In this article Jack Gray gives us his thoughts on tempo running, a key part of how he went from a 30-minute 10k man, to breaking 29 minutes three times in a year.
The humble tempo run (or lactate threshold run) has featured prominently in the training plans of some of Britain’s greatest distance runners. However, despite ringing endorsements from some esteemed athletes, the tempo run is often neglected, misunderstood or mislabelled.
In light of this, a good place to start is defining what we mean by a tempo run. Taking the definition of renowned exercise physiologist Jack Daniels, I consider a tempo run to be:
• A training run of at least 20 minutes volume ran at a consistent pace;
• Approximately 25 to 30 seconds per mile slower than your current 5K race pace; and,
• Bloody hard – approximately 6-7 out of 10 for your rate of perceived exertion (RPE).
So, if your 5k PB is 16:00 minutes (5:09ish pace), your tempo pace is roughly between 5:35 and 5:40 pace per mile.
Why should you run a tempo?
Physiologically speaking, the point of the humble tempo run is to lift the ceiling of your lactate threshold. Put simply, your lactate threshold is the point during exercise when lactate builds up in your muscles and blood faster than it can be removed. When you venture above your lactate threshold, you can expect your discomfort to rise rapidly! Sound familiar?
Finding your tempo
So how do you find your tempo, and what should you avoid doing?
• Don’t just rock up: you should prepare for a tempo run as you would do for any other hard interval session; meaning: a warmup, strides, drills and activation exercises. Don’t take the approach of ‘easing into it’, start on pace, finish on pace and achieve your goals. Furthermore, if you’re putting your body through a significant slog of ‘comfortably hard running’, you want to ensure your core and glutes are firing nicely.
• Don’t run in no man’s (or woman’s) land: the zone between your steady running pace and your tempo pace is, in my opinion, a dead zone. Here, you’re not running hard enough to develop the physiological adaptions you seek, but are breaking your body down more than you would during a steady run. Think of it this way, it’s dangerous driving at 45mph in a 30mph or 60mph zone, so keep it legal.
• Don’t label a bad race as a tempo run: the aim of the tempo run is to be consistent. Therefore, calling a race where you set off too quickly and hit the wall ‘a tempo’, isn’t doing you any favours. If you’re not up for the race, don’t toe the line.
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Today I got my first taste of marathon training sessions 😬 … As many of you will know my aim is to compete in the marathon at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022. So, with 2 years to go, I thought it was about time I started doing some proper marathon sessions. Today I started with 8 miles, 4 miles, 4 miles at 5:05 pace off 2.5 minutes recovery. It was a long old slog, but I’m chuffed that I managed to pull it off 🙌 My training has progressed nicely since coming back from injury, and even though there is no tangible race to aim for, my hunger and desire are strong. But for now, I’m just looking forward to more 🍺 in the garden☀ cheers! #metricmarathon #marathon #26.2 #marathonsesh marathoncontinues #marathonprep #Runnershigh #berlinbound #hokaoneone #hoka #timetofly #trainhard #resteasy #ukrunchat #runasone
When and where to do your tempos?
In my opinion, you need a traffic-free route devoid of any potential ‘interruptions’ to successfully complete a tempo run. I choose to complete my tempo runs on grass circuits of between 1km and 1mile. Grass circuits work best for me. They reduce the impact on my legs and provide feedback through features on the loop. For examaple I know my watch should read approximately 2 minutes when I pass the ‘mouldy bench’, or 2 minutes 30 when I pass the ‘flower bed’.
Please note, if your tempo loop includes hills or rough ground, or the weather is awful, this will inevitably slow you down; this is where the importance of judging your effort e.g. 6-7 out of 10 is important.
Due to time-constraints during the week, I choose to do my tempo runs on Saturdays; this gives me the time to prepare properly. I particularly value my leisurely Saturday morning coffees. I like having the time to indulge myself doing drills and activation exercises before I get going.
Personally I love the grind of tempo runs, and the ability to lose myself in the zone. Even the attrition is alluring, as I deliriously think to myself “was that 11 or 12 laps?”. This weekend, I did a 10 mile tempo (30 mins, 3 mins jog, 20 mins), keeping my splits on my 3 minute loops within 2-3 seconds of each other.
Getting it done
If you’re just getting started, here are a few tempo session ideas:
• 3 x 10 minutes (off 2 minutes recovery). Run this session at the faster end of your tempo range;
• 15 minutes (3 minutes recovery) 10 minutes. Run 15mins at the slower end and 10mins at the quicker end of your tempo range;
• 20 minutes straight through. Run this session at the slower end of your tempo range.
Tempo sessions often feel good at the start, but the fatigue really creeps up on you. For that reason, they are perfect preparation for those races that gradually grind you down, like the 10k, half-marathon and marathon.
I firmly believe that introducing a hard tempo run into my weekly training programme has given me the requisite physiological adaptions and mental fortitude to take my running to the next level.
What’s the take home message? I implore you to respect and understand the tempo, not to fear or neglect it. So, this week, as part of your lockdown learning, calculate your tempo pace. Prepare properly before you set out for your tempo. Race up and get ready to make your distance running foundations rock solid.