The Long Run: Picking Up The Tempo

A tempo run is most easily described as a "comfortably hard" sustained effort. Photo: Scott Draper/Competitor

Ultrarunning champion Scott Jurek explains how to push your threshold. 

The two most common things runners want are to get faster and to improve their body composition. One of the most important workouts to achieving both is the tempo, or threshold, workout.

What is tempo pace?
Tempo effort is associated with lactate threshold—the intensity at which working muscles are able to clear lactic acid at the rate it’s being produced. It is typically 85 to 90 percent of maximum effort and is often described as “comfortably hard.” Many people notice a very subtle burning in the muscles.

How do you find your tempo pace?
Tempo pace is your current 10K to 15K (or 10-mile) race pace or the maximum effort that can be sustained for 45 to 60 minutes. If your 10K time is less than 40 minutes, use your current 15K or 10-mile race pace. If your 10K is more than 60 minutes, use your current 8K or 5K race pace. If you’re not able to run continuously for 40 to 60 minutes, use your average pace for running and walking a 10K or 5K race.

Haven’t raced recently?
Perform your own time trial. Measure a flat to mostly flat 10K or 15K route using accurate mile markers, a GPS, bike odometer or track. Use a stopwatch or GPS to record your time. You can also measure your average heart rate for the tempo effort. Warm up for 10 to 15 minutes. When ready, start your watch and run the 10K or 15K as if you were racing—give it your all. The average pace—use an online pace calculator—and average heart rate will be your current effort for tempo workouts.

RELATED: Know Your Tempo

Tempo Workouts
Depending on your goals, tempo workouts should be done once or twice per week. Keep track of splits with quarter-mile markers or run on a track to determine how close your effort is to tempo pace. You can also use quarter-mile lap splits on a GPS watch. Make sure to take a recovery week every two to three weeks, where you’ll run less overall weekly mileage and complete tempo runs at 50 to 60 percent less than your longest iteration of these workouts.

Sustained Tempo:
Jog for 10 to 20 minutes; run tempo pace or average tempo heart rate for 20 to 60 minutes; jog for five to 10 minutes. For longer race distances, build up to the higher end of the range; for shorter distances, focus on the middle to lower end of the range. Increase the tempo duration by five minutes per week.

Segmental Tempo:
Jog for 10 to 20 minutes; run for five minutes at 10 to 20 seconds per mile faster than tempo pace with one-minute recovery at an easy pace. Repeat four to eight times, keeping the pace consistent for all intervals. As you get stronger, increase the tempo segment to 10 minutes with a two-minute recovery and eventually 15 minutes and a three-minute recovery. For variety, vary the tempo duration—just make sure the recovery is completed at a one to five ratio of the tempo segment. The tempo should total 20 to 50 minutes, depending on your goals.

Hill Tempo:
If you’re a trail runner or want to build strength on the roads, do one of your tempo sessions on a steady hill or inclined treadmill (5 to 10 percent grade). The best way to gauge tempo effort is heart rate. Aim for an average heart rate that is three to five beats per minute less than your average tempo heart rate from the time trial or race.

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When to increase the tempo pace?
In as little as two to three weeks, you’ll see an improvement in the effort required to maintain your tempo pace and the ability to increase the duration. Increase your tempo pace by three to five seconds per mile every four to six weeks as your fitness improves or following a new result in a 10K or 15K race or time trial. Charting your progress will keep you motivated and, as always, keep it fun.

This piece first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.


About The Author:

Based in Boulder, Colo., Scott Jurek is a seven-time winner of the Western States 100-mile trail run. Have a question for Scott? Ask him here!

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