What Is A Tempo Run? Why They Should Be In Your Training Regimen

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So, you want to step up your running regimen, improve your race times, and follow a proper training plan. You know what intervals, paces, and rest days are, but what is a tempo run?

What Is A Tempo Run?

A tempo run is a run that incorporates longer distances with a steady pace. Of course, the appropriate distance and pace are relative to each individual runner. But most tempo runs have a few things in common.

In the words of Jack Daniels, tempo runs should be comfortably hard. For most runners, this means a pace that they can sustain for about an hour straight. However, most tempo runs should only last about 30 minutes.

Running experts often stress that tempo runs should never feel like a race. Instead, you should be coasting at the threshold between a comfortable jog and uncomfortable effort.

Tempo runs, as a concept, are pretty straightforward and simple to implement into any training plan. But what is a tempo run actually good for?

Why You Should Add Tempo Runs To Your Training

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Any runner can incorporate tempo runs into their routine. Many might already be doing so without knowing they have a proper name.

But it's also crucial to understand the benefits of these runs to get the most out of them.

Here are a few of the biggest benefits to tempo runs, regardless of your athletic level and running experience:

To Improve Your Thresholds

In the world of running, thresholds are a big deal. But what exactly does this mean?

The human body has a natural effort threshold at which lactic acid will start collecting in the muscles. Lactic acid is broken down into two substances: lactate (used for muscle energy) and hydrogen ions (responsible for lowering the pH of your muscles).

During low-effort workouts, this acid is consumed by the muscles as quickly as it breaks down. But when your body reaches its natural threshold, hydrogen ions will begin building up and cause extreme muscle pain and fatigue.

Fortunately, you can increase your body's lactate threshold. For runners, one of the best methods of increasing this threshold is completing tempo runs.

To Run Faster

Despite the fact that tempo runs use a steady, moderate pace, they are actually one of the best ways to increase your running speed. That is true whether you're a sprinter or marathoner.

Moderate effort tempo runs help build both slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibers in the legs and hips. These muscle fibers allow you to sustain a faster speed for longer distances as they develop and grow.

Also, tempo runs are an excellent way to develop your body's capillary beds. These are responsible for delivering oxygen to the muscles (which is essential to running fast and long).

To Burn Calories

Yes, any running will burn calories to some extent. But when it comes to the maximum burn-to-effort ratio, tempo runs almost always win.

Sprinting burns a high number of calories per minute, but few people can expend this level of energy for any notable amount of time. On the other hand, you could sustain a slow jog for hours, potentially. But they burn far fewer calories per minute.

Tempo runs fit right in the middle. Runners get an increased calorie burn from their comfortably hard effort with the ability to run for an extended period of time.

If weight loss is your main motivation for running, you should definitely consider adding tempo runs to your fitness regimen.

To Increase Mental Stamina

Any experienced runner knows that the real challenge of running long distances isn't physical. It's mental.

With tempo runs, you can build up your mental stamina and accustom yourself to long periods of running without outside stimulation.

Whether you run with or without headphones, running can be a mundane and boring task. But just like we can build physical stamina, we can also build mental stamina.

If you're just starting running or are used to short sprints, tempo runs are an excellent way to bridge the gap into longer runs.

Tempo Runs And The Different Zones

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For those just starting out or who consider themselves casual runners, basic tempo runs are more than sufficient. But if you want to get the absolute most out of your training plan, understanding the different zones will help you do just that.

In cardiovascular exercise, there are three primary zones. You might remember some of these zones from your high school health class.

Tempo runs, with some practice, can effectively target all of them:

Aerobic Zone

The aerobic zone is the cardiovascular zone in which the body primarily uses oxygen and carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to fuel the muscles. For slow-but-steady, long distance running, this is the zone of choice.

When in the aerobic zone, a runner can keep going without allowing lactic acid to build up in their bloodstream. Plus, the aerobic threshold is the fastest pace at which a runner can burn fat as their primary fuel source.

If you want to run long distances at a competitive pace, burning fat is the only way to keep your energy up and avoid hitting the "wall."

