After a month or so of implementing tempo runs in your training, racing becomes something you not only want to do, but something you must do. For those with ambitions of running well at road distances from the 5K to the marathon, the tempo run is an indispensable weapon that is deliciously effective and easy to use.
What to expect
Here's the common tale of what a new runner discovers the first time he or she properly adds a tempo run into their training. Let's say Sarah has been running consistent weekly mileage for more than a year, but almost all of it has been performed at an easy, relaxed effort. She's been running a long run once a week and has a first marathon to her credit.
Now that she's finished a marathon and knows she can cover the distance, she's eager to set a goal to run faster.
Within the general mix of her weekly training, Sarah now adds a Wednesday tempo workout. It's about as basic as it gets. She jogs two miles to begin the warm up, then runs 10 or so 100-meter striders to get her muscles and blood moving. At this point, she readies her heart-rate monitor and begins, aiming to run at 85-90 percent of her maximum heart rate. Her max heart rate is 200 beats per minute (bpm), so her target zone is 170-to-180 bpm.
The first week Sarah executes her tempo run, it's a rough experience. She struggles to get to the zone and internal alarms go off. It's not terribly difficult to hold the pace, but it's certainly uncomfortable. Her legs feel heavy and clunky, and there's nothing fluid about the 20 minutes. The last eight minutes are a strain.
The next Wednesday, the tempo run unfolds just the way it did the week before. But by the third or fourth week, a transformation has begun. Although she's holding the same pace and her heart rate is within the same zone as before, there's a new power within the muscles and coordination of her legs; and the run actually begins to feel easier.
Alarms don't go off when she begins the run. She may already be running significantly faster even though her heart rate is the same as it was three weeks before, and yet the experience is completely different. The struggle to maintain the pace has been replaced by a sweet, swift confidence. The tempo training has begun to work its magic.
How it works
Simply put, smart tempo training develops your lactic acid system. The terms "anaerobic threshold" or "lactate threshold" refer to what's called the "point of deflection" (POD). If you take a VO2max test at an exercise physiology lab, invariably you'll get to look at a post-workout chart that shows at exactly what pace and heart rate your personal POD exists.
At the POD, your muscles have crossed the line where lactic acid can be removed expediently, and the accumulation signals a point where heart rate spikes dramatically and muscles turn sludgy, and you face an inevitable slow down. By training in your threshold zone, which correlates with being at or near your POD, you'll begin to improve upon your ability to hold a pace close to your VO2max for longer and longer periods of time just like the fictional example of Sarah.
One famous example of this was the 1972 Olympic marathon champion, Frank Shorter. In the lab, Shorter measured a 71.3 ml/kg/min VO2max. Not bad, but relatively low compared to runners of his time like Steve Prefontaine. Calculations showed that Shorter zipped through his gold medal run at about 80 percent of his VO2max.
With a broad aerobic foundation (which Shorter indeed possessed), the body's threshold can be trained to handle high intensities of effort for long periods of time, maximizing your gifts.
9 keys for an effective tempo run
1) Develop an aerobic base. The aerobic base is the price of admission to the golden riches that tempo training can provide. At minimum, an aerobic base is comprised of three months of daily (or almost daily) running at an easy-to-medium pace. Base training strengthens the musculoskeletal system and creates the cardiovascular piping that every competitive distance runner requires.
2) Decipher your target intensity or pace. This is an objective that is ideally worked out with the assistance of a good running coach or exercise physiology lab, but you can do it on your own as well. Tempo pace generally equals a pace 25 seconds per mile slower than your 5K race pace. Race a 5K on a flat, fast course and wear a heart-rate monitor. Race hard and hit the finish line with an all-out sprint.
After you cross the finish line, check your heart rate (you'll be at your max heart rate). This will give you a reasonable understanding of what pace to conduct your tempo runs: either at 25 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace or at about 90 percent of your max heart rate.
3) Don't skimp on the warm up. Warm up for a tempo workout the same way you would before a race. About 20 minutes of easy jogging and six to 10 light sprints is a decent warm up.
4) Run at tempo pace for 20 minutes. Simply start running at the target pace or heart rate and hold it for 20 minutes. As you become more conditioned, you can lengthen it to 25 minutes, but tempo training adheres to the idea that a little bit goes a long way. A 20-minute tempo run once a week may not sound like much, but it is. And that's the beauty of it.
5) Use a proper course. Effective tempo training requires that you zero in on your intensity level, or heart rate, for the duration of the workout. Thus, conduct your tempo training on a flat road, trail or track. A measured course is best so that you can monitor your pace and improvement.
6) Avoid the temptation to run too fast. As tempo training begins to take effect, and you get stronger and more comfortable with the effort, you'll be tempted to try and beat your previous effort. Wrong! Improvements made from tempo training result from specific bouts at a specific intensity. When your 5K PR improves, then it's time to ratchet up the tempo pace, but not before.
7) Work with a good coach. Working with a good running coach will take the guesswork out of how and when to do your tempo runs. A good coach will also keep on your butt about not letting your tempo runs turn into races.
8) Use proper footwear. Some runners do their tempo workouts in racing flats. If you're light and not prone to injuries, this can be okay. But generally speaking, use lightweight trainers for tempo workouts to reduce the risk of straining an Achilles tendon or suffering a calf cramp.
9) Don't skimp on the cool down either. When you start messing around with filling the legs with lactic acid, it becomes imperative for your long-term training to follow your tempo runs with extremely light and easy jogging or walking -- 20 minutes at least. The light and active recovery will enhance your digestion of the workout.
A complete training program will include long runs, medium runs, recovery runs, tempo runs and speed training. One of the nice things about tempo training is that it will unleash large improvements in your basic race speed without the risk that pure speed training involves. Many beginners would be well advised to just forget about the speed training until they've let tempo training and base training take them as far along as possible. Which you may find is a long, long way.