This past fall (2019), I decided to seek out the strengths of a running coach to help me properly train for the TSC NYC Marathon. I ambitiously set a goal to run a sub 3:00 hour marathon time, which even my coach had apprehensions about since I had just finished a 100-miler a few weeks prior and, as many can attest, NYC isn’t the easiest marathon to run.
I made the naïve assumption that the NYC marathon would be flat and one of my easiest runs to date.
After reading up on the marathon and course, I realized that the weave across numerous suburbs, the accompanied bridges, and the brutal last stretch through Central Park made for an extremely difficult marathon.
I’ve been running since 2008, but the deeper I get into running, the more I realize all the gaps in knowledge I have when it comes to the activity. I’ve never been professionally trained so working with my coach and elite runner, Kate Gustafson, from the Mile2Marathon team was an eye-opening experience. I learned so many new types of runs and didn’t realize how much work I needed to put in to train for a marathon. Which is silly because NYC was my 8th marathon.
I’ve been running marathons for quite some time now, but my previous strategy was to get a few long runs in prior and then just show up (LOL). As naïve as this mentality is, it surprisingly served me well as I was continuing to get personal bests year-over-year. I started with a 3:36 time in 2012 and brought my time down to 3:09 in 2019.
Coach Kate gave me some difficult workouts, but one that was particularly difficult was the tempo or “threshold” run. This workout confused me, but after a few weeks of incorporating this running strategy into my training, I started to get the hang of it.
Whether you’re training for a 10k, half marathon, or full marathon, incorporating tempo runs as part of your training plan is a great way to build up your running endurance and help you achieve your pace goals.
To give this article more depth and credibility, I reached out to Dylan Wykes to provide his input. I wanted to share the concept of tempo runs from an elite’s perspective. Dylan is one of the most successful marathon runners in Canada. He was a member of the 2012 Canadian Olympic Team, finishing 20th in the marathon. He is the co-founder of Mile2Marathon coaching.
This article will outline everything you need to know about the tempo workout and how to integrate this into your training to maximize your long-distance strategy.
So…what is the tempo run?
In short, a tempo run is a sustained effort somewhere between “easy” and all out. That’s vague, I know, but there are different methods to establish your tempo pace. The key here is to build your lactate thresholds in your training so when you get to running your actual race, you’ll be able to sustain a faster pace before your muscles fatigue and burnout.
The tempo pace can typically be sustained for 1 hour but in most training plans, they can last anywhere between ~20 to 40 minutes. To make this a bit more digestible, let me provide an example. You’ll start with a 10-minute warmup, followed by 25 minutes of a sustained ‘hard effort’ race pace, and then wrap up with a 5-10 minute cool-down. You can also incorporate intervals between spurts of race pace to give your body a break.
I recently hosted a 50-minute virtual tempo run on Zwift that was broken down as follows:
10 minutes at tempo pace
2-minute recovery (slow pace)
10 minutes at tempo pace
2-minute recovery (slow pace)
10 minutes at tempo pace
To help put it into perspective a bit more, I wanted to achieve a sub 3:00 hour marathon, so my MRP (marathon race pace) goal was 4’14 – 4’15/km. For my tempo training, I would sustain a threshold pace (holding for 4-6 minutes) between my warmup and cooldown.
How do you establish your tempo pace?
When I was conducting research on this article, I saw a myriad of methods on how to establish your tempo/threshold pace. A quick and easy way is to use your 10k race pace (if you can run it in under an hour) or half marathon pace. Basically, you want to go at a pace that should feel “comfortably hard”, 85-90% of max HR, and the fastest you can run for a 1 hour sustained period.
Dylan listed some additional methods for determining your threshold pace, which I’ve shared below:
1) Lactate Threshold Testing: This is the Cadillac of all ways to figure out your true lactate threshold. However, this is going to involve linking up with an exercise physiologist in a lab setting…which is going to cost you a pretty penny. Some people feel it’s worth the investment, but we feel there are other effective ways to determine your tempo running pace.
