At the start of your running journey, any speed will do — you’re just trying to lace up your running shoes and get out the door (or onto the treadmill). Wherever you are in your training regimen now, runners are bound to encounter the invisible wall of burning in your lower body and your lungs. Your muscles are tired and your mind wants to quit. All runners have felt it.
That burning you felt may have been lactic acid building up. And that mental wall you were literally running into can grind you to a halt even more than muscular fatigue. There’s good news — tempo runs. With tempo runs, you can train your body and mind to run faster and longer before fatiguing.
A tempo run will have you push yourself to the level of intensity right before your body can no longer remove lactic acid from your blood as fast as it can produce it — the lactate threshold. You’ll be running only slightly slower than your hardest non-sprinting run, for upwards of 20 minutes. It’ll be a challenge, but it’ll produce big rewards. Here’s what you need to know about tempo runs.
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
A tempo run, also known as a threshold run, is a short (20 to 40 minutes or 5k to 10k) run featuring a sustained effort at a difficult pace. It’s different from interval training, fartlek training, or other types of speed work where you alternate a burst of effort for a short period with a slower pace. Instead, you stay at a high intensity the whole time.
Your tempo run likely won’t be the same pace as your running partner’s tempo run. The intensity will be different depending on each individual’s experience.
Dr. Jack Daniels, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and well-known running coach, has provided research, writing, and helpful formulas on the science behind tempo runs and how they may improve long-distance running. In his book Daniels’ Running Formula, he states that the intensity of tempo runs should be “comfortably hard” as opposed to interval training which is purely “hard.” (1)
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Daniels outlines five paces for running training programs: easy pace for easy runs, marathon pace, threshold pace, interval pace, and repetition pace. (1)
Understanding tempo runs is all about threshold pace which refers to the lactate threshold. Let’s break it down further.
Aerobic to Anaerobic Transition
When you go on an easy, low-intensity run, you’re primarily tapping into your aerobic energy system. Your cardiorespiratory system delivers oxygen to supply your muscles with energy from glucose. Doing short bursts of high-intensity work like sprint workouts, weightlifting, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) uses your anaerobic energy system. Instead of using inhaled oxygen for energy, your body uses stored energy (ATP) in your muscles. (2)
If you’re running hard enough — which is necessary for increasing your speed for races and distance running — eventually your body will switch over from aerobic to anaerobic. Anaerobic exercise causes a build-up of lactic acid in your blood or blood lactate. This causes a burning sensation in your muscles that can slow you down. (2) You may be used to feeling that burn when you lift, but it’s hard to sustain it like you need to do in a long-distance run.
As lactic acid builds up, your body can remove it. But eventually, you reach a point where you can’t clear it out fast enough. The amount of blood lactate that you have is a balance of production and removal. When the removal can’t keep up with the production, or the rate of lactate moving from your muscles to your blood is higher than the rate of it disappearing, you’ve gone past the concept known as the anaerobic threshold or lactate threshold. (3)
When you program your runs, the lactate threshold is useful to calculate intensity. The lactate threshold is the highest intensity where there is still a balance between lactate production and lactate removal. It’s the highest intensity you can tolerate before the lactate exponentially increases without being removed, and you’re burning too much to continue safely. (4)
The idea of threshold training, or a tempo run, is running for at least 20 minutes with a sustained effort just before you cross that threshold. It’s a pretty high intensity: you’re running almost as hard as possible, but trying to stay in that sweet spot just before burning out.
Tempo Run Pace
Depending on your fitness level and how experienced you are as an endurance athlete, you may hit the lactate threshold sooner than someone with more training under their belt.
Dr. Daniels popularized the VDOT formula to help runners calculate their tempo run pace, which takes into account their personal fitness level and previous race times. (1)(5) Here’s how it breaks down.
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According to Dr. Daniels, your lactate threshold pace, or T-pace, should be 83 to 88 percent of your VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use) or 88 to 92 percent of your maximum heart rate.
