What Is Tempo Running and How Does It Work?

Many runners are guilty of over-training in a pursuit of faster times and new personal bests. So, instead of following a proper plan and professional advice, we head out the door and just push, push, push… Until there’s no push left.

Luckily, there’s an effective training method that long-distance runners can use to gain a vital physical and mental edge. This edge is needed to get our bodies into optimal condition for energy consumption and endurance. It’s called the tempo run.

What is tempo running?

While the humble tempo run is a staple for most professionals and elites, most beginners have no idea what a tempo run is and how to do it properly. Tempo runs have numerous benefits, but when done wrong, they can backfire spectacularly.

Below, we’ll look at what a tempo run is, how it’s different from other training runs, what the benefits are, and everything else you need to know about this useful training plan staple.

What Is Tempo Running?

What is tempo running?

Tempo runs are longer runs done at a continuous pace that require a sustained effort. These aren’t to be confused with recovery jogs at an easy pace. You will push your body, elevate your heart rate, and test your stamina. You’ll run faster than your normal pace but for a shorter distance than your long runs.

Tempo runs are different from interval sessions.

Rather than the stop-start repetitions of intervals, tempo runs are 20 to 30 minutes at a set pace. Tempo runs should make you tired from the sustained effort and shouldn’t be comfortable to complete.

A tempo run is threshold training where you push yourself to run faster. They’re called tempo runs because you run at a tempo pace. This pace varies from runner to runner, making this training technique appealing to many runners.

The best part is that you customize the pace to your abilities, increasing the pace as you improve your fitness. The ultimate goal of tempo running is to gradually improve your ability to run faster.

What’s the Difference Between Tempo vs Interval Runs?

To help you to understand how tempo running works, you first need to understand the main difference between tempo running and interval training. In the world of fitness, there are two types of training: aerobic and anaerobic. 

It’s important to include both in your sessions in varying amounts. To do this, you need to know the difference, which is where tempo and interval sessions come in.

Tempo Training

Tempo runs are aerobic, and this is where you are building up your oxygen stores and endurance. In other words, you are trying to optimize your performance so you can run for an extended period over a longer distance. 

Tempo running is where you run a longer distance at a set pace. The objective is to maintain that pace for as long as you can. You’ll be able to maintain that pace longer as your fitness increases.

You can only do that with regular interval runs included in your training routine. Your body needs to get used to the shock of finding your fitness level (or unfitness level) and leveling up from there. 

The only way you’ll get truly fast is if you train fast. The only way to train fast is if you do interval training, where you push your body in short bursts of hard effort. This will help you mentally train for the long haul. 

Our training pace calculator will show you exactly what your target pace should be for each category of run.

Interval Training

Interval runs are anaerobic.

This type of training pushes you to use your maximum speed, power, and energy in short bursts where you need to run hard for a certain distance or time, back off and recover for a certain distance or time, then repeat this several times.

How do you know if it’s anaerobic training?

If your burning chest is burning, it’s anaerobic training!

How Do Tempo Runs Work?

Tempo run day

Tempo runs help your body learn and adapt to the demands and strains placed on your cardiovascular system. Improving your endurance increases your VO2 max. This means your body can utilize more of the oxygen you inhale to power your muscles.

The goal of tempo running is to build up your speed so you can run for longer stretches and at a faster pace. Tempo runs should not feel overly intense, but they should feel sustainably uncomfortable. The goal is to inch toward reaching your lactate threshold.

You can use our VO2 Max calculator to get a good idea of your current endurance levels. This is your baseline to improve on.

How to Calculate Your Tempo Pace

To get a true calculation of your tempo pace, you need to have it scientifically analyzed in a lab setting. But you can get the basic ballpark number at home with a few easy steps:

  1. Find the pace you can maintain for about one hour in a race. This is often your 10k race pace.
  2. Divide the running time (56 minutes) by the distance (10 km).
  3. The answer (5.6 = 5:36 per km) is your tempo pace.

Another simple way to calculate your tempo pace is to take off 30 seconds per mile from your 5k race pace. So, if you normally run a 27-minute 5k, your pace is 8:41 per mile. This means your tempo pace is around 8:11 per mile (5:05 per km).

There’s more to it than this, but this gives you a number to work with. If you are concerned about running at a certain pace, you could do your tempo run based on the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) instead. Tempo runs should be held at an RPE of 6 to 8.

RPEHR %Talk LevelMaintain Pace DurationIdeal Race
Very Easy1 – 2< 60NormalIndefiniteN/A – warm-up
Easy3 – 460 – 703 – 6 word sentences2 – 5+ hoursUltramarathon, marathon
Hard5 – 670 – 802 – 3 word bursts30 minutes – 2 hours10k – half marathon
Very Hard7 – 880 – 901 – 2 words between gasps8 – 30 minutes5k or less
Maximum9 – 1090 – 100Hard to say 1 word5 minutes or less1 mile

Of course, this is only a guide. The only accurate way to know your heart rate zones is to visit a sports science lab for an assessment. But if you’re just getting started and need a rough range, it’s a good start.

The Benefits of Tempo Training

There are some clear and obvious upsides to including tempo runs in your training plan.

Here are 3 of the biggest benefits:

1. Improves Your Lactate Clearance

Tempo runs improve your lactate clearance (the speed at which your body reduces the lactate concentrations in your body) by purposefully spiking your lactic acid on runs so your body can learn how to clear it better.

