Tempo Run Workouts to Help You Get Faster

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While most of us will never break any world- or even local records, there’s something wonderfully fulfilling about smashing a PB. Hours of training, months or even years of doubting yourself, and then finally, one day: Boom! The effort pays off and you do it. And while, for most of us, it doesn’t happen very often, it’s certainly worth the effort.

But how do we get faster? Is there a specific kind of workout aimed at pushing our bodies to adapt to the rigors of running faster for longer? A workout that can potentially promise more PBs, more often? Yes, there is. Enter the tempo run. Loathed by many for its sheer brutality, tempo running workouts take no prisoners. But, if done right, will improve your running in leaps and bounds.

What is a tempo run?

But what exactly is a tempo run? Simply put, it’s running comfortably hard for a prolonged period of time. These runs are usually scheduled at a specific pace over a predetermined distance, or, alternatively, at a certain perceived effort over a predetermined period of time. And if you think that tempo runs are only for the short distance speed freaks among us, think again. According to running coach Mario Fraioli, all runners can benefit from it, including marathon runners and beyond.

How do tempo runs physiologically and mentally make you faster?

So what exactly makes tempo runs so effective? How do they impact our physiology to enable us to run faster for longer? Here are just a few, simplified ways:

  • Through building both slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibers
  • By developing capillary beds that deliver oxygen to working muscles
  • Through building mental endurance and toughness
  • By improving metabolic fitness through teaching muscles to become better at using the by-products of metabolism while running

And, in a nutshell, this leads to the following over time:

  • Improved aerobic capacity
  • Improved “speed endurance”
  • Enhanced efficiency
  • Improved ability of the body to deal with the by-products of a hard running effort
  • Improved confidence in your own ability to keep up a challenging pace over an extended period of time

Tempo run workouts

So if you’ve been running for a while and you’re ready to kick things up a notch, here are some butt-kicking tempo run workouts to take your running performance to the next level:

1. A classic tempo run workout – with or without a GPS running watch – for early on in the racing season

Coach Fraioli uses the following go-to weekly tempo running workout for a variety of his clients in the eight to 12 weeks leading up to a goal race:

  • With a GPS watch: After a proper warm-up, run four to six miles at 10K race pace, plus 15 to 20 seconds per mile.
  • Without a GPS watch: After a proper warm-up, run for 20 to 60 minutes at your normal half-marathon race effort.

And while this may seem like a workout aimed specifically at half-marathon runners, it also benefits 5- and 10K runners in a number of ways. By spending some time running at an aerobically demanding (yet not too intense) pace, shorter distance runners can:

  • Improve endurance.
  • Develop a strong sense of race rhythm.
  • Improve efficiency.
  • Prepare their bodies for the more intense workouts scheduled closer to race day (look here for examples of such workouts).

If you feel up to it and aren’t brand new to running, you might also want to add the following segment to the end of this workout:

  • 6 x 15 to 20-second hill sprints at 90% effort.

According to Fraioli, this helps to recruit fast-twitch fibers and helps promote good running mechanics. Note, though, that the hill sprints are optional. Follow your workout with a good cool-down.

2. Coach Jenny Hadfield’s “break it in two” tempo run workout for beginners

And if you don’t feel quite ready to dive head-first into a single, extended tempo effort, don’t sweat it. This workout by well-known running coach, Jenny Hadfield, aims to build stamina through two back-to-back, but separate, 10-minute tempo running segments:

  • Start off by walking for three minutes.
  • Follow this with an easy-effort run for five minutes.
  • Next, run at a comfortably hard effort (8 on a scale of 1 to 10) for 10 minutes.
  • Jog easy for two minutes.
  • Once again run for 10 minutes at a comfortably hard effort.
  • Run at an easy effort for five minutes.
  • Walk easy for three minutes.
3. Tempo run workout aimed at helping you prepare to change gears during a race

And if you’re ready to go all-out, give this tempo running workout by Coach Fraioli a try. Sprinkling short bursts at an even faster pace into the workout every five or ten minutes teaches the body to “change gears”, so to speak, during a race. Here it is:

  • Run easy for 10 to 20 minutes.
  • Do six 20-second strides.
  • Run for 20 to 60 minutes (depending on your ability and experience) at half-marathon race pace or, alternatively, your 10K race pace plus 15 to 20 seconds per mile). Every fifth minute, run for 30 seconds at 5 to 10K race effort, before returning back to the original pace. Or, if you’re a more experienced runner, do a 1-minute burst at 5 to 10K effort every 10 minutes, before going back to the original pace.
  • Cool down by running easy for 10 to 20 minutes.

Coach Fraioli warns, however, that this workout shouldn’t be done too close to race day since it does take a lot out of the body. “Ten days out from a key race is plenty of time to recover well and reap the benefits on race day”, he says.

Shake things up

So if you’ve been training at the same pace for months or chasing the same PB for years, dare to shake things up by doing weekly tempo runs. If done correctly, it might just take your running career to new heights.

Sources

  1. Runner's World Staff, Tempo run, Online publication,
  2. Monica Prelle, The Mammoth Track Club's famous tempo run, Online publication, Sep 11, 2017
  3. Jenny Hadfield, Four tempo workouts for runners, Online publication, Feb 23, 2017
  4. Karen Asp, Tempo runs increase speed and indurance, Online publication, Jul 16, 2014
  5. Mario Fraioli, Workout of the week: Tempo run - with a twist!, Online publication, Mar 04, 2015
  6. Mario Fraioli, Know your tempo, Online publication, Mar 25, 2015
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