The Perfect Tempo Run

The 'comfortably hard' run is the key to clocking your fastest time, at any distance

Posted: 19 November 2007
by John Hanc

Pssst! Want to run like a Kenyan? Okay, you might not ever run as fast a Kenyan. But your training regime – no matter how far away you are from Nairobi – can help you achieve new personal records, simply by incorporating the same works-like-magic method that helped propel Paul Tergat, the former marathon world record holder, to greatness.

The secret? The tempo run – that faster-paced session also known as a lactate-threshold, LT or threshold run.

One US-based coach championing this method of champions is Toby Tanser. In 1995, when Tanser was an elite young track runner from Sweden, he trained with the Kenyans’ ‘A’ team for seven months. They ran classic tempos – a slow 15-minute warm-up, followed by at least 20 minutes at a challenging but manageable pace, then a 15-minute cool-down – as often as twice a week. "The foundation of Kenyan running is based almost exclusively on tempo training," says Tanser. "It changed my view on training."

Today, Tanser and many running experts believe that tempo runs are the single most important session you can do to improve your speed for any race distance. "There’s no beating the long run for pure endurance," says Tanser. "But tempo running is crucial to racing success because it trains your body to sustain speed over distance." So crucial, in fact, that it trumps track sessions in the longer distances. "Tempo training is more important than speedwork for the half and full marathon," says Gale Bernhardt, author of Training Plans for Multisport Athletes. "Everyone who does tempo runs diligently will improve." However, you also have to be diligent about doing them correctly.

Why the Tempo Works

Tempo running improves a crucial physiological variable for running success: our metabolic fitness. Most runners train their cardiovascular system to deliver oxygen to the muscles, but not how to use it once it arrives. Tempo runs teach the body to use the oxygen for metabolism more efficiently.

How? By increasing your lactate threshold (LT), or the point at which the body fatigues at a certain pace. "During tempo runs, lactate and hydrogen ions – by-products of metabolism – are released into the muscles," says Dr Carwyn Sharp, an exercise scientist who works with NASA. The ions make the muscles acidic, eventually leading to fatigue. The better trained you become, the higher you push your threshold, meaning your muscles become better at using these by-products. The result is less acidic muscles – in other words muscles that haven’t reached their new threshold, so they keep on contracting, letting you run farther and faster.

Doing it properly

But to garner this training effect, you’ve got to put in enough time at the right intensity – it’s easy to get it wrong with runs that are too short and too slow. "You need to get the hydrogen ions in the muscles for a sufficient length of time for the muscles to become adept at using them," says Sharp. Typically, 20 minutes is sufficient, or two to three miles if your goal is general fitness or a 5K. Runners tackling longer distances should do longer tempo runs during their peak training weeks: four to six miles for the 10K, six to eight for the half-marathon and eight to 10 for 26.2.

How should tempo pace feel? "It’s what I call ‘comfortably hard,’" says Pierce. "You know you’re working, but you’re not racing. At the same time, you’d be happy if you could slow down." You’ll be even happier if you make tempo running a part of your weekly training schedule, and get results that make you feel like a Kenyan — if not quite as fast.

Up the Tempo

A classic tempo or lactate-threshold run is a sustained, comfortably hard effort for two to four miles, with a decent warm-up before and cool-down afterwards. The sessions below are geared toward experience levels and race goals.

Goal: Get Started
Coach Gale Bernhardt uses this four-week progression for tempo newbies. Do a 10- to 15-minute warm-up and cool-down.

Week 1: 5 x 3 minutes at tempo pace, 60-second easy jog after each one (if you find that you have to walk during the recovery, you’re going too hard).
Week 2: 5 x 4 minutes at tempo pace, 60-second easy jog recovery
Week 3: 4 x 5 minutes at tempo pace, 90-second easy jog recovery
Week 4: 20 minutes steady tempo pace

Goal: 5K to 10K
Run three easy miles, followed by two repeats of two miles at 10K pace or one mile at 5K pace. Recover with one mile easy between repeats. Do a two-mile easy cool-down for a total of eight or 10 miles.

Goal: Half to Full Marathon
Do this challenging long run once or twice during your training. After a warm-up, run three (half-marathoners) or six (marathoners) miles at the easier end of your tempo pace range. Jog for five minutes, and then do another three or six miles. "Maintaining that comfortably hard pace for so many miles will whip you into shape for long distances," says coach Toby Tanser.

