Tempo Intervals

Tempo intervals are a form of tempo running, where we split the run into two or more intervals. By doing this we obtain the same physiological benefits as tempo running, but accumulate more total time at this intensity.

We can use tempo intervals in combination with other intervals to maximise the training benefit. Making these an extremely versatile form of training.

In this article we take a look at…

  • The difference between threshold and tempo pace
  • The benefits and negatives of tempo intervals
  • Example workouts (basic, alternating, mixed pace, progression runs, and advanced workouts)
  • How to get the most from tempo workouts

What is tempo running intensity?

Many runners believe tempo and lactate threshold running to be the same. In fact, the term tempo run has become synonymous with threshold running for many coaches and athletes.

Whilst they are similar in intensity, there are subtle differences between the two. These differences affect the training benefits and also the suitability for training prescription.

First, the lactate threshold intensity refers to a physiological phenomenon – the point where blood lactate levels increase at a faster rate. For most runners, this is equivalent to a pace you could tolerate for around 60minutes when racing.

In contrast, tempo running refers to a fast but sustained pace that is slightly below lactate threshold.

Second, threshold running is more precise – normally involving running at a pace sustainable for 40-60minutes.

Tempo running covers a wider pace range. For well-trained runners, this would be equivalent to a pace sustainable for between half-marathon and marathon pace. That said, many runners focus on half marathon pace for there tempo runs.

Aside from being run a slower pace, tempo runs can be sustained for longer durations because the intensity is lower. Furthermore, we can incorporate tempo intervals as part of a longer run. Whereas threshold intervals are more intense and would normally form a standalone session.

The benefits of tempo intervals for runners

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 half marathons or marathons.

Here, it’s important to recognize that the tempo run needs to be close to target race pace. So for a marathon runner this should be closer to marathon pace. Whereas a half marathon runner would run these at close to half marathon pace.

Compared with lactate threshold pace, tempo intervals cause less physiological stress. However, they are close enough to induce similar physiological benefits: increased fatigue resistance, aerobic capacity, muscular endurance, running economy and improvements in your lactate threshold.

Tempo training also produces a solid aerobic training stimulus and can be useful if you have limited training time. And in some individuals – who are susceptible to over-training at higher intensities – this can be an excellent way to maximise training whilst reducing the risking over-training.

We can incorporate these into other training sessions, such as at the end of longer run, to combine the benefits of two workouts. This is a great approach for half-marathon and marathon training.

Tempo intervals can be useful when building towards more intense sessions, especially when returning from injury, illness, or period of reduced training.

What are the negatives to tempo interval training?

Overall, tempo intervals are less effective than threshold, or faster pace intervals. Many coaches and sports scientists view tempo intensity as a grey area with fewer benefits than higher intensity intervals.

It primarily uses carbohydrate as the fuel source, so if you’re including too much of this training and not enough lower intensity training, then you’re missing out on the training benefits of lower intensity training such as increased fat metabolism and enhanced recovery.

Unless your primary target is half marathons and marathons, then lactate threshold pace intervals are more effective.

That said, they can be surprisingly effective when combined with other sessions: such as part of a longer run or combined with an interval session—we will delve into this in a moment.

Example Tempo Interval Running Workouts

Ok, so we’ve looked at the benefits and negatives of tempo running. Let’s look at some examples…

Basic tempo intervals

These are the most basic form of tempo interval running and are an excellent starting point for those new to tempo running. The following sessions progress in difficulty.

  • 4-8 x (5minutes at tempo running pace, 1minute easy jog recovery)
  • 2-4 x (10-12minutes at tempo running pace, 2-3minute easy jog recovery)
  • 2-3 x (15-20minutes at tempo running pace, 3-5minutes easy jog recovery)
  • 2 x (25-30minutes at tempo running pace, 5-10minutes easy jog recovery)

Alternating pace tempo intervals

These are slightly more advanced and bring in some threshold pace running, whilst still keeping the 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.

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

Combining tempo intervals and a longer run

Another option is to incorporate tempo running into your 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

Advanced tempo training: combining tempo and high intensity intervals or hill repeats

Overall tempo run sessions are less effective than threshold or high-intensity interval workouts. One way to reap the benefits from tempo running without missing out on harder intervals is through combination workouts.

Here, we combine tempo running within a faster interval session.

During these workouts, tempo running is easier to incorporate than threshold running, because of the reduced stress associated with tempo running. This gives you the combined benefits of interval training and tempo running, without losing a training session to tempo running. 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

These sessions are certainly challenging, but an excellent option when targeting longer races like half marathons.

That’s covered tempo intervals, hopefully it’s provided insights into whether tempo intervals will be useful for your training. And if so, how to make the best use of these. I find these useful, when used in combination with faster intervals in the buildup to half marathon races.


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