What is tempo running – and why should you include it in your training?

tempo running
Tempo running is a great way to improve performance (Image credit: Getty Images)

If you're keen to improve your running performance this year, it's worth adding tempo workouts to your regular training plan. Tempo running is described as a continuous run done at a sustained effort. It is more than a jog or a run in your comfort zone, rather it’s a run done at a pace that pushes you and gets your heart rate up. 

Should I bother with tempo running?

If you want to achieve faster times for different race distances, tempo runs can be an important training tool. 

Put simply, tempo runs, which are also known as threshold runs, can help you to run faster for longer. If done properly and for a sustained period, this type of running workout should boost your anaerobic threshold. In doing so, it will help your body to perform at a higher intensity, whether you want to run further or at a faster ace. 

Looking at the body’s physiology, tempo runs are designed to improve lactate threshold. This is the point at which your body starts to produce lactic acid faster than it can clear it away. (And most runners will know the pain of lactate acid in the muscles.) 

However, by using tempo running as a form of training you can help your body to tolerate higher levels of lactic acid, which means you can run at faster speeds for longer distances.

It's worth noting, too, that tempo runs are most useful for performing better at races of 5k to marathon distance. 

tempo running on trails

You can use tempo running for trail race targets, as well as road race goals (Image credit: Getty Images)

Tempo runs versus interval training

Tempo runs are done as one sustained effort. You run harder for the entire session. Meanwhile,  interval training is sets of faster runner with recovery in between. Both workouts have their value because they allow your body, muscles and cardiovascular system to adapt to improve your running performance. 

runner looking at sports watch

Heart rate is a good way to measure effort when tempo running (Image credit: Getty Images)

Why is it called a tempo run?

Tempo runs are so called because you run at a “tempo” pace. Each person’s “tempo’ is different so the training session is customised to suit your own capability. 

Work out your tempo pace

For the most accurate measurement of tempo pace, you should head to a sports lab. But since this isn ’t easily possible for everyone, you can work out your tempo pace in a number of other ways.

First, think about your race goal because if you are aiming for a 5k, compared to a marathon, your pace target will obviously be different.

As a general guide, you should aim to do a tempo run at a pace that is 30 seconds per mile slower than your goal 5K pace. 

For 10K training, you should aim to do your tempo run at your goal 10K pace. 

If it’s a half marathon or marathon that you are aiming for, tempo runs are best done at a pace that is 30 seconds slower per mile than your 10K race pace. 

To work out your pace for 5K and 10K, look back at your own race results, or head out for an hour’s run – or a set distance of 10K – and see how fast you can run it. 

You could also aim for a tempo run pace between your half marathon and 10K race speed. 

Of course, the terrain – whether hilly or flat – will make a difference to your overall pace, so it’s also important to think about where you will do your tempo training runs. If it’s a hilly trail race you have entered, then you should aim to replicate the terrain in your training. 

Another way to work out your tempo pace is to rate your effort level. This is called “perceived effort”. A tempo run should be completed at a perceived effort of 70 to 80%. Put even more simply, when tempo running you should not be able to easily hold a conversation with someone.

Another way to assess perceived effort it to look at your maximum heart rate  via a sports watch and use that as a way to work out pace. With tempo running, it’s recommend you aim for 85 to 90% of your maximum heart rate or 80 to 90% of your VO₂ max.

Tempo runs as part of a race goal

If you are planning to introduce tempo runs to your training programme, it’s important to have built up a good base fitness first. Start with around six to 12 weeks of a training programme focused on your chosen race distance, such as a 5k plan, a 10k training programme, a plan for a half marathon or for a marathon.  After that you can add speed workouts, such as interval training and tempo runs to increase your pace for different distances. 

By gaining a base fitness first, before adding speed workouts, you will be less likely to pick up a running injury.

Most runners will want to include at least one tempo run a week into their training programme. If you are already an experienced runner and you have a goal to improve a race time, it can be worth including two or three tempo runs each week. 

You do need to balance training sessions to include faster paced and longer, more endurance sessions for the best results. 

group of faster runners

Enlist friends to join you for a tempo run (Image credit: Getty Images)

How to do a tempo run

A tempo run will normally last about 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the race distance you have targeted. Shorter tempo runs are ideal for 5k goals, while longer tempo runs are for runners aiming for a half marathon or marathon. 

First, warm up for around 10 minutes with a comfortable jog. Then start to increase your pace to the tempo run pace. 

The tempo pace running part of your session should be between 20 to 40 minutes and up to an hour maximum.

Aim for your perceived effort of 70 to 80% or around 85 to 90% of your maximum heart rate. At this pace, you will be running in your anaerobic zone, which will lead to a spike in your lactic acid. The process of tempo running helps your body to become more efficient at running at a higher intensity. Be warned, though, this type of training can feel unpleasant.

Always cool down after a faster running session by reducing your pace and heart rate for about 10 minutes. 

However, the results are worth it because once race day comes, you will be much more used to running at a harder pace and your body will be able to cope with the increased exertion. The chances are you will run a faster time – and the discomfort and challenges of all those tempo runs will be forgotten.

Tips for better tempo running

It can be hard to motivate yourself to do tempo runs on your own, so why not run with someone who is a similar pace to you? Arranging to meet a friend for a training session means you are less likely to skip the run.

Many running clubs will include tempo runs as part of their programme of running for members.

You could sign up to a running coach. Having a coach makes you accountable to someone and also offers expert advice on improving your pace and performance. 

Fiona Russell
Outdoor writer

Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favorite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing (both downhill and backcountry). Aside from her own adventures, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy getting outside and exploring, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors.