What is a tempo run and why you need to be doing them!

Published:     March 27, 2017

By:     Jared Beckstrand, DPT


I’ve always described running as “simplistically complex”. It’s something we’ve done our whole lives… you put one foot in front of the other and then repeat! But the deeper you delve into this world the more you realize how much really goes into progression and improvement. We all want to be better; we all want to run faster.


Enter the notion of a “tempo run”. If you’re a beginner runner who’s looking to improve or a seasoned runner looking for a new PR, you have to incorporate tempo runs into your training.


What is a tempo run? Why do we need to do them, and how to do tempo runs during our training?


What is a tempo run?


Simply put – a tempo run is a running workout at a faster pace. It’s also referred to as a lactate-threshold, LT, or “threshold” run.


The goal is simple – push yourself harder so your body increases its work capability.


It works like this – while you’re running, your muscle cells are working hard (think of them like little engines running high). As a by-product, these little engines give off “exhaust” just like your car does… however in this case that “exhaust” is lactate and hydrogen. When released into our muscles, these substances make the muscles acidic. This leads to fatigue, soreness, and ultimately cramping.


The better trained you are (i.e. the higher your lactate threshold) the more capable your muscles are at using these by-products. The result is less acidic “exhaust” in your muscles so they keep on contracting efficiently, allowing you to run longer and stronger.


How fast should my tempo run be?


There are lots of different ways to calculate your optimal tempo run pace.


The most widely-accepted tempo run pace is at 80-90% of your maximum heart rate. Now, if you’re really serious about it (and have some extra money you don’t mind spending) you can go into your local exercise physiologist’s and do some stress testing to figure out your HRmax and VO2max. For most of us, you can find your heart rate by performing the calculation 220 – age = HRmax. For example: a 30 year-old’s max heart rate would be 190 (220-30=190); therefore your tempo run pace should be around 152 – 171 BPM (80-90% of 190).


Some other methods for finding your pace include:


An 8/10 on the “perceived exertion” scale: A comfortable pace would be a 5-6, trying to set your new PR would be a 9-10)


Talk test: Short, 2-3 word phrases with your running buddy are doable; sentences are impossible



How often should I do a tempo run?


Regularly incorporating tempo runs into your training will help you push your lactate threshold higher and make you a more-efficient runner. Most experts recommend 1-2 tempo runs per week to achieve maximum outcomes.


A few more notes about tempo runs


Most experts recommend tempo runs of 4-8 miles, but this will always be dependent on what you are training for.


You should start with a warm up at a comfortable pace and end with a cool down (also comfortable pace). You can run your tempo run continuously (e.g. 1-mile warm up, 2-mile tempo run, 1-mile cool-down) or break it up into intervals (following 1-mile warm-up: 5-minute tempo pace, 5-minute “normal” pace repeated for 2 miles, 1-mile cool-down).


Note many different types of tempo running workouts exist; these are just some examples to get you started. Using tempo runs can help improve your performance by allowing you to push longer and stronger. Incorporate them into your regular training and see how far you can take your results!

Jared Beckstrand, Doctor of Physical Therapy, who specializes in exercise prescription. He loves being active and seeing his patients become more active and get into shape. He is also the Blogger at Tone and Tighten, LLC.