Dr. Daniels notes that the purpose is to “stress lactate clearance capability” but not overdo it. (1)(6) So whether you are running to prepare for a race or event or just to improve your fitness and body conditioning, a tempo run trains your body to clear lactate more efficiently. This way, you can develop the physiological ability to sustain your efforts longer.
Tempo runs train your energy systems to tolerate increased workout intensities that may boost your performance and endurance in races and marathons, while potentially improving your mental and physical health. Here are the benefits of adding tempo runs to your training program.
May Increase Lactate Threshold
Tempo runs are done at your level of intensity just before your muscles become too fatigued by the build-up of lactic acid and your body can’t keep up with removing it from your blood. By pushing yourself on these runs, you may be able to increase your lactic threshold, allowing you to spend more time running at a faster pace before your muscles fatigue.
This theory was tested in a famous study from 1982 where scientists measured the onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA) in eight cis men who were long-distance runners. The runners completed 20-minute treadmill runs at an intensity meant to generate a certain amount of lactate in their blood (four mmol/L). This created the term VOBLA, or the speed at which blood lactate accumulates.
After fourteen weeks of weekly runs, VOBLA increased, meaning they could run for longer before their blood lactate became too high and caused fatigue. (7)
The study concluded that training at the intensity of VOBLA will increase VOBLA. (7) In other words, training at your lactate threshold with tempo runs may increase your lactate threshold, increasing your time before fatigue.
May Increase Speed and Distance
Tempo runs help you build endurance while also increasing your race pace and ability to sustain a solid speed for a longer distance. This may boost your performance in your races.
These theories came from the OBLA study where the runners increased their pace as their VOBLA increased. Another study showed that a distance runner’s lactate threshold can predict their race pace in a 10K, half marathon, and full marathon. (7)(8)
Boosts Cardio Fitness
Outside of race performance, tempo runs can improve your cardiovascular fitness by increasing your VO2 max. VO2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake, refers to how well your heart can deliver oxygen to your muscles while you exercise. Elite athletes often have a high VO2 max, and higher is thought to be better. (9)
Aside from exercise performance, VO2 max can be an indicator of cardiovascular health. Having a lower VO2 max means your heart has to work harder to deliver oxygen to the rest of your body, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular diseases. Tempo runs are one method of cardiovascular exercise that can keep your heart strong and healthy. (10)
Builds Mental Toughness
Any type of running is not only tough on your body but your mind as well. It takes a lot of mental strength to push yourself to complete a run working close to your maximum capacity. Repeatedly doing tempo runs gives you evidence that you’re capable of pushing hard, and this can build up your mental endurance over time. That can help you out on race day and may boost your self-confidence.
It’s well-known that exercise in general can have a positive effect on your mental health. Exercise can improve self-esteem and cognition, potentially leading to boosting your mood and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. (11) Running, specifically, also has mental health benefits.
A 2020 review of over 16,000 studies on running and mental health found that in general, running different distances and intensities can boost mood and mental health. Different types of running had different outcomes. Marathon training was associated with higher self-esteem and psychological coping. However, some long-distance running was also associated with disordered eating and exercise addiction. (12)
Preparing for a long-distance race and ready for your first tempo run? Here is how to calculate your pace, some training tips, and a sample tempo run workout to try.
Calculate Tempo Run Pace
- Calculate 83 to 88 percent of your VO2 max.
- Calculate 88 to 92 percent of your maximum heart rate.*
- Run at a six out of 10 RPE, or fast enough that you can’t hold a conversation with someone.
- Get your previous race numbers and plug them into Dr. Daniels’ VDOT table.
*To calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Then multiply this number by 88 to 92 percent to find your target heart rate for your tempo run.
