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This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Triathlete magazine.
Although it’s described slightly differently by many coaches (“Zone 3” or “uncomfortably hard,” for instance), the ever-important tempo run is an essential part of run training to get you race-ready.
In Hansons Half-Marathon Method, the authors point out the purpose of the tempo: “Tempo runs teach you an important skill: control. Even when the pace feels easy, these runs train you to hold back and maintain.” The Hansons coaches recommend doing tempo runs at goal race pace for the half-marathon distance.
The purpose of a tempo run is to increase your running economy at your desired race pace and to raise your lactate threshold, that fine line where your body switches from burning fat to burning carbohydrates. Tempo runs are also when you’ll learn if you went out too hard (or too easy), and they serve as the perfect opportunity to experiment with the nutrition and gear you plan to use on race day.
As you increase your volume in training, the amount of time you spend at tempo should also increase. A typical tempo workout might include 20–30 minutes at tempo pace with a warm-up and cool-down. At right are a few more ideas for tempo workouts to include in your training.
Avoid these tempo mistakes
– “Typically athletes go too hard during these efforts,” said coach Tim Edwards of North Coast Endurance in Cleveland. “The most common mistake is to go into Zone 4, especially if they are doing these with a group and it deteriorates into a race. Athletes will also push too hard on hills and make it into an interval session.”
– Be cognizant of where you are in your season and training cycle to determine what’s appropriate—in early season, Edwards said, a tempo session can be closer to recovery. “It won’t be good if tomorrow’s session is a true interval effort and they aren’t recovered from the ‘tempo’ and can’t hit the effort needed for the intervals.”
Tempo Workout #1: Negative split out-and-back
“This workout teaches short-course athletes how to pace their run in the beginning and run faster in the second half,” Edwards said. “I do a similar workout for long-course athletes but tend to limit the distance (no more than 90 minutes) so as to not overstress the athlete and keep them healthy.”
– Warm up for 10–15 minutes with dynamic stretches and run drills.
– Run a distance equal to your race (5K or 10K). Choose an out-and-back course. Run the first half of the course in the low end of Zone 3 and return on the same course but run at the high end of Zone 3. Hit the split button on your watch at the halfway point and compare the times of each leg.
– Cool down with easy running and stretch for flexibility while your muscles are warm.
Tempo Workout #2: Half and marathon pace
Coach Jonathan Cane of New York City’s CityCoach likes this workout not only for the physiological benefits, but because it helps athletes get in the habit of running a negative split while ingraining specific paces.
“A purist would point out that a tempo run is generally defined as something you could hold for one hour, so obviously marathon goal pace and even half-marathon pace is a little conservative in terms of pacing,” Cane said. “But this is also a little long on the tempo run spectrum. [For pure running races,] I like it late in a marathon training cycle.”
– Warm up for 10–15 minutes easy.
– Then run 3–4 miles at marathon goal pace, 3–4 miles at half-marathon pace.
– Cool down for 10–15 minutes easy.
Tempo Workout #3: Miles with 3×2
“This workout is for the more advanced athlete, and while it is a tempo workout it really focuses on pace changes, which are very important when you start to race against other athletes,” said Katie Malone of Malone Coaching in Landrum, S.C. “Changing ‘gears’ is a great skill to have in your toolbox.” Malone warns not to misjudge your pacing on the first set so you hinder your marks on the last one, and to avoid a route that’s too hilly. “There is a time and a place for hilly courses, but this is not one of them.”
– Warm up for 1 mile easy.
– Do the next 6 miles as 3×2 mile, negative splitting each. First is slowest, last is fastest. Start with a moderate effort, finish with great effort on each.
An example would look something like this:
Set 1: Mile 1 at 8:40, mile 2 at 8:15
Set 2: Mile 1 at 8:30, mile 2 at 8:00
Set 3: Mile 1 at 8:20, mile 2 at 7:50
– Cool down for 1 mile easy.