The Right Rhythm

To ensure you’re running at the right pace, use one of these four methods to gauge your intensity.

Recent Race Add 30 to 40 seconds per kilometre to your current 5K pace or 15 to 20 seconds to your 10K pace
Heart Rate Run at 85 to 90 per cent of your maximum heart rate (use a heart-rate monitor to find out your max and to keep track on the run)
Perceived Exertion An eight on a one to 10 scale (a comfortable effort would be a five; racing would be close to a 10)
Talk Test A question like "Pace okay?" should be possible, but conversation won’t be.

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lactate, training general, tempo, tempo run, threshold

Discuss this article

I'm training, quite seriously, for the FLM. I am generally very heathy for a 51 year old female and exercise very strenuously at least 12 hours per week. I seldom really get out of breath and my recovery rate seems very swift. My blood pressure has been checked recently and it's fine. I do perspire copiously - should I say I glow a lot??? When I run, particularly uphill, my heart rate can go up to 200 very easily - but my monitor usually averages it out over the course of a 10 mile run to 155. (I do live in Wales so perhaps our hills are "good 'uns" ) Resting, my heart rate is usually 60 ish - please tell me, am I going to drop dead???
Posted: 04/11/2008 at 22:02

lol, don't think you'll drop dead Fran, I'm a 36 year old female and mine has been as high as 209 on a long steep hill, I average about 163 on a 10 mile run.
Posted: 04/11/2008 at 22:28

Blimey - twelve hours you say ? What kind of miles and what kind of time are you going for ?
Posted: 04/11/2008 at 23:15

Oh, I'm not that tough - 12 hrs includes spin classes, gym and a swim - I'm totally untalented as an athlete and can only usually manage averages of 9.5 minute miles, but hey, 3 years ago I couldn't run for a bus!
Posted: 05/11/2008 at 17:06

looking at those figures Fran I don't think you have anything to worry about but something must have spooked you to have posted the "am I going to drop dead" to share??
Posted: 05/11/2008 at 17:09

Thank you  - Close family member did die suddenly from heart attack last year so silly rates do alarm me - but I've since read that running around pylons or even sweat affects transference of signals - hope that's the case!
Posted: 06/11/2008 at 13:30

sometimes they can stop them completely which sort of freaks you 1st time - I have a level crossing near me that I run over - the power rail always stops my HR monitor....

if it's any consolation, my father died of a single heart attack which made me think about my lifestyle - that was over 20 years ago now and I make sure I keep fit, heat healthily and not worry about it. when your time's up, your time's up........
Posted: 06/11/2008 at 14:04

My average HR is 180 althouhg I can go to 200 at some points during my run. My resting HR is 38. Im just turned 37.  I only run about 5km twice a week  and do astanga yoga every day.
Posted: 23/11/2008 at 17:44

 I'd say for your age 200 is high but then we're all different aren't we.

My max (aged 53) HR is about 175 which is marginally higher than average for my age and I only reach that with speedwork. If you're hitting 200 under hard running which I assume is the case with your hills it is almost certainly no problem providing it drops quite quickly again when effort is reduced or stopped.

Another possibility is a faulty monitor, interference (as above), so probably find ways of excluding these possibilities. I'd also try running hard and fast in a gym/on a treadmill if you can to determine your actual max.

I don't consider 9.5 min miles over long distances slow by the way. I was very happy last year finishing the FLM in 4:28 which averages out at 10:14 minute miles.

Posted: 24/12/2008 at 09:48


Wanna aim to do the london marathon in 3-10. current pb for marathon is 3-31. 

10k pb is 40-12

How fast should i run my tempo runs? HOw far shpould i run for marathon tempos?

cant get my head round tempo runs!! about 7-20 is that right? if i do them on tread what gradient should i use?? 


Posted: 13/12/2011 at 18:44

Not sure if you've had a reply on other forums to your December question, but generaly, I find (and others seem to agree) that running on a treadmill should be between 1 and 2% to mimic road running.

Not an experienced marathoner, but tempo runs for marathon should be minimum 7 miles excluding warm up of a few miles. And for a 3:10 marathon, I'm guessing possibly quite a bit further!

That's an aggressive target, you've set yourself, but good luck with it!!

Posted: 03/02/2012 at 13:31

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