Time for Tempo Runs!

digital watch
…and then my Timex expired. Pool running was the last straw. RIP; those were some good times.

Whether you’re a seasoned competitor or a newbie to implementing structured training, a regular tempo run should be a staple workout. If you follow the Salty training logs, you’ve probably noticed them pop up often in our weekly recaps. But not all tempos are equal. Some of us do long tempos and some do short tempo intervals. Some of us run 15k-10 mile race pace or faster and others run them closer to marathon pace or even slower.

Yep, there is no one right way to tempo. But their are some general principles to effective tempo runs and some popular variations to choose from. Learn all about tempos after the jump!

First let’s take a look at 4 common tempo variations.

1. Tempo, Jack Daniels’ Style

English: Jack Daniels whisky, 5 cl bottle.
The obligatory Jack Daniels the booze, rather than Jack Daniels the famous running coach, stock photo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s take the preeminent coach Jack Daniels’ definition of a tempo: a 20 minute effort at the pace you would run for an hour-long race. For some, this may be 10k pace; for elites it will be closer to half marathon pace. After a warm-up, run that pace for 20 minutes. Simple, yes. Easy, no! To calculate your Jack Daniels style tempo pace (also called threshold pace) you can use this handy calculator.

2. Progression Runs

“Progression” is another word we like to throw around. Start out at an easy pace and gradually get faster. You can make your entire run progressive (i.e., 6 miles, beginning at 9:00 pace and dropping :30/mile) or just a specific portion (i.e., 6 miles with the middle 4 going 7:00, 6:50, 6:40, 6:30). Again, another workout that’s simple on paper but difficult to execute — making it a great exercise in mental toughness!

3. Tempo Intervals

Another fun way to mix up a tempo run is to break it up into intervals of a mile or longer.  Instead of a 6 mile tempo you could do 6 x 1 mile at 5-10s faster than your continuous tempo pace with 1:00 recoveries in between. Or you could break it up by time 2 x 15 minutes with 90 seconds jog in between. As a rough guideline, if your chunks are 10-15 minutes or less, keep the rest under a minute or so. Newbies to tempo runs can be more generous with the rest, make the chunks shorter, or reduce the amount of tempo-ing.

4. Long Run + Tempo Miles

Prepping for a marathon? Back off the pace and extend the length of your tempo. If you’re feeling really ambitious, insert some tempo miles into your long run. One way I like to do this is by alternating tempo miles with easy miles – for example, a 15 mile run with even miles (2, 4, 6, etc.) at marathon pace. My favorite marathon-specific workouts is a long run with 20-30 tempo minutes near the beginning and then more at the end, inspired by Jack Daniels. This workout will give you great practice with running hard on tired legs and is a Jack Daniels Style, Long Run with Tempo Intervals. Mind blown!

Q & A Time!

Now that we know a little about the common variations, let’s discuss some common questions runners have about tempos.

Can I take breaks?

Yes! With some caveats, of course. Sometimes breaks are unavoidable due to poop, traffic lights, or poor terrain. Other times you might just feel like you’re in over your head and need a moment to regroup; in this case I consider whether I’m redlining or just bored. (I owe this nugget of genius – and many PRs –  to Rosemary!) Try to limit your breaks to a minute to maintain the physiological benefits of the straight tempo.

Is running a tempo faster better?

Not necessarily. If you’re running faster than you’re supposed to for your tempo it could be that you’re overdoing it and won’t recover for your next harder effort. Less likely, you’re getting in shape and this faster pace is the right pace for your speedier self. If you have some experience with tempoing and the effort feels right, go with it. If not, it’s best to err on the side of caution and back off and stick as close to the prescribed pace as possible.

Do I need to do a tempo every week?

That really depends on what you’re training for and your level of fitness. Newbies training to race their first marathon can get away with doing one every other week or so. Seasoned runners need to do them more frequently to continue to improve. As I mentioned above, you don’t have to separate tempos from your other workout days. You can put some tempo into your long run or you could even combine some tempo miles with a track workout (e.g. 2 miles at tempo, followed by 6 x 400, followed by 1 mile at tempo).

Now, how about a testimonial?

Since giving birth to my son back in February, tempo runs have been the only quality work (i.e. faster than easy pace) I’ve run. Despite this and running just 60-70% of my pre-pregnancy mileage, I ran within 80 seconds of my 5k PR back in May and estimate that I’m just 5-8 minutes behind my marathon PR.

Do you do a regular tempo run? Got any tempo questions we can answer for you? Any variations I should try (please don’t say hills!)?

I'm a 20-year veteran of competitive running, USATF certified coach, mom of a toddler -- and still trying to set PRs. I write about training from 5k to marathon, motherhood and competitive running, and the elite side of the sport. The 5k is my favorite race (16:56 PR) but I've got a score to settle with the marathon.

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  1. Everyone says “Tempo!” and means something different. Luke (Hanson’s method) says Tempo means target marathon pace in his plans. Some people say Tempo and mean threshold pace. Daniels says Tempo means 20 minutes at T (2nd ed., page 94) and calls bouts of work at T “cruise intervals.”

