Whether you’re training for your first race or are already a seasoned runner, odds are that you’ve at least heard of the phrase “tempo runs.” They’re an important part of any runner’s routine—no matter your speed or skills—and they’ll definitely help you level up your pace and cardiovascular endurance if you include them in your running workouts.
So, what is a tempo run exactly? “A tempo run is a steady state run between 20 and 30 minutes long that is comfortably hard,” explains Annick Lamar, a USATF and RRCA-certified running coach with New York Road Runners. It can also go by other names (like a threshold run, for example). “In essence, it is a pace that is manageable, but it is not fun," Lamar says. "It is comfortably hard."
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By the end of the tempo run, you’ll feel pretty wiped out. Keep in mind: Feeling rough in the moment doesn’t mean it’s not good for your body.
The effort is so worth it. Adding tempo runs into your routine can help you improve your pace over time, according to one study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. It's all about balance, though. You need a healthy mix of easy runs and speed-focused tempo runs in your training plan, says the International Journal of Sports Medicine.
Ready to get in the comfortably hard zone of tempo runs? Read on for everything you need to know about how to do a tempo run properly, all the great benefits they bring, and when to add them to your workout routine, all according to expert running coaches.
Benefits Of Tempo Runs
Before you dive into the how-to’s of tempo runs, you’ll want to learn a bit more about all the great benefits they bring. By doing them you’ll reap physical and psychological benefits alike.
- Wave goodbye to lactate. “From a physiological perspective, when you work at this threshold, your body begins to optimize its ability to clear lactate,” a chemical that accumulates in your body and can contribute to soreness or fatigue when exercising, Lamar explains. In short, your body's ability to clear lactate becomes more efficient if you stay at this tempo run sweet spot for about 20 to 30 minutes.
- Say hello to better endurance. Yup, doing regular tempo runs can increase your endurance, Lamar says. You’ll be able to not only run for longer periods without experiencing fatigue, but they will also help you run at a faster pace for a longer amount of time, too.
- You can flex better form. Tempo runs can also promote more efficient running form, which leads to a better running economy and less wasted energy when you’re running, explains Lauren Wentz, a USATF and RRCA-certified running coach with Relentless Runners Training Club. Think about it: Tempo running is basically you practicing holding your form and speed even though you feel tired AF.
- You boost your mental toughness. “You’re managing this low-grade physical discomfort, which brings a psychological aspect of just being patient and not going into a complete sprint,” Wentz says. Basically, it teaches you to stay in an uncomfortable position and not give in and go back to your easy pace—the mental strength you’ll surely need when in the midst of a difficult race.
How To Do A Tempo Run Properly
Tempo runs are the key to improving basically all your running skills, if you do them correctly. Here's how to plan and execute your tempo runs, according to experts.
- Warmup at a conversational pace for about 10 minutes. After doing the warmup run, do some dynamic stretching to make sure your body feels primed to hit a faster pace. Another option: Cap off the warmup run with some strides, which are short bursts of speed sustained for about 15 to 20 seconds (accelerate up to your max speed, then slow down and repeat).
- Once your body feels warm and prepped to run at a higher intensity, it’s time to start your tempo run. The proper tempo run pace should feel like a seven out of 10 rate of perceived exertion (RPE), which is basically just a scale for measuring how much effort and heavy breathing you're putting into your workout. It’s all based on feeling. That means if you glance at your watch and see you’re not going as fast as you normally would but you’re still at that 7 RPE, don’t sweat it. Just keep running, sustaining your pace for anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.
- After you’ve finished your tempo run, it’s time to recover. In general, you’ll want to cool down with a jog or walk for roughly 10 minutes to let your breathing and heart rate return to normal. Follow with some static stretching and rolling out, and you’re all done.
Wondering how often you should do a tempo run? One tempo run per week is generally all you need, depending on your individual goals, Wentz says. Thursday is a popular tempo run day. By scheduling it then, you’ll have time to build up a nice base of jogging earlier in the week and your body might feel ready to move at a faster pace—but it’s truly up to you, Lamar notes.
In terms of distance and time spent running, tempo runs shouldn’t make up more than 10 percent of your weekly mileage, Lamar says. You also want to make sure that you’re not doing them the day before or after another hard run, (a race, long run, or any other kind of taxing workout) which could result in injury.
3 Tempo Run Workouts To Try
Now that you know all it takes to do a tempo run, you’re probably looking for specific workout inspiration. Here are three tempo run workouts from Lamar for you to try in training.
For any kind of tempo run, your warmup jog should be about 10 minutes long. “A warmup is telling your body it’s about to engage in a harder effort, and it helps you get to your second wind during your tempo run,” Lamar says. After running at an easy pace for 10 minutes, do some strides, AKA, “short bursts of speed that help with your turnover and range of motion,” Lamar says. Got that down?
You can also do some dynamic movements and walking stretches like quad stretches, skips, marches, butt kicks, and more. “They help get your muscles warm, blood flowing, circulatory and respiratory systems primed, which adds to the quality of the tempo run,” Lamar notes.
And remember: You should not feel fatigued during your warm up. This portion should be relaxed and comfortable, helping you get ready to dive into one of the below workouts.
Tempo Run One: The Classic
This is one of the most basic, popular tempo runs that runners incorporate into their routine, and it’s super simple to execute. (Beginners very welcome!) After your warmup you’re going to dive right into running for 20 minutes at an uncomfortably hard pace. “In the beginning it's going to be easy, but toward the end, you're going to really have to focus and pay attention to the pace,” Lamar says. (Again, this is about a 7 at an RPE, meaning everyone’s individual pace will be different.)
Above all, make sure you’re not increasing or decreasing your pace. Hold a steady, flat line, Lamar says. Once you hit the 20-minute mark, you’re done with your tempo. Move into your cool down pace and give yourself a high-five.
Tempo Run Two: Cruise Intervals
If maintaining the same pace for 20 minutes straight sounds super boring to you, then you might want to check out a type of tempo run that Lamar calls “cruise intervals.”
It works like this: After warming up, you run one mile at your tempo pace (7 out of 10 RPE). Once you complete a mile, you take a one-minute recovery jog. Repeat this four times, wrapping up with just over four miles total, then go into your cool down. “It’s more of an up and down. It can help folks play around and have a more interesting tempo if they need it,” Lamar says.
Tempo Run Three: Marathon Pace
This kind of tempo run can be particularly helpful if you’re training for a marathon. It’s basically like “injecting a tempo run” into your long run, Lamar says.
Say you’re going out for a 14-mile long run and you want to average race pace to help you practice for the big day. At mile six, nine, and 12, do a one-mile-long tempo pace, then return to your regular long run speed. “It’s like a surge in pace that can help you prepare for when you’re racing in the marathon and there are hills or crowds or other uncomfortable pace fluxes,” Lamar says. Smart, right?
Recovery is an essential part of any workout, especially a difficult one like a tempo run. After you've finished your tempo run, don't rush back home. Be sure to do a 10 to 15 minute jog at a (super easy!) pace to allow your breath to return and your heart rate to come down. Then, add in some static stretches and foam rolling. Focus on big muscle groups like hamstrings, quads, back, abs, and even your feet, to ensure you’re hitting the areas most likely to be sore tomorrow.
Madeline Howard is a writer, editor, and creative based in Brooklyn. Her work has been published in Esquire, Nylon, Cosmopolitan, and more. Among other things, she was formerly an editor at Women’s Health. Subscribe to her newsletter ‘hey howie’ at madelinehoward.substack.com.