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Posted by on Sep 25, 2009 in FYI, Guests, Running, Technique

Tempo Runs

The tempo run can either be your best friend or your worst enemy.  These short-to-medium distance training runs at or below race pace are critical for a number of reasons:

  • Increases in overall fitness and tuning of both slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibers
  • Mental practice for maintaining a quick pace over distance (something that needs to be old hat on race day)
  • Physical practice and muscle memory building for goal pace(s)
  • Confidence building through just getting out and \”feeling fast\”

\"marathonThe goal of a tempo run is to get these benefits without causing any unwanted harm.  When I have a tempo run on the schedule (about once a week), here is how I like to approach them in my attempt to have the most positive impact on my overall training.

  1. Choose a Distance that Fits Your Current Ability and Training Intensity.  Depending on what distance you are training for, your tempo runs could vary anywhere from one to fifteen miles.  If you are in week 2 of a marathon training plan, it's probably not a good idea to go for a 12-15 mile tempo run.  You're body isn't ready, and you'll just do some damage.  I like to start out with about 20% of the race distance, and then add about 5% per week in distance until I reach about half of the total race distance.  So, for a marathon, my longest tempo run will be about 13 miles.
  2. Choose a Pace that Makes Sense. Tempo runs should be difficult, but not damaging.  I never get more than 30 seconds under race pace, and especially at the beginning of a training plan, I try to ease into tempo runs.  You should be running just fast enough that you aren't totally comfortable, but not so fast that you can barely maintain yourself.  Reserve the really fast paces for your shorter interval workouts.
  3. Get a Good Warmup. I can't stress this one enough.  Don't waste your time stretching before a tempo run, but do get a good mile or so of easy

    warmup runnning completed before you set off on the actual tempo run.  You need to get your heartrate elevated and your muscles warmed up.  You wouldn't run a race without a proper warmup, would you?  Tempo runs are really the same thing.

  4. Start Quick, NOT Fast. I like to start tempo runs a little slower than the goal pace for the overall run, but with a faster leg turnover.  This helps me make sure I am really warm before I put down the hammer, lets me practice speeding up on the fly, and ensures that I don't go out too fast and wreck the whole run.  After the first half to full mile, I speed up to slightly faster than goal pace to compensate.  I also try to practice a little \”zen style\” mantra – \”let the run come to me, don't force it…\”
  5. Use Every Available Advantage.  Lean into the downhills a little bit, catch that other person up ahead, etc.  Practice the things that will make you faster during your race.
  6. Finish Strong, but NOT All Out.  Tempo runs are all about learning to maintain a pace, not about an all-out sprint.  If you feel the need to sprint, save it for after an easy run or on a cross-training day.
  7. COOL DOWN.  This means both a full mile or so of jogging, followed by walking, followed by stretching.  You'll quickly find that your frame gets tight when you are pacing faster.  This is your opportunity to relieve all that stress from your system so you'll be feeling fresh for your next training run.
  8. Don't Worry if You Screw Up.  You'll run tempo runs a whole mess of times before the race.  \”Off days\” are both normal and to be expected.

With a little practice, these runs will make you a better racer.  If I had to choose one run to not miss in a given week, it would be my tempo run for sure.

Caleb Masland is a \”serious amateur\” runner who believes that ordinary people are capable of reaching their personal goals through smart training and hard work. Caleb has been running for 20 years and shares his training philosophy, which is aimed at maximizing genetic potential and overcoming the typical athletic bonk, at



  1. Aah…Brandon, were you posting this one for me? Seriously? I could’ve used this BEFORE I trashed myself on my tempo run yesterday. Haha!

    • Sorry man! I just saw this (note the author) earlier today and asked him to republish on my site. You are actually the reason I asked!

  2. Nice post… I have been avoiding my tempo runs probably because it taxes you the most. I suspect I had been doing it all wrong so far and hence wasn’t enjoying the runs.
    A timely post.. I am in my 2nd week of training for the Mumbai Marathon in Jan.

  3. Boy, do I hate posts like this. It’s touchy, it’s feely, but it never really says anything. Lam had a series a bit ago about the various types of speedwork, which would include tempo runs. Now this may be part of a broader group of workouts, but I think it’s crazy not to spend $20 on and a few hours with a good training book.

    Tempo runs are very important, including for marathon training (but for shorter races too). But they must fit into an overall training program. And they must be done with an understanding of their purpose and an understanding of how long and how fast they should be. And when in the training cycle.

    How fast should a 20 minute tempo run be? How about 40? At what point does tempo pace get slower than Marathon Pace? If you do sets of 5 minutes, what’s the interval?

    In other words, instead of picking and choosing among workouts posted by people or things dropped into Running Times or Runners World, get a book with a comprehensive approach to training. On Tempo runs, just grabbing books on my shelf, Daniels gives details as do Pfitz/Douglas. Joe Friel has them for triathletes (using HRM).

    FWIW, I do tempos up to 40 minutes on the track so I can keep an eye 400 to 400 (and sometimes 100 to 100) of exactly where I am, although Garmins make them easy to do on the roads. And I follow Daniels for them.

    • It is something about which I really would like to become more knowledgeable. I am finally getting to a place with my running (and cycling) where I find my body going into a very nice comfort zone. Since I don’t want to become complacent and fall into the trap of settling for “good enough”, I think it’s time to move forward, as it were. Upon reading your comment, Joe, I immediately placed my order of Joe Friel’s Total Heart Rate Training… and am excited to get started.

      I knew with this post that it, like pedal cadence or the eternal foot strike debate, would have as many opinions as there are athletes. I asked Caleb to republish it here (for which I am extremely grateful) because Lam and I briefly discussed it the other day, and my interest was piqued.

      I am excited and eager to get more into the numbers game that solid tempo training will undoubtedly bring along with it!!

  4. Wow great tips on tempo runs. I am not good at them but you have inspired me to give them a try!


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