TEMPO RUNNING IS a cornerstone of training for runners and triathletes: it teaches control, pacing, patience and how to embrace the discomfort of racing, all the while boosting fitness. Probably more than any other workout, the tempo run can be used to practice positive race day psychology and optimal preparation. It’s also a valuable tool which prepares you how to pace off the bike, which is why nailing tempo runs is important for every triathlete.
The tempo run must be done just below lactate threshold. You should not start at a faster pace than you finish (you know, where you start enthusiastically too fast for your fitness only to blow up later). You need to plan your pacing and execute that plan.
Tempo runs are often also called “anaerobic threshold (AT)” or “lactate-threshold” runs. The term was first made popular by Jack Daniels, PHD., in his book Daniels’ Running Formula (Human Kinetics): “A tempo run is nothing more than 20 minutes of steady running at threshold pace.” Threshold pace is the effort level just below which the body’s ability to clear lactate, a by-product of carbohydrate metabolism, can no longer keep up with lactate production. Therefore, once you feel the “burn” as the lactic acid builds in your muscles, you aren’t at tempo. If you start at 5-km pace and slow after 10 minutes, you aren’t running steady or at tempo. The pace of the tempo run will vary with the distance you are training for and the time out there. For most people this is about 25 to 30 seconds per mile slower than their current 5-km race pace.
Another gauge of tempo (an important one for athletes trying to tune into perceived effort) is to look at effort. If an easy run is 50 to 60 per cent of your max effort, then a tempo run is 80 to 90 per cent. Tempo runs should be a conscious, steady effort, with the emphasis on conscious – staying relaxed while working hard, keeping form and breathing well. You should finish a tempo run feeling there is some reserve. If you are completely spent and gasping for oxygen, like after a race, then you haven’t done it properly (most likely you went out too hard) and you will have mistimed not only the workout, but your week, as you will not recover in time before the next key sessions.
If you are in triathlon training, you will not be tapered for these sessions. While training fatigue will be a factor, the benefits of tempo runs are huge: in a race you never get off the bike feeling fresh-legged, even if you are well prepared. The tempo, basically, gives triathletes a huge fitness and mental boost because it gets you used to performing near aerobic threshold, and increases glycogen storage capacity and allows you to mentally adapt to the discomfort of racing.
Remember, the one real requirement of tempo running is that you stick to a steady, specific, planned pace. Tempo running can be used to boost general fitness in the early season, and to prepare for specific paces during race season with less cost to the body than running intervals.
Whether you focus on tempo running as a stand-alone workout or to learn to run goal pace off the bike, keep the intention of the workout clearly in your mind: the focus is on preparing the body for the feel and physical stress of faster running on top of the specific focus on building fitness.
Here are a few coaching tips to help execute great tempo runs on their own or off the bike in a transition workout: • Tempo runs shouldn’t kill you, they are not a race or a time-trial, the pace and breathing is similar to a race pace, but when you finish you should feel that you could go a little longer if you had to. A tempo pace is distinctly different from warm-up pace or long-run pace, in that you have to concentrate more on what makes you run fast. The trick is to feel fast and quick, but very in control. • As you go through your training sessions, allow yourself to think ahead to race day. Practice the way you want to feel during the run. Having internalized good run habits, a positive emotional mind-set will have great benefit during the last leg of the race. Be ready for the effort of running off the bike. In the last 10 minutes of your bike before a brick run, start thinking about running well and getting mentally prepared. • For transition running: as soon as possible off the bike try and hit your natural run cadence and pace. Relax and try to run naturally, checking that you are not tense or tight anywhere. Keep your leg speed up as you tire and stay tall. Check your run cadence and shoot for 90 to 95 steps per minute. Tempo runs are great times to run fast and think like a runner. Be efficient and keep your body moving forward fluidly with minimal side-to-side movement, bounding or shoulder rolling. “Energy flows where attention goes.” Paying attention to what you are doing and do it well. A strong heel lift? Visualize your heels lifting. See yourself moving well across the ground. Tempo running is an excellent opportunity to become a better racer while increasing your ability to run at a faster pace. A harder sustained effort in training allows you to work through discomfort while remaining positive.
Lucy Smith is a many-time national running and triathlon champion and a coach with Lifesport.