Tempo Intervals

Most runners have heard of tempo running, you may have included tempo running as intervals or as more of a continuous effort. Either way it can be a useful training session in the build-up to longer races, such as half marathons or marathons.

What is Tempo running intensity?

Many runners believe tempo running and lactate threshold running to be the same thing – whilst they are similar in intensity, there is a clear difference between the two. Lactate threshold pace not surprisingly corresponds with the lactate threshold – essentially a point where blood lactate levels starts to accelerate – and for most athletes this is equivalent to a pace you could sustain for approximately 60minutes in a race situation. In contrast, tempo pace is slightly slower than the pace at lactate threshold and covers a wider pace range. For most well-trained runners this would be equivalent to a pace you could sustain for between half marathon and marathon pace.

What’s the main difference between tempo intervals and threshold intervals?

Aside from the difference in pace – tempo intervals are run at a slightly slower pace than threshold intervals – tempo intervals are normally run over slightly longer durations as the intensity is less intense. In addition, tempo intervals can be incorporated as part of a longer run, whereas threshold intervals are more intense and would generally form the main part of a run session.

What are the benefits of tempo interval training?

When training for different race distances, it’s important to be specific and train at paces close to our target race distance. In this way tempo training can be an important training intensity when training for races such as half marathons or marathons – it’s important to remember that the tempo run needs to be close to race pace, so a marathon runner would run their tempo pace at closer to marathon pace, whereas a half marathon runner should run their tempo pace at closer to half marathon pace.

Tempo training is slightly slower than lactate threshold pace, so overall it places a lower level of physiological stress, but it’s close enough to have a beneficial effect on fatigue resistance as well as helping to improve your lactate threshold.

Tempo training also provides a good aerobic training stimulus and can be useful if you have limited training time and therefore want to maximise training time. In fact, for some individuals, who are prone to overtraining at higher intensities, tempo training – particularly if it is just below lactate threshold – can be a good way to maximise training whilst at the same time reducing the risking overtraining.

They can be incorporated into other training sessions, such as at the end of longer run, to combine the benefits of a longer run with tempo training.

Tempo intervals can also be useful as a way to build towards more intense sessions, especially if you are coming back from injury, new to running, or building fitness back up.

What are the negatives to tempo interval training?

Overall, tempo intervals are less effective than threshold pace intervals, or faster intervals, and are often viewed as a grey area where training benefits are less beneficial than other areas.

Tempo pace primarily uses carbohydrate as the fuel source, so if you’re including too much of this training and too little training at lower intensities, then you’re missing out on the training benefits of lower intensity training such as improved fat metabolism.

Unless your primary target is half marathons and marathons, then lactate threshold pace intervals would likely be more effective. Having said that, they can be effective when combined with other sessions, such as part of a longer run or combined with an interval session – we just don’t want to be using them instead of more effective training intensities.

Example Tempo Interval Sessions

Some examples of basic tempo intervals include:

These are the most basic form of tempo running and are a good starting point for those new to tempo running.

  • 4-6 x (5minutes at tempo pace, 1minute easy jog recovery)
  • 2-3 x (10-12minutes at tempo pace, 2-3minute easy jog recovery)
  • 2 x (15-20minutes at tempo pace, 3-5minutes easy jog recovery)
  • 1 x 25-45minutes at tempo pace


Some examples of alternating pace tempo intervals:

Alternating pace tempos are slightly more advanced and can be used to bring in some threshold pace running, whilst still keeping the overall (average) intensity within the tempo zone.

  • 2 x (20minutes alternating between 5mins at Threshold, 5mins at Tempo) – 5mins easy recovery jog between intervals.
  • 2-3 x (5mins Threshold, 5mins Marathon pace, 5mins Half Marathon Pace) – 5mins easy recovery jog between intervals.
  • 1 x 30-40minutes alternating between tempo and threshold pace e.g. alternating 5mins at tempo, 5mins at threshold.
  • 1 x 40-60minutes alternating between half marathon and marathon pace e.g. alternating 5mins at Marathon, 5mins at Half Marathon Pace.
  • 1 x 40-60minutes alternating between threshold and marathon pace e.g. alternating 5mins at threshold, 5mins at Marathon Pace.

Some examples of mixed pace tempo intervals:

Mixed pace tempo intervals take the intensity up another notch by including 5k and 10k pace running within the tempo. These are the most challenging of these three types of tempo interval.

  • 2-3 x (1min at 5k, 5mins tempo, 1min at 5k, 5mins tempo) – 3-5mins easy recovery
  • 2-3 x (1min at 5k, 5mins tempo, 3mins at 10k, 5mins at tempo, 1min at 5k) – 3-5mins easy recovery
  • 2-3 x (3mins 10k, 5 mins marathon, 5mins half marathon, 2mins at 5k) – 3-5mins easy recovery

Incorporating tempo intervals within a longer run:

Another way to incorporate tempo running into your weekly schedule is to include them as part of a continuous, or longer run. Examples include:

A long run with a progressive tempo – where you pick up the pace – over the final few miles e.g. last 3miles = 1mile at marathon pace, 1mile at half marathon pace, 1mile at 10mile pace.

A longer run with tempo intervals included within the run e.g. 30mins easy, 10min tempo, 30mins easy, 10min tempo, 30mins easy

Maximising the benefits of tempo training without limiting other sessions

Overall tempo run sessions are generally considered to be less effective than threshold or high intensity interval sessions. Therefore, we don’t want to use tempo training at the expense of these more effective sessions.

My preferred way to get around this and still be able to incorporate tempo running in to the weekly training, is to combine tempo running within a faster interval session. In these situations, tempo running is easier to incorporate than threshold running, due to the reduced overall stress associated with tempo running in comparison with lactate threshold running. By doing this we get the combined benefits of interval training and tempo running, without losing a training session to the tempo run. Examples include:

Example 1:10min warm up + 10minute tempo + 5mins easy + 5 x (1km at 10k pace, 60 seconds easy jog) + 5mins easy + 10minute tempo + cool down

Example 2:10min warm up + 20minute tempo + 5mins easy + 6-8 x (400m at 5k pace, 40-45sec easy jog) + cool down

Example 3:10min warm up + 10minute tempo + 5mins easy + 8-10 x 60 second hill reps + 5mins easy + 10minute tempo + cool down

I hope from this article you can see that tempo training can be a useful training method for endurance runners, especially those training for half and full marathons. However, to gain the most from tempo running it’s important to find ways to effectively incorporate tempo running into your weekly training plan, without limiting other more effective training intensities.