The primary reason why most of us train is quite simple: To get better. Although “getting better” means different things to different runners, it is clear that, as runners, we want to enjoy our activity and still advance our fitness goals. If we run races and marathons, we want to run faster and hopefully, set a personal best and/or compete in our age group division.
The key to doing that? Train hard. There is no substitute. Despite what the running magazines promise, you can’t train less and easier and get better and faster. It doesn’t work that way.
The more you train, the harder and longer you train, the faster and fitter you become. That’s not a secret. What is more difficult to figure out is how do you train hard enough to get better, but not so hard that you get injured?
There isn’t any one answer or one workout that provides all the training elements you need to get faster efficiently without getting injured, but one of the key types of workouts that builds the speed and endurance you’ll need for racing is tempo training or tempo runs.
A tempo run is a steady state run which lasts anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. It is done at a controlled pace which typically is about 10 to 15 seconds per mile slower than your current 10-K race pace. That’s pretty fast for a training run, but it’s purposefully fast enough to produce results. Tempo runs aren’t easy to do properly, but they also aren’t so difficult that they necessitate a long recovery time like what you need after a hard long run.
Nevertheless, the right pace on a tempo run is imperative. Go too slow and you won’t get the desired results. Run too fast (faster than the prescribed pace) and you’ll flame out too quickly and be unable to finish. The idea is to lock onto the right pace and hold it for a certain length of time with little deviation—just like a race.
To do a tempo workout, you first need to find a long stretch of open road or trail which is fairly flat and relatively free of traffic. Since the goal of a tempo run is a steady, fast pace, you need to find a spot where you can run several uninterrupted miles.
Second, plan to do most of your tempo workouts alone. To do this workout correctly, you are going to have to run it a very specific pace—specific to you. If you do it as part of a group, you probably won’t be running it at the exact pace you need to run. Usually, you’re running either too fast or too slow for what you need. Even worse, when you get a bunch of runners together doing a tempo workout, it invariably turns into a race, rather than a workout. Not good.
Third, don’t try to run each tempo run faster than the last one. Again, the tempo run is designed to be run at a controlled, steady pace. Even if you can run faster, avoid the temptation to do so. If the entire workout is too slow, the next time you do tempo runs, you can move your speed up a notch.
A typical tempo-run workout will look something like this: After warming up for about 20 minutes with easy running, do 4 x 10 minutes @tempo-run pace. That means, you do four runs that last 10 minutes each at your tempo-run pace. For example, if you have a recent best of 41:20 for 10-K, you should do each of these 10-minute runs at seven minutes per mile pace. For someone who has run 48 minutes for 10-K, the tempo run pace for all four 10-minute runs should be just slightly slower than eight minutes per mile.
After each 10-minute run, you take approximately two minutes to recover with a very easy jog. Don’t stop though. Continue moving throughout the workout.
Make sure you time the actual fast-paced running as well as the jog recovery and warm up. Don’t guess or cut anything too short or give yourself a complete recovery.
Each tempo run workout should last about 40 to 45 minutes (not counting the warmup or recovery time). Just about any combination will do. Some of the classic tempo workouts are 3 x 15 minutes or 2 x 20 minutes or a combination: 1 x 10 minutes, 1 x 15 minutes, 1 x 20 minutes. The longer the run, the longer the recovery time between each one.
Don’t worry about how far you are running. Focus on the tempo—your speed—and maintaining a consistent, relaxed effort for the length of the workout without struggling.
As you get fitter, your race times will improve and you will probably have to adjust your tempo pace. The beauty of this type of workout is it will build strength, speed and mental toughness which is all easily translatable into improved race results.
It works for any level of runner who wants to get faster and fitter in the most efficient way.