Of course, the aerobic zone has its drawbacks. Primarily, staying within this zone requires running at a pretty slow pace. That's where tempo runs come in.

By training your tempo runs at a pace close to but not above your aerobic threshold, you can increase this threshold over time. This allows you to run faster paces while remaining in the aerobic zone.

Lactate Zone

As mentioned above, lactic acid and lactate are important components of long-distance running. In running, the lactate zone and lactate threshold refer to the point where lactic acid is just beginning to accumulate in the muscles.

When running within the lactate zone, your body uses lactic acid for energy. This zone is only slightly higher than the aerobic zone, which relies entirely on oxygen and macronutrients for energy.

Running tempo runs in the lactate zone and is one of the best and most trusted ways to increase your distance running pace over time.

The higher your lactate threshold, the faster you can run without muscle pain or fatigue. For competitive half- or full-marathoners, this is essential to a win.

Anaerobic Zone

Finally, the anaerobic zone refers to the point at which your body accumulates lactic acid faster than your body consumes it. At this point, your muscles are no longer relying on oxygen or macronutrients for energy.

An easy way to understand the anaerobic zone is to think of it as strength training rather than endurance training. While slower runs improve your cardiovascular endurance and efficiency, the anaerobic zone more so addresses your muscles and their physical strength under stress.

When it comes to tempo runs, the anaerobic zone is by far the most common pace. In fact, for many runners, "anaerobic training" and "tempo run" are synonymous.

"What Is A Tempo Run?" Q&A

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Here are some other questions related to what is a tempo run and how to incorporate them in your routine:

Are Tempo Runs Or Interval Runs Better For You?

When working to improve your training efficiency and increase your running capabilities, you might wonder whether tempo or interval runs are best. As you might suspect, the answer to this question isn't exactly cut-and-dry.

For most runners, the correct answer is to incorporate a mix of both tempo and interval runs into your training regimen. But if you're training for a specific distance, the answer might get a bit more specific.

Generally, no one will benefit from performing just tempo runs or just interval runs. However, you should tailor your training to match your goals.

Distance runners, typically anything over a 10k race, should include more tempo runs into the routine. This doesn't mean that they should ignore interval training and its benefits, though.

Short distance and speed runners, typically anything at or below a 5k race, should focus more on interval training. Again, this does not mean that sprinters should ignore tempo runs.

How Often Should You Do Tempo Runs?

Whether you're preparing for a major race or just enjoy running for fitness, anyone can benefit from following a training plan.

For professional-level runners, an experienced coach will almost always prescribe a training plan. For the rest of us, though, our training plans will largely be up to us.

So, how often should you include tempo runs in your training routine?

Generally speaking, completing one or two tempo runs per week will deliver the best results, especially when it comes to increasing your lactate threshold.

But what if you only run a couple of times per week?

If that's the case, consider occasionally switching out a "normal" run for a tempo run. While you won't see maximum results with this method, there's no reason to push yourself if you enjoy running just for fun!

How Do You Know Your Tempo Run Pace?

For casual runners who don't have a coach, knowing the best pace for tempo running can be difficult. Fortunately, there are plenty of convenient tools out there that can help.

One of the easiest ways to find your tempo run pace is to use an online calculator.

While these calculators aren't always foolproof, they do provide a starting point that you can adjust as needed. After all, what is a tempo run without an accurate pace?

Run Like You Mean It

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So, what is a tempo run good for? In the world of running, pretty much everything. But, primarily, tempo runs are essential to long-distance athletes.

Whether you're running a company-sponsored marathon or are competing for a spot at one of the world's most elite races, understanding tempo runs and how to incorporate them in your training could make or break your race.

Even for casual runners, using tempo runs on occasion can help improve your athletic abilities and post-run recovery times. In fact, when learning the answer to what is a tempo run, you might realize you already use these runs in your training!

Do you follow a training plan with tempo runs as the main focus? Or have you successfully used tempo running to prepare for a major race? Let us know your experiences in the comments below!


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