The Tempo Run: The Most Important Overlooked Workout

By Pat – October 4, 2011

With Texas running season on the horizon, this can be your year to make the biggest improvements to your personal bests. Whether you’re training for a 5K, the Austin Fit Magazine Distance Challenge, or a marathon, there’s one training session many overlook that can help bring your race times down faster than any other workout. If you’re looking to make a jump in your fitness this year, the tempo run may be the most important workout to achieve your goals.Many people and training groups omit this training session because it’s challenging and feels very difficult the first few times. Most get in a routine of track sessions for speed, hill repeats for strength, and slow or moderate long runs for endurance. While each of these sessions is important and has its place in a well-designed training plan, none covers all the physiological bases to race endurance events. I’ve seen many athletes question why they couldn’t hit their race goals even though they had completed all scheduled long runs, speed workouts, and hill sessions. Many talk about “hitting the wall” late in the marathon, even though they had completed 20+ mile long runs. How could this be? Why would they fade before that point in the race?

The long run, speed workouts, and hill sessions approach fails because they lack one of the most important aspects of distance running: they don’t train your body to hold your race pace for long periods of time. It sounds so simple, but it’s the truth. Many complete their long runs at a comfortable, easy- to- moderate pace. The speed workouts and hill sessions are important because they develop strength and your body’s ability to work well above race pace, but the duration of each repeat is much too short to develop your body’s ability to hold race paces for long periods of time.

The tempo run fills this developmental gap. Every professional endurance athlete knows this and makes the tempo run a key training session. In this workout, your goal is to hold an uncomfortably hard pace for a long period of time. This may be at or just faster than your race pace. As your fitness improves, the time or distance increases and running pace drops accordingly. Not only does it improve your body’s ability to hold these paces, but there is also a critical mental aspect to this session. Most athletes don’t have too much trouble holding an easy- to- moderate pace in their long runs and, although intensity sessions may hurt, the pain of each repeat is short and recovery long enough that many can mentally complete the sessions. Most people can be uncomfortable for one- to- five minutes on the track but struggle to keep themselves in that pain zone for an hour or more. The tempo run forces you into that uncomfortable pain zone, then requires you to hold it. At first, it will feel very difficult but, over time, your body will get used to this feeling. While it will never feel easy (if it does, it’s time for you to run faster or longer), it will begin to feel more natural. Therefore, when you get into a race situation, you will be more comfortable being uncomfortable.

Your long endurance runs are usually at a pace slow enough that your body can buffer and flush the metabolic wastes from your legs. You’ll get some waste accumulation, but the rate will be slow enough that it won’t feel uncomfortable until late in the run. During your intensity sessions, you’re running at a faster pace, which quickly builds up metabolic waste in your muscles, but the interval duration is short and recovery long enough to allow flushing your legs. What you’re missing with these workouts is the ability to operate at a pace where you’re building up waste in your legs but not stopping to allow buffering and flushing. This is why many people “hit the wall” in races at distances shorter than their long runs; their bodies are not used to functioning and flushing at this moderately hard pace.

Although I’ve been discussing the tempo session as it pertains to running, its principles carry over to any other endurance sport: triathlon, cycling, and swimming. The ability to maintain an uncomfortable pace for a long period of time is just as critical in a triathlon or cycling race as it is in running. As you’re building your training plan, you can create swimming and cycling workouts which incorporate the tempo run principles and see the same benefits on race day.

When you begin incorporating the tempo run into your schedule, you should count it as an intensity session. If you run it hard enough, it should take as much or more out of you as a speed session. You’ll want to go into the workout fairly fresh and allow at least one recovery day/run afterwards. A common mistake people make is squeezing it into an already packed week. If you have a track workout and a hill workout already, just slotting in a tempo run could put you over the top; you won’t have the proper recovery, so you’ll go into the other important sessions too tired to get benefit out them. You’ll also put yourself at risk for injury and over cooking yourself by adding too much intensity into your plan. When you do start including your tempo session, cut out one of your other hill or track sessions. You’ll also want to pick a route where you’ll be able to maintain the intensity you desire, such as rolling or flat terrain. Lady Bird Lake trail is a great place for this workout because you can monitor your pace with the mile markers, and you don’t have to break your intensity with intersections or stop lights. Remember; you want to keep your pace going without interruption, and stopping at a traffic light undermines the goals of the session.

The session itself is simple: run a very hard pace (at or just faster than race pace) for a designated distance or time, sandwiched by a good warm-up and cool-down. Personally, I prefer a longer warm-up of two to three miles. You can approach the hard part of the tempo run either as one long effort or broken up into chunks. Week after week, add distance or duration to the effort. Because the session’s paces and times are specific to your goal race, it’s most effective in the last couple of months before your race. That final, longest tempo run should be completed about two to three weeks before the marathon so your body will have time to recover and absorb the hard work during your taper.

You can also disguise your tempo sets by incorporating them into your long run. After a longer warm-up (30 minutes to one hour), run a tempo effort for a set period of time. Start with 30 minutes and increase this week over week. Move to 45 minutes, one hour, then 2 x 40 minutes. If the tempo effort is later in the long run, you’ll learn to hold a harder pace later, when you’re fatigued—just like a race!

One final note about your tempo run. The running media makes a big deal about eliminating “junk miles” from your training. If executed correctly, the tempo run is the most important quality session in your plan. However, if you run your tempo workout at too easy a pace, you won’t create the desired overload, and then that workout may very well become “junk miles.” You have to run at an uncomfortably hard pace to create the physiological stimulus to improve. Teaching your body to run hard paces for increasingly longer periods of time is the quickest way to make improvements in your race times.


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