How To Do A Tempo Run

  • Last Updated: October 29th, 2019

A simple definition of a Tempo Run is running at the brink for an extended period of time to be faster and strengthen muscles.

Jack Daniels, Ph.D., popularized it about ten years ago. This is his rationale, from his Running Formula (Human Kinetics):

A tempo run is nothing more than 20 minutes of steady running at threshold pace.

Jack Daniels

The idea behind this is not only physical stamina, but mental toughness as well. This goes to show that the best competitors in the world, must have something more than just physical strength. Most physical competitions rely heavily on mental awareness.

The science behind the physical benefit of doing Tempo runs is that they build a person’s lactate threshold (LT) or anaerobic threshold. A person’s LT is what makes them run fast.

However, if you can train your body to accumulate lactate acid, which is what slows down a person’s muscles and makes them tired, at a slower pace, then in theory and in actuality, you can run faster and longer sans muscles tiredness and soreness.

This seems almost like a get rich scheme for runners does it not? Although there have been runners who have accomplished this, such as Jessica Tonn, it does take a lot of practice and mental grit as well.

There is a mind and body connection.

Therefore, even if you’re at a physical top level, and your mind is not in the right state, you may not succeed. Tempo runs are another formula to build your mental outlook to win.

As a runner, with becoming faster and stronger, focus more of your energy on your mind. Build those mental muscles. Be positive to yourself, don’t complain and even imagine yourself at the finish line with a quicker time. These small steps can build your mental awareness to not quit while doing the Tempo runs since they are very challenging.

Now onto how to do a Tempo run. Just like anything else in life, if you don’t train correctly, you won’t execute it correctly. Of course, not all Tempo runs are created equal. It depends on what distance that you are training for.

For example, if your goal for your run training is just to be able to run or a 5K it will be much different than for a marathon runner.

How To Do A Tempo Run

For starters, a warm-up consisting of 5 to 15 minutes at an easy step is the best. If you’re prone to numb feet or injury, this is especially important.

There are a couple different suggestions what to do next…

Run By Pace

The first, is to run approximately 10 seconds slower than you would your 10K. If you are running on a treadmill, this is easy to track. If you aren’t on a treadmill, then run what is considered “comfortably difficult.” Albeit, you shouldn’t be able to have a conversation if someone is running with you and you would want the idea to, “I want to slow down” thought going through your head.

Run By ‘Feel’

Secondly, your breathing can also be a guide to show if you’re running too fast or too slow. If it’s an easy set run, most runners have three “foot strikes” while inhaling and two “foot strikes” while exhaling. For Tempo runs, runners should be taking no more than two “foot strikes” per inhale and one per exhale. This is the cut off; if a runner is breathing harder than this, slow down.

When finished with the Tempo run, make sure you complete a 5 to 15 minute cooldown. Also, some stretching and even some light yoga will help the muscles and breathing.

Again, depending on your ability and the distance, a weekly session of just one tempo run will show results. Runners that participate in marathons may need to extend the length of the Tempo run up to 40 minutes.

Still confused about how to do a tempo run? Check out this fantastic video below which does a great job at explaining how and what to do…

The Bottom Line

Tempo runs are backed by science and runners from all over. It’s meant to be a way to dig deep so that anyone can be an accomplished and skilled runner for any length. It truly is challenging and meant for people who have a desire to be stronger, faster and mentally equipped for anything!

Scott Holliday

Scott Holliday has been coaching athletes of all levels for over 10 years and is certified by the acclaimed International Triathlon Coaching Association (ITCA). He works with athletes of all abilities to help then unlock their potential.