2) Gadgets: There are some sport watches available that somehow give you a reading of your lactate threshold. If you’re sensing ambivalence in my tone, that’s because it’s present. We don’t have a lot of experience with these gadgets, but honestly, I can’t imagine they are very accurate.
3) Convert a recent race time: This is probably our most frequently used and recommended method of helping you determine your tempo running pace. There are several good ‘calculators’ out there, I recommend Jack Daniels (not the whiskey!) VDOT calculator. This calculator allows you to enter a recent race time and it will spit out all sorts of valuable and relevant information. If you go to the Training Paces tab, you’ll see a row titled “Threshold”. These are good recommendations, adapted from coaching guru Jack Daniels tried and true Training Tables.
Dylan suggests that if you don’t want to go to the tables, he’d usually recommend the following:
- 1:40+ half marathoners = half marathon race pace (per km) – 15-20sec/km
- 1:20-140 half marathoners = half marathon race pace (per km) – 10-15sec/km
- Sub 1:20 half marathoners = half marathon race pace (per km) – 5sec/km
Whatever method you choose, use intuition when holding the pace. As mentioned previously, it should feel hard, but sustainable for 30-40 minutes of continuous effort.
The list of benefits the tempo run provides is quite lengthy. The workouts are hard, but can help improve your running speed, performance, and endurance. This holds especially true for longer distances where it can be beneficial for beginners, elite athletes, and all levels cushioned between.
Technically, tempo runs are done to help increase your Lactate Threshold. In turn they help develop your strength and increase your stamina. You need these components to complete other workouts. Whether you’re training for the mile or the marathon, or something in between the tempo run has a plan in pretty much any training program.
For my routine, I try to include at least 1-2 tempo runs per week, followed by days of active recovery where I’ll do steady-state cardio that’s less distance and an easier pace. Since the fall of last year, I’ve noticed a substantial improvement in my running performance. I feel stronger and notice that my tempo pace has decreased steadily over time. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see the impact for my marathon this spring (as it was canceled due to COVID), but my daily workouts have improved. I attribute a lot of my improvements in pace this year to all the tempo sessions I do on the regular.
I was able to bring down by personal best on a 5-miler down to 3’49/km only a month ago (from 3’51/km in 2018 and 3’58 in 2017). Although a few seconds doesn’t seem to be a material gain, seconds are akin to hours when racing at the elite level and can at times, make or break a PB.
How to Integrate tempo workouts into your training
Dylan suggests that while establishing your training base, some form of a tempo run could be done as frequently as every week.
Depending on the distance you’re working towards, you can mix in the tempo run every week.
Much like interval workouts, Dylan suggests that you should give yourself at least 1 ‘easy’ day before and after a tempo run. If the length of the tempo run exceeds 30 minutes, he will schedule 2 easy days afterward before circling back to his next challenging workout.
Dylan was extremely kind to offer up some examples that he’s had his athletes incorporate into their training:
Continuous tempo runs: Anywhere from 20-40 minutes at a specific pace.
Tempo intervals: Intervals of 3-15 minutes, with very short recoveries in-between. Sometimes the recoveries are as little as 30 seconds. These are used to help athletes increase the volume of running they can do at tempo effort. So instead of going from 20 to 30 minutes continuous tempo, we will bridge the gap with some tempo intervals that add up to 25-30 minutes.
Progression run: A variation of the continuous tempo, but starting at 10% slower than tempo pace and then increasing the pace throughout, with the goal of averaging close to tempo pace (overall) for the entire run.
To give you my one-minute elevator pitch, if you’re not incorporating tempo workouts already, it’s highly recommended that you do.
Not only will it help with building your thresholds and improve performance during long-distance races, but from personal experience, it also builds the mental fortitude to push through those hard moments during races when your body is screaming for you to stop.
These workouts are not easy, but as Goggins would say, engaging in hard activities is how you “callous the mind”.
A big thanks to Dylan for helping contribute to this article! To learn more about Mile2Marathon and remote (and in-person) coaching, visit here.