The Perfect Tempo Run

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.