Prepare for Weather and Terrain
For tempo runs, you’re maintaining a consistent intensity of your level of effort. Before you head out on your run, plan for weather and terrain conditions. You need to be able to run at a sustained effort for the full time without being held back or slowed down by external conditions. (1)(6)
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If it’s a rainy day or you don’t have a suitable outdoor area, it may be more efficient to do your tempo runs on a treadmill where you can control all of the elements.
Tempo Run Workout
Here’s a sample tempo run workout to try. You can do this once or twice a week as part of your larger training plan.
Start your endeavor with a dynamic warm-up for running to prepare your joints, muscles, and brain for your activity.
- Warm Up: 10 minutes easy run
- Tempo Run: 20 minutes at your personalized tempo pace
- Cool Down: 10 minutes easy run
Finish off with some cool-down stretches.
When too much lactic acid enters your blood during a run, you reach your lactic threshold and your muscles burn and fatigue. Tempo runs have you run at a challenging but not quite all-out speed that can help increase your lactate threshold. You can then run faster and longer before fatiguing, boosting your overall cardio fitness and your mental toughness.
It’s essential to follow a balanced training program when preparing for a race or event or work with a running coach for more personalized advice. Tempo runs may be a great addition to your plan. Be sure to warm up and cool down, and be ready to get faster.
Do you have some lingering questions on tempo runs? Here are your answers.
What is a tempo run example?
After a proper dynamic warm-up, start with a 10-minute easy run. Run for 20 minutes at a tempo pace. Finish with a 10-minute jog to cool down.
To calculate your tempo pace, you should be at 83 to 88 percent of your VO2 max, 88 to 92 percent of your maximum heart rate, a six out of 10 RPE, or plug your previous race times into a VDOT table.
What is the purpose of a tempo run?
Tempo runs can increase your lactate threshold — the point where lactate has accumulated in your blood and muscle fatigue sets in. This can increase the time that you can spend running at a fast pace before fatiguing, building your endurance, and potentially boosting your race time.
How long is a tempo workout?
A tempo run only needs to be 20 minutes but can last up to 60 minutes. Add on a 10-minute warm-up jog and allow 10 minutes for a cool down, as well.
- Daniels, J. (2013). Daniels’ running formula. Human Kinetics.
- Patel H, Alkhawam H, Madanieh R, Shah N, Kosmas CE, Vittorio TJ. Aerobic vs anaerobic exercise training effects on the cardiovascular system. World J Cardiol. 2017 Feb 26;9(2):134-138.
- Ghosh AK. Anaerobic threshold: its concept and role in endurance sport. Malays J Med Sci. 2004 Jan;11(1):24-36.
- Støa, E. M., Helgerud, J., Rønnestad, B. R., Hansen, J., Ellefsen, S., & Støren, Ø. (2020). Factors Influencing Running Velocity at Lactate Threshold in Male and Female Runners at Different Levels of Performance. Frontiers in Physiology, 11, 585267.
- Daniels, J., Ph.D. (2005, December 1). Threshold Training: Finding Your VDOT. Runner’s World.
- Daniels, J., Ph.D. (2022, December 31). What You Need to Know About Threshold Training. Runner’s World.
- Sjödin B, Jacobs I, Svedenhag J. Changes in onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA) and muscle enzymes after training at OBLA. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1982;49(1):45-57.
- NICHOLSON, ROBERT M.; SLEIVERT, GORDON G.. Indices of lactate threshold and their relationship with 10-km running velocity. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 33(2):p 339-343, February 2001.
- Levine BD. .VO2max: what do we know, and what do we still need to know? J Physiol. 2008 Jan 1;586(1):25-34.
- Nystoriak MA, Bhatnagar A. Cardiovascular Effects and Benefits of Exercise. Front Cardiovasc Med. 2018 Sep 28;5:135.
- Sharma A, Madaan V, Petty FD. Exercise for mental health. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2006;8(2):106.
- Oswald F, Campbell J, Williamson C, Richards J, Kelly P. A Scoping Review of the Relationship between Running and Mental Health. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Nov 1;17(21):8059.
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