexibility. It's not hard to covert a normal 5-miler by injecting a 3-mile pick-up (tempo) in the middle. This can be a fun and spontaneous way to transform your routine run into a challenging workout and get your body used to the prolonged discomfort of the faster pace. Sustaining a faster pace for these workouts will increase your confidence and prepare you mentally and physically for race day.
Tempo runs should not replace your daily run, because these workouts can place a fair amount of added stress on your muscles, and you’ll need some easier running days to recover & rebuild. Try adding them mid-week. That way it’s far enough from the weekend workout which is typically either a long-slow-distance day or an interval / hill workout. Speed work is a necessary component to run faster…but so is rest…keep a good balance of both and you’ll progress injury-free to your goal!