The need for speed …. tempo runs.

Posted: January 14, 2010 in Training

I got a great question yesterday from a fellow marathoner if I knew any “tricks” to shaving minutes off of their marathon PR (Personal Record) and make a run at a Boston Qualifying time.  The question posed was, how in the world did I go from a 3:58:08 time at age 39 to a 3:17:43 just 2 1/2 years later, (and older).

I’ve posted in the past about strength training – and I am a firm believer that working out 3 times a week with at least 15 minutes dedicated to core training made a huge difference. But the secret weapon to learn how to run fast frankly is to run fast.

That is the role of the tempo run in your training program – simply put Tempo runs will make you a stronger miler, a faster 5-K runner, a more powerful 10-K runner, and a less-fatigued marathoner. How can one workout benefit such a wide range of race distances? Simply put: Tempo runs teach your body to run faster before fatiguing.

I’m not a Doctor.  I don’t even play one on T.V. – that said, numerous studies have shown that the best predictor of distance-running performance is your lactate threshold.  Lactate threshold is the speed you are able to run before lactic acid begins to accumulate in the blood. By regularly including tempo runs in your training schedule, you will increase the speed that you can run before lactic acid begins to slow you down.

The best way I heard this described to me was the analogy  of an automobile.  Tempo runs train your engine to rev faster without red-lining.  Before incorporating tempo runs into your training program, you may have red-lined at an 8-minute-per-mile pace. After a few months of tempo runs, you won’t red-line until you reach a 7:30-per-mile pace.  For me this was the difference between watching the Boston Marathon on television and racing at Boston this April.

A traditional tempo run consists of a warm up period, a tempo period and a cool down period.  Your warm up and cool down periods can last a mile or two and should be run at a conversational pace.  This is a pace where you could comfortably talk with a running partner and not be out of breath.  For me as a 7:29/mile marathoner – this pace is somewhere around 8:15/mile.

For the tempo portion however you should try to run approximately :10 seconds faster than your target pace for 25-35 minutes during the middle portion of your run.  A typical tempo run using the strategy above would look like:

2 miles at 8:15, 5 miles at 7:20, 2 miles at 8:15. 

This workout would cover 9 miles in 1 hour and 9 minutes +/-.  Running at a fast pace during your tempo runs will allow you to continue to raise the intensity level (speed) at which you can train before reaching your lactate threshold.

Remember, not every workout can be or should be a “hard day”.  If you are on a 4 or 5 day running schedule you should include an easy day (or two), a tempo run, a medium-long run (which I call my “sorta long-run”) and a long-run.

The tempo workouts will help your speed, the medium long and long-run will build your endurance and your easy day(s) will help your recovery and build your mileage base.  Remember those rest days as they are as important as any other day in your training plan.  Without giving your muscles time to rebound and come back stronger – all you are doing is breaking them down without allowing them to build themselves back up.  Injury is not too far away if you don’t allow your body to recover.

Your tempo days will be hard at first – and honestly they continue to be hard as you improve.  When it comes to marathon training the fact is that it is hard work.  The only easy day is yesterday.

  1. tbrush3 says:

    That is a good breakdown of a tempo run Joe. What type plan are you using for Boston? Hal Higdon? Just wondering what you have used to make it successful for you.

  2. joerunfordom says:

    Thanks Trey! – You bet, I am a Hal Higdon disciple. Hal got me through my first marathon sub 4:00 and to a Boston time with his intermediate II training program – so I am a loyalist.

    That said, I’m mixing it up just a bit this time around due to the unique nature of the Boston course, the second marathon only 13 days later and that nagging shin issue I had in November.

    I modified Hal’s plan dropping the second low-mileage day (typically the Thursday workout) and added cycling to my training. This is allowing me to train with only one back-to-back run portion of the week which has helped take pressure off my shin issue – but still allow for 4 runs, 3 cycling days and 3 strength training days each week. My schedule now looks like:

    Monday – Bike/Strength
    Tuesday – Tempo Run
    Wednesday – Sorta Long Run/Strength
    Thursday – Easy Bike
    Friday – Pace Run/Strength
    Saturday – Long Bike
    Sunday – Long Run

    The cycling I’m hoping will help build that quad strength I’ll need for the downhills at Boston and help with my overall conditioning level as I dropped a run day from my training schedule. Stay tuned – we’ll see how I do at the 3M Half next Sunday – right now I’m feeling great and hitting my times, so maybe I’m on to something?

    Best, Joe

  3. Brilliant post. You really described HOW to do a tempo run and what the benefits are. This makes sense, even to me! Maybe I can now explain this to some other people in a way that makes better sense. I can also see that I don’t push myself hard enough in my tempo runs. Very, very rarely do I run so hard that I can’t talk (that’s saying a lot for me). I need to get to about a 7:00/mile pace before I really need to shut up and conserve breath. That being said, I’m not pushing myself hard enough when I laze about in the 8’s and 9’s (REALLY easy runs).

  4. joerunfordom says:

    Thanks Lara! This was the type of training run I had the hardest time “getting right” when running faster became my goal instead of simply running further.

    It helps me to have that tempo workout on my schedule (fridge) and really think about what I am going to do during that run the night before. At that point I can just bounce out of bed, get ready and go.

    If done correctly you get a great workout, a great sense of accomplishment and great results in short order.

    Take care!

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