Speed Work for Distance Runners Part 2

Tempo Runs and Time Trials

Dave Couper PhD, Chapell Hill, North Carolina

(This is Part 2 of a 4 part series from Dave Couper of Chapell Hill, NC)

Before explaining all about tempo runs I’d like to quote the Associate Publisher of Running Times.  In the March 1996 issue John L. Parker Jr. wrote (p36):

“If I had to pick one factor that separates good competitive runners from everyone else, it would be consistency in training.”

There is no better training advice than this. There is no magic bullet.  Consistent training without much speedwork will bring more sustained benefits than inconsistent training with high-quality speedwork.

And George Parrott posted to the DRS

” IMHO, the fastest most efficient training regimen, for max returns on least miles and lowest risk is….tempo or AT level runs…”

I agree. Regular long runs to build stamina plus hilly runs (part I) and tempo runs (this post) can be used as the basis of a successful training program suitable for most non-elite runners. Throw in a few easy stop-and-smell-the-roses runs and/or some
rest days and you have a well-rounded program. Like George’s statement, this is just my humble opinion. This type of training
worked for me, but of course YMMV and FRAMP.

Tempo runs:

What is a tempo run?

Basic definition: sustained run at faster than usual training pace.

Tempo runs are typically somewhere in the range from 3K/2mi/10min to 10K/6mi/40min. 5K and 5 miles are probably the
most commonly run distances. Unlike most other types of speedwork, a particular training session will usually involve doing just 1 tempo run. (Lately though I’ve taken to doing two 5K tempo stretches in one workout.)

Warm up by running easily for at least 10 minutes. Do the tempo part and then run easily for at least another 5 minutes to warm down. Before starting the tempo part, doing 3-4 “strides” helps to get your legs ready to run faster. I do “strides” as follows: in the space of 50 paces I accelerate gradually to close to sprinting speed, hold the pace for a while and then ease off. I then jog for about a minute before doing the next one. The physiological benefit of a warm-down jog is probably the one important lesson I have learned from using a HRM. If I stop immediately after running fast my heart rate drops below 100 bpm within about a minute. If, instead, I carry on running slowly my heart rate remains considerably elevated. I believe that this means that the warm-down jog speeds recovery as the elevated heart rate means that your body is doing a more efficient job of removing waste products from the muscles as well as refueling them. 

The precise distance of the tempo run is not important – it does not even matter if you do not know the exact distance. Many of my regular tempo runs have been from point A to point B on a particular route. I can then compare my times from session to session without getting too hung up about my exact pace. On the other hand, I also like doing a tempo run on part of a course which has been certified for a race. In this case I can use the mile or kilometer markers to check how even my pace is.

The speed of the tempo run depends on your current fitness, the distance to be run and your goals. At a minimum it should be faster than your usual training pace. The way I’d describe the ideal pace for a tempo run is as follows: the pace must be such that you can maintain a constant pace for the whole of the intended distance; near the end of the tempo run it should become increasingly difficult to maintain the pace but you should not be forced to slow down. The pace will obviously depend on the distance you intend to cover. It will also depend on other factors such as your current fitness, how tired you are, etc. An important aspect of tempo running is that it teaches you to gauge what is an appropriate pace for a given distance on a particular day. My pace for a particular tempo run will vary quite considerably from week to week but within each tempo run my pace will vary very little from beginning to end.

When I’ve used a HRM on a tempo run my heart rate has been in the range from 80% – 90% of maximum. By “maximum” I
mean the maximum I’ve achieved while wearing a HRM (169) rather than the estimated maximum using some formula (such as 220 – age, which in my case would currently give 179).

Some thoughts on racing and training paces:

Replies to my query about whether Deads run marathons faster or slower than their usual pace confirmed what I had suspected.  Some runners race marathons slower than their usual training pace. In this case, training programs which explain speedwork in terms of race paces can be contradictory. How can running at marathon pace be speedwork if this pace is slower than you would normally run?

If doing a tempo run on an unmeasured (or not very accurately measured) course, defining paces in terms of, say, 5K or 10K
race pace is also questionable. A particular pace feels different when run in a race than when run in training. It usually feels
easier in a race as you are better rested, adrenaline is flowing and your mental preparation is probably better. Also, it is seldom feasible to do tempo runs at the same time of day as you usually race. Circadian rhythms affect running. A pace which may seem easy in a late afternoon run may seem much more difficult soon after getting out of bed.

Dead Jonathan Beverly wrote:

“I’m always surprised that I have to relearn how to race each year, but it still happens, especially when I’m keyed up and following my watch rather than my body (maybe because I haven’t listened to my body under these conditions for several months)…………….The major lessons of the race were recalling that I need to start moderately and ease into the fast running …”

Dead Mary Mancuso has this sage advice:

“Some lessons I’ve learned about racing, that they never tell you in the running magazines: ………….Start off slow.  The rush at the beginning of the race will make you run faster anyway, so make sure you pace yourself for the distance you’ll be running.”

Yes, yes, yes. I have always been a relatively slow starter in races. It never ceases to amaze me how many runners go sprinting off ahead of me. If I had to try to take off at the pace of the faster women and children I would be out of breath within a mile and the rest of the race would be one long grind. Instead, I let them go, knowing that I’ll catch most of them fairly soon (like when we hit the first hill). Most of the elite runners (including the elite women) will run nearly every mile faster than me, so losing a few extra seconds to them over the first mile is immaterial. On the other hand, trying to pick up a few extra seconds early on can mean losing plenty more seconds in the later miles. Even-paced or negative splits (second half faster than first half) are recommended if you are trying for a fast time. This does not mean that the effort will seem even. After you have settled into your pace the early miles should feel relatively easy while over the last few miles you should have to start digging into your reserves.

