What Is A Tempo Run?

Running in London

I’m sure the use of running jargon in training plans is a big turnoff to new runners. Whether it’s the weekly LSD run, fartleks, 4x 100 metre strides, or a variety of other cryptic workouts, it can all seem a bit intimidating.

A tempo run is one of these mysterious workouts found on many beginner training plans. Sometimes, it is described as a “comfortably hard” run… as if that clears things up. So, I’m going to try to explain it in plain English.

A tempo run is a run at a pace faster than you would normally run. Unlike a sprint, a tempo run is not your flat-out, full speed running pace. It’s a pace that feels harder than normal, but not so hard that you can’t maintain it for the full distance of your workout, usually 2-3 miles or more. That’s why it is sometimes called a Threshold Run because you are running on the edge of the fastest speed you can maintain over a distance.

In 2013, when I decided to take on my first marathon, I joined a running club for a 16-week training programme. The first night of the training series called for a 9km tempo run. As if that wasn’t hard enough, it was also July in Toronto and it was 30C.

I gave it a good shot, but I definitely went off way too fast and couldn’t maintain my pace past 5km. I made it back, but my workout was more like a 5km tempo run, followed by a 4km… shuffle.

tempo run

Accurate.

The thing about tempo runs is finding the right pace, which is different for everyone. To ensure you’re doing tempo workouts at the right pace, you can use a couple different methods to measure your intensity. The first is the talk test. You should be able to say words, but not sentences. A statement like, “This sucks,” should be possible, but a conversation about last night’s dinner won’t be. Another option is to look at your recent race times and add 30-40 seconds to your 5K pace, or 15-20 seconds to your 10K pace.

And as if this wasn’t complicated enough already, a tempo run can also be called a lactic threshold run.  That’s because increasing the point at which your body fatigues (ie: your lactic threshold) helps you run further and faster.

If there are other running terms that bewilder you, check out my post on Running Acronyms Explained.

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