What Exactly Is Tempo Running?

Sport & Activity

Tempo Runs, also known as threshold runs, can help you run faster for longer.

Last updated: 30 June 2022
6 min read
Tempo Running: What Is It and What Are the Benefits?

Tempo Runs, also known as threshold runs, can help you run faster for longer. Tempo Runs are a training technique that increases your anaerobic threshold, so your body adapts to performing at a higher intensity comfortably. This intensity could be a longer distance or a faster pace.

Your cardiovascular fitness levels dictate how far or hard you can run. Tiring easily is an indicator that your muscles aren't getting the oxygen they need when they need it. Or it could be a sign that your body isn't efficiently clearing lactic acid.

What Is Lactic Acid?

Lactic acid is a metabolic by-product created when you train in the anaerobic heart rate zone. Anaerobic means without oxygen and can be contrasted with aerobic running, which is when oxygen is present in energy conversion. At 80 percent or more of your heart rate max (HRM), you switch energy systems. You need energy faster than the rate at which you can deliver oxygen.

Instead, your body will be burning glycogen for ATP energy, without the help of oxygen. This is known as glycolysis, and lactic acid is created as a by-product. The higher the intensity—i.e. the closer to your anaerobic threshold—the more lactic acid is produced in your muscles. This is then broken down into lactate, and released into your bloodstream.

You can't sustain anaerobic energy production for long—usually one to three minutes. But in this short time, high levels of lactic acid can accumulate. Even though lactic acid build-up is temporary, it can impair your performance.

Why Is Too Much Lactic Acid Bad?

First and foremost, lactic acid has a bad rap. Lactic acid helps your body produce energy without oxygen. It's a necessary by-product. However, too much lactic acid build-up can be detrimental.

Lactic acid creates acidity in the muscle, known as acidosis, which slows down energy production and causes a soreness and burning sensation in the muscle. This may seem counterintuitive, but it's your body's way of modulating exertion. The fitter you are, the more efficiently lactate can clear. You can view it as your body's green light: you can handle a higher intensity workout.

How can you help your body clear lactate more efficiently so that it doesn't create muscle acidity and consequently inhibit your performance? The answer is lactate clearance training. Tempo Runs are one type of workout that achieves this.

What Are Tempo Runs?

A tempo workout is a continuous run that requires sustained effort. Instead of a light jog at an easy pace, you'll be pushing your body, getting your heart rate up and testing your stamina. You'll be running faster than your regular pace but for a shorter duration.

It's different from interval training. Instead of stopping and starting in repetitions, you'll be continuously running for 20 to 30 minutes. You should feel fatigue; it's not an easy run that you can complete comfortably. It's a type of threshold training, in which you're pushing yourself to run fast.

Tempo Runs get their name because you'll be running at tempo pace. Tempo pace is different for everyone, which is part of the appeal of this training technique. It's customised to your current running capabilities, and it changes when you do. Many runners enjoy this customisation and watching yourself progress is great motivation.

How to Get Your Tempo Pace

Your tempo pace is best measured in a lab, but it can also be done at home. Here's how:

  1. Measure the pace at which you can run an hour-long race. This might be your 10K race pace, or the fastest pace you can maintain for an hour.
  2. Divide the distance with your running time to get your pace.

For reference, a tempo pace is usually 30 seconds slower (per mile) than your 5K race pace. For experienced runners, it'll be slightly faster than your half-marathon pace.

Tempo Run Workout

Once you have your tempo pace locked in, run for 20 to 30 minutes. You can expect to be working at 85 to 90 percent of your max. heart rate, or 80 to 90 percent of your VO2 max. This anaerobic zone will spike lactic acid, teaching your body to clear it more efficiently and adapt to a higher exercise intensity. By the time race day rolls around, your body will be used to working near its anaerobic threshold. This will help you improve your time, sustaining a faster pace for longer.

Need help getting your race pace down? Consider downloading the Nike Run Club App so you can get guidance from experts and join a community of runners.

What Are the Benefits of Tempo Runs?

  1. 1.Improves Lactate Clearance

    A tempo workout improves lactate clearance by intentionally spiking lactic acid production so your body gets better at clearing it. For context, lactic acid build-up can make your legs feel heavy or fatigued after a workout. Much like aerobic exercise is a workout for your heart, training at your lactate threshold is a workout for your muscles to practise clearing lactic acid build-up.

    When lactate is cleared efficiently, your muscles aren't forced to try and work through an acidic environment with delayed energy production. This allows you to run for longer, harder—you build endurance. Your muscles aren't impaired by lactic acid build-up, so you'll be improving your performance with this type of workout.

  2. 2.Improves Cardiovascular Fitness

    Poor cardiovascular fitness means that your heart has to work hard to transport oxygen to your muscles during exercise. As a result, your heart rate increases quickly to sustain the oxygen requirements. As your heart rate gets faster, you move away from your aerobic threshold and nearer to your anaerobic threshold.

    As mentioned, you can't sustain 90 percent of your HRM for long, so you'll stop. This is why you might be struggling to run long distances. Your cardiovascular system isn't used to working at this intensity during a workout. For runners, incorporating a tempo workout into a training plan can quickly develop cardiovascular fitness. Specifically, it can improve VO2 max., cardiac output and endurance.

  3. 3.Improves Race Day Speed

    The landmark study that informed the tempo running technique found that running at tempo pace—something they called onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA)—increased race-day speed. The researchers of the study, which was published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, asked a group of runners to run at OBLA for 20 minutes.

    After doing these runs as a workout once a week for 14 weeks, the runners saw their average OBLA paces drop by 4 percent. That means there's a slowing in lactic acid accumulation, allowing the runners to run faster for longer. For any distance runners who run a half-marathon in an hour, you'd now be running it in about 57 minutes if your results were the same.

Tempo Running: What Is It and What Are the Benefits?

Go for an Audio-Guided Run outside or on the treadmill with Nike Run Club.

Originally published: 31 December 2021

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