Up the tempo

I guess I'm having a bit of a runners' identity crisis today...

As I described a couple of weeks ago, a normal week’s training will contain several different types of running. Pick up a training plan from any website or magazine and you’ll see for yourself that it’s a mix of long, slow runs and shorter, harder sessions that will get you ready for your race.

Some of these sessions are described as ‘tempo’ runs, but I’ve never quite been able to grasp what exactly a tempo run is. However more and more magazines, websites and bloggers are heralding the tempo run as key to improving performance, citing the Kenyans’ tempo hill sessions as evidence of this.

So here we go guys – what the heck is a tempo run, how does it work and how can we do it?

My understanding of tempo training was that it should be run at a comfortably hard pace for long-ish periods – longer that normal speed intervals, but rarely longer than half of your goal race distance/time.

Research tells me that this is correct, but it all seems a bit vague, doesn’t it?..

According to running scientist-types, your ideal tempo pace should be an uncomfortably hard pace that you can sustain for an extended period, so for example a pace slightly faster than your 10K pace (80-85% effort) sustained over 10-20 minute periods. This differs from traditional interval training that would be run closer to a 5K pace (85-90% effort) for shorter intervals of just a few minutes at a time. These longer, tempo-paced bursts will improve how you use oxygen when you are running and, over time, allow you to run the 10-20 minutes faster with the same perceived effort. Track sessions and speed training are fantastic for middle distance running, but if you’re stepping up to long distances like half and full marathons, or if you’re trying to improve your 10K time, these tempo sessions are apparently the way forward.

Over the last 6 months I have become a regular parkrunner and have used this weekly 5K run as a tempo run – or at least what I though was a tempo run. I was quite simply running for 25 minutes at what I thought was my tempo pace once a week. Was this right? Yes and no.

For half marathon training 3-6 miles of tempo running is ideal.
So yes, my parkrun/tempo run was a good distance.
A tempo run should also be slightly faster than my 10K pace.
My current 10K pace is around 8:40 min/mile, and so again, yes, my average 26minute parkrun was also a good pace.

But running a 26minute tempo run was not in itself helping me to get any faster. Why? Because my tempo run wasn’t getting any faster. The tempo run can only improve the efficiency of your body’s oxygen-gobbling tendencies if you are gradually forcing it to gobbling oxygen more efficiently by running faster.

So how do we run our tempo runs faster, thus making them more effective?
Make them shorter.
(I know, I know, this is weird and confusing… but seriously bear with me.)

I am going back to basics. Running for 2 minutes, and recovering for 1-2, but this short run has to be faster than my current tempo pace. I’m aiming for a 7:50-8 min/mile. Gradually this 2 minute run will increase to 3, and then 4, and then 5 until eventually (in theory) my 10-20 minute comfortably-hard-pace-that-can-be-sustained-for-extended-periods-of-time (a.k.a. my tempo pace) will be faster than it is currently. And this should help me get faster more generally.

Phew… I’m tired out just thinking about it!

This does of course more strongly resemble speed training than tempo training, but it’s the only way I can think of that will make my tempo pace faster. I have been going along to the coached sessions with my running club since Christmas (which have been brilliant fun by the way), but I think I’m going to start doing them every 2 weeks instead and alternating them with my own tempo sessions (less fun, but more structured around my own plan). Last week during my lunchtime run I did 5 2min runs at approximately 8 min/mile with 1 minute recovery, and I think I’m going to try something like this to try and break through that 8 min/mile barrier…

Week 1: 5 x 3 minutes at tempo pace, 60-second easy jog after each one (if you find that you have to walk during the recovery, you’re going too hard).
Week 2: 5 x 4 minutes at tempo pace, 60-second easy jog recovery
Week 3: 4 x 5 minutes at tempo pace, 90-second easy jog recovery
Week 4: 20 minutes steady tempo pace

This tempo plan is from the Runners’ World website by the way, a treasure trove of running advice.


8 thoughts on “Up the tempo

  1. Nice break down 🙂
    There was a particular track session I did late last year that I felt helped my tempo pace:
    10 x 400m, with approx 45-60sec rest. On each 400m lap, I ran the first 200m at a steady 5k pace then the last 200m considerably quicker but not a flat out sprint.
    I intend to revisit this session on the run up to Berlin!


    1. And now I’m confused again – when does tempo training become interval training??
      That session sounds really interesting though. Might give it a go on my lunchtime run this week. Thanks Kayleigh!


  2. My personal aim (other than doing the 30 mile round commutes at 6am without being shattered when I get back home) is 120miles at an average of 15mph. My training technique is based on doing 30 mile commutes in that time all week and lucozade.

    I really like these posts you’ve been posting btw.


  3. Good post, links nicely with your one about the Nike adverts and Mo’s “train for it” outlook. Just another idea for those who are generally finding it hard to fit in a tempo run, it has proved useful to me to insert a period of tempo running into my general, middle of the road runs… sometimes even my long (although it is important and beneficial to do these slowly). What I mean is if you’re out running a 6 mile loop then run the first 2 miles quite steady and then open up in the middle and run at, like you say, a fraction harder than you’re 10K or Half Marathon pace. You can finish your 6 miles by running the last 2 miles at a steady pace and it’s surprising how easy this feels after 4 miles of tempo running.
    I’m not saying this can work for everyone but I’ve found it useful a couple of times and during marathon training last summer I attempted a 20 mile run divided up into 6 miles slow, 6 miles tempo, 8 miles slow… bit of a killer but a brilliant tempo session.
    Great blog.


    1. Thanks Tim!

      I’ve heard about doing tempo runs like this and have tried it the last couple of weeks by jogging to Saturday’s parkrun, running the 5K at tempo pace and then jogging home. You’re right – it is a killer!

      You mention doing it a couple of times in marathon training (although double the size!). Do you think doing this on a weekly basis (as I have been) is too much, or do you think that is ok?


      1. I suppose the frequency is up to the individual, I think if you’re focusing on your tempo sessions then once a week isn’t too much at all. There’s always the option of throwing in hills and track sessions which will also help with your speed, hopefully making a noticeable difference when you are doing a tempo run.


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