    I think this is the biggest problem with calling workouts Tempo is that everyone means something different.

    What do you you think of the Hanson approach? The first half of the training plan you work on speed with intervals at I pace. Then in the second half you do strength workouts, which I think are really supposed to be the equivalent of Daniels cruise intervals (e.g. 1.5mi x 4) and Daniels tempo runs (e.g. 3 mi x 2).

    1. I think they are different. Tempo runs are generally supposed to be run close to your lactate threshold, and the purpose is to improve / move that threshold. Strength intervals and goal race pace runs are definitely uptempo, but have different purposes and are done at different paces. Same with faster intervals (usually lumped into the category of “speed work”). All valuable tools, but all different. BTW – I do a modified version of the Hanson approach and have had solid results.

        1. Yup, I have an old school view of tempo runs. I run strength intervals, speedier intervals and lots of goal marathon pace miles too though – I just view them as a different type of workout, which is why I responded as I did. I don’t have a problem with labeling all uptempo, but not quite speed work workouts as “tempos” but I think there is a broader conversation on what each of these workouts is for and what benefits they serve.

    2. Yay, lots of discussion already on this post!

      I haven’t checked out the Hanson’s book yet. From that description, I’m not sure it would be the best fit for me given that speed is my clear strength (16:56 5k pr vs. 2:51 marathon) so I don’t need to get any faster to hit my long term marathon goal, just stronger (and smarter, a lot smarter). But for other types of runners, that sounds like a great plan.

      I think in Daniels later editions there is a nice chart for adjusting tempo pace based on your desired duration. I have a very old version, 1st or 2nd, so I don’t have that. But based on that, he might actually qualify MP as T if the duration is long enough. Not sure on that, though.

      1. I have a 2nd edition I carry with me and a 3rd edition at home. Remind me to check. The VDOT charts didn’t change but some training plans were added and loose information was clarified.

      2. I do both 10 mile marathon pace runs (1.25 mi warmup, 10mi@M, 2 mi cool down) and variations of cruise intervals that total 6 miles at T (e.g. warmup, 3x2mi@T with 1 min rests, cool down). The 10-mile run at marathon pace is directly out of Hanosn’s Marathon Method. Hanson’s strength workouts were clearly supposed to be cruise intervals, but the pacing guidelines aren’t accurate for threshold intensity, so I use Daniel’s T pace instead with one minute rests. Pacing is very important to both workouts, so I do the marathon workout on my parents’ street and time laps. Cruise intervals I do on a track.

        Here is what they both wrote:
        Daniels’ 2nd edition: “A tempo run is nothing more than a steady 20-minute run at T pace. Subjectively, the intensity of effort associated with T-Pace running is comfortably hard The effort should be one that you could maintain for about an hour in a race. It is important to preform tempo runs under desirable weather conditions on relatively flat terrain with good footing because the goal of this workout is to maintain a steady intensity of effort for a prolonged period of time….Possible the biggest challenge in doing tempo runs is to hold the proper pace and to resist making the temp run into a time trial. Remember, the proper pace is more beneficial than a faster (or slower) one …. it is not a bad idea to do a tempo run an the track or treadmill so that pace can be closely controlled.” (p94-95).

        “Cruise intervals are repeated runs of anywhere from about 3 to 10 minutes or even 15 minutes each, broken up by short recovery periods (usually less than one minute each, or less). The great advantage of the brief recoveries is that blood-lactate levels remain fairly consistent and the runner experiences threshold entire training session, which can last a fair bit longer than could be accomplished with a steady tempo run…. A typical cruise interval workout might consist of 5 repeated miles at T pace, with one minute recoveries.” (p97)

        In Hanson’s Marathon Method, Humphry writes: “Tempo runs have long been a staple of all good endurance training plans…. Tempo runs have been defined in numerous ways, but in the Hansons Marathon Method, they are marathon pace runs…. Use tempo runs as a dress rehearsal….” (p74)

        “Strength sessions improve anaerobic capacities, meaning you will be able to tolerate higher levels of lactic acid and produce less of it at higher intensities….Strength sessions are designed to be run 10 seconds per mile faster than goal marathon pace.” (P66-67)

          1. I remembered to check last night. 3rd edition is completely rewritten, but the T training is fundamentally the same.

            He introduces the concept of (H)ard running. (H) is just (I)nterval intensity segments run by time and perceived effort rather than distance. They are still 3-5 minutes and run at about I pace.

            There is a chart for adding variety to Intervals on a treadmill by adjusting the incline and speed to match a particular target intensity. It is sort of like table 7.2 in second edition, but much more in depth.

  2. I think that’s the point of this post. While Catnip didn’t overly define tempo in the post, I think it’s implied that a tempo run is run of faster than easy, probably starting at marathon pace at the slow end of the range up to as fast as 10k pace. Tempos are longer workouts than typical track type speed workouts or fartleks and can be sustained or broken up into intervals with short recoveries. The point of them is to work on mental and physical endurance., strength with a little speed for good measure.