Coaches Corner – Tempo Running

by Dave Lonnen

Any running programme should be tailored towards the goals and targets of the athlete and the right balance of interval, tempo, steady and easy running is crucial if the athlete is to achieve optimum results.  Specificity and getting the training stress levels correct is the difficult part.  Not enough training stimulus or lack of specificity in training for the target distance, and the athlete fails to make progress, but too much high intensity work without adequate recovery can lead to over use injuries.

Over the next few months I aim to cover the specific purpose and benefits associated with interval training, tempo running, steady running and easy running, but to start with I want to concentrate on tempo pace running.  This one of the most productive types of training that distance runners can do, but It is also one of the most difficult to get right. The two types of threshold training are continuous tempo runs and tempo intervals. The standard continuous tempo run is around 20 minutes, whereas tempo intervals are a series of repeated runs at the same tempo pace with short recoveries, but they allow you to complete more volume at the tempo intensity, so a tempo interval session could be 5×6 minutes, 3×10 minutes or 2×15 minutes, etc.

In simple terms, the purpose of tempo running is to stress lactate-clearance and also improve endurance or the ability to endure a greater and greater intensity of effort for a longer and longer period of time.  The optimum way to do this is to work at your aerobic threshold and not above it.  The intensity of the tempo run is described as comfortably hard. Many runners talk of longer 8-10 mile runs at tempo pace, but in reality they are probably running at an intensity considerably below their threshold or probably at a strong steady pace for a large portion of the run.

The correct pace for tempo running is 88 to 90% of maximum heart rate. Your effort should be one that you could maintain when rested for about an hour in a race, so for Mo Farah that is half marathon pace but for average club runner it could range from around 10k to 10m pace and for a slower runner this might actually be 10K race pace because they are taking nearly an hour to race this distance.  If it feels hard, then it is more likely that you are running at the pace of your pure interval training which is generally over 90% of maximum heart rate.

Tempo running should ideally be completed on a flat course to enable you to maintain the correct effort level throughout the session.  The biggest challenge in doing tempo runs is to hold the proper pace and resist turning the tempo run into a time trial. Remember that the correct pace is more beneficial than a faster (or slower) one.

It is human nature that runners often want to see progress in their running and sometimes try to perform a particular run at faster and faster speeds over the course of a fairly short period of time when It is better to perform the same run or session quite a few times at the same speed, or until a race performance indicates that you’ve achieved a higher fitness level. So in effect the tempo run may feel easier as the weeks progress but resist the temptation to run faster.  If what used to be a tough tempo run becomes not so tough after several weeks of training, then that’s a great sign that your training is paying off in a positive way.

At this point, you’re usually ready for an increase in intensity or amount of training. If you often hurt badly in training, a race won’t be anything special, you should be able to take on more discomfort in a race than you do in daily training.

When you’re having a good training day, it’s not that difficult to beat a previous time over a four mile tempo run. It’s very important, however, to let your ability, based on competitive efforts, determine your training intensities. When a tempo session begins to feel easier, use that feeling to support the idea that you’re getting fitter. Then, prove that you are getting better in a race, not in a tempo run.  Remember always to run 2 or 3 miles easy before and after any tempo runs or tempo interval sessions.

The best way to calculate your correct tempo pace is to enter a recent race result into the following table and click on the training tab:

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Dave Lonnen is a UK Athletics Endurance Coach and former international athlete.  He represented NI on Road and XC many times from 1986-1992 .  He has over 40 years of competitive running experience and has been coaching for the last 15 years with City of Lisburn, and is still competing as a masters athlete.  Dave has personal best times of 14.17 for 5k, 29.33 for 10k and 67.07 for the half marathon.