Lactic acid builds up in your legs during your run, leaving your legs feeling fatigued and heavy after the workout. Similarly to how aerobic workouts improve your cardiovascular strength, building your lactate threshold trains your muscles’ ability to clear lactic acid buildup.

When your body clears lactate efficiently, your muscles don’t have to work through the acid with a delay in energy production. A higher lactate threshold means you can run harder for longer, i.e., you build your endurance. Because tempo runs don’t create lactic buildup, you can improve your performance during these sessions.

2. Improves Your Mental Endurance

The act of running has many challenges and obstacles for those just getting started, but evidence has shown that overcoming these barriers builds your mental endurance. Physical activity plays a large, positive role in improving anxiety and depression and boosting your mood. All of these enhance your long-term mental endurance.

These same studies also found that runners have lower rates of depression and higher self-identity, suggesting an association between psychological copying, self-esteem, and physical activity.

3. Improves Your Cardiovascular Fitness

When you are unfit, i.e., you have low cardiovascular fitness, your heart must work extra hard to transport oxygen around your body and your muscles when you run. This results in your heart rate increasing quickly to sustain your body’s oxygen needs.

The higher your heart rate gets, the closer you get to your anaerobic threshold. Running with your heart rate at 90% or an RPE of 9 isn’t sustainable for more than about 5 minutes, but running at RPE 6 – 8 can be held for around 30 minutes. This duration helps build your cardiovascular fitness, endurance, and VO2 max.

4. Improves Your Race Day Speed

A landmark study in the 1980s found that regularly running at your tempo pace increased your race day speed. This is something called the onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA). The researchers asked the runners in the study to run at their OBLA once per week for 20 minutes.

The participants did these runs for 14 weeks, after which their average OBLA pace had reduced by 4%. This translates to a slower lactic acid accumulation, allowing runners to perform for longer at a faster pace.

5. Can Improve Your Mood and Focus

So many physical benefits come with exercising and running, but did you know that even shorter 10-minute bouts of exercise can boost your mental toughness and endurance? If this is what short sessions can do, imagine what including a 30-minute tempo run each week can do.

A recent study found that running to improve your mood and focus is a real phenomenon. Researchers found that tempo runs can also enhance arousal levels, promoting cognition. And who doesn’t want that?!

How to Include Tempo Runs in Your Training Plan

If you want to hit new personal bests, you should include tempo runs in your weekly routine.

It doesn’t matter if you’re running for enjoyment, to increase your fitness, or trying to get a new PB; tempo runs are vital. But how do you include them in your training plan? And how many miles should you do?

In most instances, your tempo run should only be between 20 and 40 minutes. Of course, this depends on several factors. 

For those of you doing distances shorter than 10 miles, your tempo run should be 3 to 5 miles. For runners training for 10 miles up to marathon distances, your tempo runs should be between 4 and 6 miles. For marathon runners, your tempo runs should be around 9 miles, but only as you build to the peak of your training block.

When doing your tempo run, the main requirement is to set out at your tempo pace and stick to it for the entire duration. The distance is not as important as the pace.

3 Awesome Tempo Sessions

As with any exercise, especially running, start with a warm-up. Spend a few minutes doing dynamic stretches, high knees, leg swings, bum kicks, and squats. Then, do a brisk walk or slow jog for 10 to 15 minutes.

Cruising Intervals

This tempo workout pairs two concepts: your tempo pace with intervals. You’ll run at your tempo pace for a set distance or time, like 1 mile or 10 minutes, then do a 60-second recovery, either as a brisk walk or gentle jog. 

Psychologically, this type of session breaks down the difficulty of the run while still enhancing the aerobic benefits. It allows you to do more distance or time while preventing you from running too fast, which could lead to burnout or injury.

If you’ve just started including tempo runs in your routine, start with the below intervals, then build them up from there.

  1. Warm-up
  2. 1 mile @ tempo pace
  3. 60 seconds recovery walk or jog
  4. Repeat intervals 2 to 4 times

The OG Classic

This likely comes to mind if you’ve heard of or seen a tempo workout. It’s considered the classic of tempo workouts and includes a steady buildup, tempo, and cool-down.

  1. Warm-up
  2. 10 minutes at easy pace
  3. 20 minutes at tempo pace
  4. 10 minutes at easy pace

Marathoner’s Tempo Sesh

This is the perfect tempo session for you if you are training for a marathon or any distance longer than about 10 miles. You should only include this tempo run every second week of our plan.

  1. Warm-up
  2. 20 minutes at tempo pace
  3. 20 minutes at easy pace
  4. 20 minutes at tempo pace

Tempo Runs Can Boost Your Performance

Tempo runs are great for improving your speed, endurance, and distance. It’s a great form of cardio that boasts physical and mental benefits. As you can see above, there’s nothing complicated about a tempo run. 

Remember to always listen to your body. If you feel any pain, stop immediately; otherwise, you risk developing an injury. And if you’re unsure about what you’re doing, consult a trainer or coach before heading out.

Author Profile

Thalia Oosthuizen

Photo of author
Thalia started running during the the pandemic as a way of getting out of the house. The running bug bit, and now much of her life revolves around everything to do with running - videos, podcasts, studies, books, articles, and interviews. She's also done several courses on running nutrition and mechanics to aid in her training and advising others.
Thalia Oosthuizen

Revel SPorts Contributor

Leave a Comment