Coach Mike Mead

Tempo Running - November 2007

I’ve been reading in the monthly running magazines about the values of tempo runs and of their importance to runners wanting to get faster. In the past few months, I have read several articles on the virtues of tempo training. Last month I brought up the importance of distance training and how one could safely increase weekly mileage. This time around let me address the intensity of some of these weekly workouts.

Besides distance, another key component to building base and strength is the rate of speed in which these training sessions need to be run. When you are first building your base, you are likely not varying the speed of your runs during the early weeks. You’re just trying to get in shape and lay a foundation you can build from. But as you get about six to eight weeks into your base training, you need to add variety and some speed to your training and tempo runs work nicely.

As I have stated many times in the past, my coaching background lacks the science part, so to get very specific you need to supplement your knowledge from a coach like Ed Eyestone who is an exercise physiologist. Experts like Eyestone have noticed over the past few years that runners were not getting enough tempo work. But with the recent resurgence in U.S. running at the elite level, it has been concluded that these runners have been doing more tempo runs. We’re talking about an average of about 20 percent of weekly workouts were done at tempo intensity.

Just what does “tempo” intensity mean? If you are one who runs a 5K at six minute per mile pace, you are doing tempo runs at an intensity of about 80-85 percent, or about 6:30-6:40 mile pace for 4-6 miles. Many runners don’t figure this out correctly.

The first mistake made by some runners is they figure what their fastest mile they can run. This skewers the intensity of the workout. If your best mile is 6:00, but you average 6:45 per mile in the 5K you are likely not likely to run your tempo run at the proper intensity. In this example, the tempo run should be more like at 7:20 per mile pace for the workout.

A more common mistake made by runners is doing the tempo pace too slow and far too short a distance. Your tempo runs need to be run at a comfortably fast pace that is sustained for at least 20 minutes. This also depends on the distance you are training for to race. If you’re training for 10K’s, you need to be running tempo runs for at least 30 minutes at 80-85 percent of your current 10K race pace.

As far as frequency in running tempo runs, ideally you should run two per week. This can vary according to where you are in your training. If you are just starting off once a week is fine. If you have not done any speed work, then three times per week will work in most cases. If you are doing speed and tempo runs, this is where you must use caution and not do more than two speed sessions and two tempo runs during any given week if you are training at least 50 miles per week and running at least six days per week.

Tempo runs are not for everyone. Tempo running requires some mental toughness to be able to focus running at the proper pace. The tendency with many runners is to start off strong, but fade and slow down before completing the run. But if mental toughness is a weakness, maybe you need to be doing tempo runs to make you mentally tougher!

I always instruct my runners to run with someone a little faster than themselves and hang on as long as they can. With each tempo run, they should hang on a little longer than the previous workout. If you are training solo, use the tip I’ve suggested before – find a good four to six mile course and each time you run a tempo run on it, try to run it faster than the last time. This will give you an incentive that should help you accomplish your tempo training goal for that run.

If you have not incorporated tempo runs in your training, you need to give them a shot. Otherwise, if the national trend is true you’ll be left in the dust down the road.