Running in the 'Meda: The tempo run

Running in the 'Meda: The tempo run

Marty Beene

Since last week's topic was interval training, I want to cover another type of faster running, the tempo run.

First of all, it's important to remember that incorporating faster running into a routine is not just for competitive runners. Doing different types of running (like changing speeds) will keep you from getting into a rut. If you do the same kind of running every time, it's likely you'll get bored with it, and your body will get bored with it, too.

Tempo runs are one of the easiest kinds of faster running to do, but many people don't really know how to do it.

When you run, there is a wide spectrum of speeds you can go, from super slow jogging to all-out sprinting. A tempo run falls somewhere in the middle. Think of it this way: on the slower end of the spectrum, you have the super slow jogging, which is as slow as you can go and still be "running." You can also go faster than that and still be feeling quite comfortable. We call this pace "conversational" - that is, you can literally carry on a conversation.

The range of tempo run speeds begins just faster than conversational pace. So a good way to grasp what this means for you is to go for a run with someone, have a conversation, and then speed up until you can't comfortably have that conversation any more. You should still be able to speak, but not really in complete sentences and paragraphs without interrupting yourself to huff and puff. Let that pace register in your brain (or check your GPS watch if you want to be precise about it).

The upper limit of the tempo running range is a little harder to identify. This is where your body can't quite keep up with the waste products your muscles are producing at that speed. There are many ways to find this speed, and there is often debate in the running and coaching community about the best way to do this. Unless you are (or are planning to be) a professional level runner, I recommend just experimenting. If you are in reasonably good condition, go out and do a tempo run of about two to three miles, starting with a mile or two of easy running before the faster running. Whatever pace you can maintain consistently over that distance and not be passing out at the end is approximately the upper limit of "tempo" pace. That is, you should definitely be huffing and puffing - a lot - but it should be slower than your "racing pace," and you should be able to simply slow back down to your conversational pace without significant discomfort.

Another way to practice tempo running is to use a heart rate monitor. This can be tricky because you have to know what your current maximum heart rate is, and that changes as you age. It's also different for everyone, so using one of the standard formulas is only a very rough estimate. But if you can figure it out, you can use percentages of that maximum to guide you in your effort level for various levels of tempo runs. Another challenge is that there is debate about what percent of your maximum corresponds to appropriate tempo run levels (80 percent? 85 percent? 90 percent?). If you are curious about what you can or should be doing using a heart rate monitor, and to learn more about determining your maximum, contact me for some suggestions.

Finally, whenever I do a tempo run - or any kind of faster running - I'm reminded that it's actually fun to do. Like many people, I find that consistent, steady-state running can be kind of boring, so any time I do a tempo run, interval workout, or a race, I remind myself that there are many ways to run, and it's fun to mix it up.

Let me know in the comments if you have any tips on ways to do tempo running.

Marty Beene, a USA Track & Field certified coach, is owner of Be The Runner; he coaches adults from beginners to veterans individually and in groups. Marty can be reached at