Tempo Intervals

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As an endurance athlete you are probably well aware of the importance of interval training for improving endurance capacity and race performance. Recently coaches, fitness/running magazines, and athletes alike have tended to believe that the best type of interval session, is to complete around 4-6 intervals of 3-5 minutes duration at an intensity that would equate to around, or just slightly above, your maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) – this is around 3k race pace. The main idea behind this is that this intensity will bring about greater gains in VO2max, lactate threshold and efficiency than the use of slightly slower intervals. Whilst this type of training may be ideal for an athlete competing in a race that last around 10-15minutes, it is less likely to be effective for athletes competing in races lasting 30 minutes or more. The main problem is that it doesn’t really lead to great improvements in muscular endurance over longer distance races (30 minutes or more).

There is no doubt that this type of training should be included in your training program but from my own experience, distance runners should use it sparingly, no more than once every 2-3 weeks. One problem with this type of training is that to complete the intervals at the desired intensity you have to have long recovery periods normally lasting around 3 minutes. Therefore the average intensity of the workout, when including recoveries, is relatively low. Because you are having long recovery periods you are not training your body to cope with the demands of fast continuous running. This type of training tends to improve your speed over short distances but does not necessarily translate to improved race performance over longer distances (30minutes or more). This is because you are training your body to run fast over short periods of time and not to run fast over longer periods of time.

I found, when I used this type of training, I became quicker during these interval sessions, but showed no improvement during a race situation. After, six months using faster intervals like 5x1000m – run at 3k pace around 3:00 for me at that time, my basic speed improved to the point where I was completing the 1000m intervals in 2:55. However, despite this clear improvement in interval times, and an increase in my basic training volume, there was no improvement in my 10k race times – they were still stuck around 33minutes. Therefore, my improved speed over these short distances was not translating to improved speed endurance that is needed in a race of 30 or more minutes.

How can you use tempo interval training to improve your race performance over long distance races?

The answer lies in the average training intensity of the session – for this you have to consider the length of the recovery period as well as the speed of the session. You should complete intervals at a speed that is just slightly quicker than current race pace, but keep the recoveries short and run the recoveries at a steady pace, rather than an easy jog or rest. The total length of the workout including the recoveries should last around 20-35minutes. This type of interval session is very similar to a tempo run since the average intensity – including the recoveries – is around tempo pace. Therefore, this type of interval session is called a tempo interval session.

Tempo interval examples

  • 6 x 1000m (5 secs quicker than 10k pace), 200m recovery run
  • 5 x 1200m (6 secs quicker than 10k pace), 200m recovery run
  • 4 x 1600m (8 secs quicker than 10k pace), 200m recovery run
  • 3 x 2000m (10 secs quicker than 10k pace), 200m recovery run

Of all these sessions the 6x1000m seems to be particularly effective. Typically, I like athletes to run 6x1000m at a pace that is just slightly quicker than 10k race pace, with a 200m recovery, run in a time that is about 20 seconds slower than it is run during the interval. So if you are running 1000m intervals in 3:20 – which works out at 40secs per 200m – you should run your 200m recovery in around 60seconds.

If, we take the example of a 33minute 10k runner; during a 10k race they would complete each 1000m in around 3:20. So during a tempo interval session they would aim to complete each interval in around 3:15 – around 32:30 10k pace – so just slightly quicker than current 10k pace. During the intervals they would complete 200m every 39 seconds. So if we add 20 seconds on to this they should run the 200m recovery in around 60secs. If you are a slightly slower 10k runner then you should add more than 20 seconds to the recovery time – a tempo interval training guide is provided at the bottom of this page.

Why do tempo intervals improve speed-endurance in athletes?

Well, for one, the recoveries are short and run at a pace that doesn’t allow complete recovery – in fact the recoveries are designed to only allow you to recover enough to run the next interval at the target pace, and no quicker. Another reason is that tempo intervals combine tempo training with faster than race pace training. By running at, or slightly quicker than, race pace you are training your muscles to work more efficiently at race pace. The most important reason is to do with the average intensity of the session. If we take the case of a 34minute 10k runner, who runs 6x1000m tempo intervals, they would run their tempo intervals in 3:20 and 200m recoveries in 60-65seconds. During the session they would run 7000m in a time of 25minutes which means that they cover the 7000m at around 35:45 10k pace – within 2minutes of current 10k race pace. Therefore the session trains you to run at pace that’s slightly quicker than race pace whilst you have to maintain an average intensity – including recovery time – that is close to race pace. Because the recoveries are kept short you – unlike traditional intervals – you are never fully recovered when you start each new repetition and therefore you are training your body to run at slightly faster than race pace when you are already fatigued. Because the average intensity of the whole session is very close to race pace you are training your muscles to cope with the demands of running at race pace and improving their fatigue resistance.

What sort of improvement in race time can I expect following tempo interval training?

As I mentioned earlier following 6months of traditional interval training I didn’t see any improvement in 10k race performance. When I started using tempo intervals I was running 10km in around 33 minutes so I started running tempo intervals consisting of 6x1000m intervals each in 3:12-3:15, with 55-60second 200m recovery jog. Not surprisingly the first session was extremely tough but after about a month it started to get easier. Then the speed of my intervals increased and the length of time to run my recoveries started to decrease. After about 5 months of this training I was at the point where I could run 6x1000m all in 3:05-3:10 (30:50 – 31:40 10k pace) whilst the time I needed to run the 200m recovery decreased to just around 50 seconds. At this point I was completing the 7000m in around 23:10 – equivalent to 33minute 10k pace. Not surprisingly this improvement was reflected in an improvement in 10k performance and a new PB of 31:37. I have seen similar results with athletes that I have worked with, when using this type of training. I would expect most athletes, who haven’t used tempo intervals to see at least a 1-2minute improvement in 10k time following 3-6months of weekly tempo interval training. The amount of improvement will likely be greater with slower or less well trained athletes who may improve by several minutes. One thing to bare in mind is that you must be strict with both the interval times and recovery times otherwise you won’t gain the full benefit from this training. Be careful not to run the first interval too quickly it is much better if you can pick the pace up over the last couple of intervals rather than dropping right off the pace because you started off to quickly.

Tempo Interval Summary:

  • In short tempo intervals will help you to improve your race performance by improving your speed-endurance.
  • They also improve your rate of recovery during a race situation as you are training your body to recover when you are still running at a steady pace. This should help you to recover from going off to quickly at the start of a race, and help you to cope with changes of pace during a race.
  • Tempo intervals will improve your efficiency at race pace, improve your maximum aerobic capacity, increase your lactate threshold, and increase your level of fatigue resistance.

Key points for optimising tempo interval training:

  • Try to stick as closely to the target intervals as possible and if possible pick up the pace over the last 1-2 repetitions.
  • Be strict with your recovery times don’t slow the recoveries in order to run faster reps!
  • Complete 1-2 tempo interval session per week – if doing 2 sessions per week use one longer session (4x1600m or 3x2000m) and one shorter session (6x1000m or 5x1200m). For best results also include one long tempo run – a 20-30minute run at 10minle race pace – per week as well.
  • As the sessions get easier it is likely that your race performance has improved so you will need to run at a faster pace during the intervals and decrease recovery times – if you are not competing in 10k races then run a 10k time trial to check whether you need to train at a new level.

Tempo Interval Pacing Charts

Below are links to tempo interval pacing charts. The charts provide the target tempo interval time for 1000m, 1200m, 1600m and 2000m tempo intervals and target times for the 200m recovery jog based on your current 10km race time.