Some benefits of tempo runs:

  1. Physiological– There are good physiological reasons why tempo runs are effective training tools. As I am not a physiologist I won’t say much about this aspect. Dead Philip Hackbarth explained the term “lactate threshold” as follows:

    “Lactate threshold refers to the highest workload/speed that you can maintain for an extended period of time without accumulating lactic acid. … Lactate threshold is one of the best predictors of endurance performance (and it is relatively trainable compared to VO2max if you know how).”

    Tempo runs are done at a pace close to, but not exceeding, your lactate threshold. I understand that this has been shown to be a good way of increasing one’s lactate threshold. That is, in order to increase your lactate threshold it is not necessary to run faster than your current threshold.

  2. Running economy– In order to be able to run efficiently at race pace you need to do some training at about that pace. If all your speedwork is faster than race pace and your other training slower, your body will not learn how to run economically at race pace. During tempo runs you should consciously try to relax while running reasonably fast. You can also experiment with various running styles. Things to try in different tempo runs: taking short quick strides; flexing your ankles and pushing off hard with your feet; high or low knee lift; keeping your feet close to the ground as you bring them forward; etc. Do not try to increase your stride length by stretching out forward with your feet – this leads to over-striding, which is inefficient and liable to
    cause injuries.
  3. Pace judgement– As I mentioned above, tempo runs give you practice at estimating how fast your body is able to go for a given distance on a given day. If you do your runs on an accurately measured course with intermediate markers you can learn to gauge your pace. (But note what I said earlier about a given pace feeling different in a race and a training run.)
  4. If you usually run in a group, doing occasional tempo runs alone is a good idea. When you are striving for a good time in a race you will usually have to rely on yourself rather than on the help of training partners. In a race with 5,000 other runners you are in many ways more on your own than when doing a tempo run with 2 or 3 training partners around you!
  5. If you usually run alone, try to do occasional tempo runs with at least one similar-paced partner. It is much easier holding a given pace if you have someone running beside you. You do not have to concentrate quite so hard just on maintaining the pace. Caveat – do not get too competitive – the tempo run should be mutually beneficial rather than running yourself into the ground. My old motto when training partners used to run away from me was “It’s not who wins the training runs that counts.”  This motto works best when you can beat your training partners in races.
  6. Tempo runs simulate racing conditions. However, like most simulations, they are not quite the same as reality. In the type of “time trial” described below, the distinction between a tempo run and a race depends more on the attitude of the runner than on the circumstances surrounding the event.

Time trials

The term “time trial” means different things to different runners. What I describe here is the way the term is understood in South Africa.

Mention “time trial” to a South African runner and he/she will immediately think of a low-key weekly race organized by a running club. These are held on weekday evenings starting between 5:30 and 6:30, depending on the city (to compensate for the country not having time zones). There is no entry fee and anyone is welcome – not just members of the organizing club. There is no formal sign-up procedure. One just shows up and runs. I’ve run time trials where just one other person has turned up and I’ve run others which draw well over 100 runners each week. The depth of the competition is also highly variable. At some time trials the results of all finishers are recorded and the first few places even reported in the mainstream daily newspapers. At others times may just be called out as each runner crosses the finish line.

Twenty years ago time trials were all 8K or 5 miles in length. Now there is much more variation. Many offer a choice of two distances, typically 4K and 8K. Because the time trials are run in the dark (at least in winter), during the tail end of the evening rush “our” and without marshals or police assistance, laying out a course can be quite challenging. Most 8K courses will be over two laps and will cross a few quiet residential streets but no major intersections. The course will usually be measured very accurately.

The large number of time trials in each city is probably one of the reasons why South Africa has very few 5K or 8K races. Even 10K races are in short supply. On the other hand, the large number of time trials means that opportunities for doing tempo runs around – on almost any day of the week one can do a timed run on an accurately measured course under race-like conditions.

Time trials provide race-like conditions (see #6 in benefits of tempo runs above). They also provide a gentle introduction to racing for novices. On the other hand, as there are no awards or any tangible evidence of finishing, perhaps there are not enough incentives for novices.

Living in Cape Town in the late 1970s, I used to run time trials regularly – often doing 2 per week. This was the only regular speedwork I was doing but it was sufficient to enable me to race often and relatively well. When I first moved to Pretoria in 1980 there was just one regular time trial – over a hilly 6.6K route. In order to do tempo runs at a standard distance I eventually laid out and organized an 8K time trial. (For those who remember the post in which I described how Rietta and I came together, this was where she turned up and let me overhear her mentioning that she didn’t know how she was going to get home.) When we returned to Pretoria for 8 months in 1993/4 there were at least 5 weekly time trials within an easy warmup jog of our house.

A quick search through the computerized version of my log books reveals that I have run about 365 races of various types (track, road, cross country). I’ve also done 258 “time trial” type races at distances ranging from 1.5 to 10 miles, with 147 being 8K/5mi.

The day before I completed this piece I ran a low-key 8K “fun run”. This was the first short road race I had run in about 6 months. I managed to confirm what I wrote above – tempo runs are not perfect simulations for races. I pushed myself much harder than if I had been running alone. I did manage to pace myself reasonably, running the second half slightly faster than the first.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4