Tempo runs are the middle child of speed workouts — often overshadowed by the traditional, reliable interval workouts and glossed over gramatically in favor of the giggles and jokes “farleks” inspire. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me back up a little: these are all forms of running speed workouts, and all of them can help you get faster and improve your race times.
Unlike intervals or fartleks, tempo runs involve a continuous effort at a steady pace. Intervals and fartleks call for short bursts of speed between slower-paced jogging or rest. For tempo runs, you run at a pace close to your 10K race pace for a shorter distance than 10K, usually for 2 to 3 miles.
Tempo runs help train your body to run at race pace and improve your running efficiency so you can perform well even when tired, just like you would in a race. Tempo runs increase your lactate threshold, or the point at which your body fatigues at a certain pace.
Lactate builds up in your muscles as you exercise, and the point at which the lactate builds up faster than your body can remove it is your lactate threshold. Once you pass the lactate threshold, you’ll feel fatigue and soreness. The good news is lactate threshold can increase dramatically with training. So you can improve your lactate threshold, helping you to run faster without getting exhausted.
Enter tempo runs. I recommend doing one tempo run a week, incorporating it as a “hard” day in your training (which means you should follow it with an easy day or rest day). The exact distance and pace of your tempo runs will depend on your race goals. If you’re training for a marathon, for instance, your tempo run may be 8 miles at a slightly slower speed than your 10K race pace. If you are training for a 5K, on the other hand, 20 minutes of tempo running at your 10K pace will be more effective. If you don’t know your 10K pace, aim for a “comfortably hard” effort level of about 8 out of 10. You want to be able to breathe while you run so you’re not going at an all-out sprint, but you also want to challenge yourself to go faster than a relaxed, conversational pace. Adding tempo runs to your workouts can help you run stronger and harder in races and training. So let’s give it up for the middle child of speed workouts — your next PR just may come from it.