Tempo Running

After our previous analysis of the anaerobic threshold (see HERE), and VO2 Max (see HERE) today we look to analyse and break down the fundamentals of a staple strength endurance run – the tempo run. Whilst a tempo run may mean different things to different people, with our focus centred on pure aerobic development, like our threshold and VO2 max, a tempo run can be defined and implemented into a runners program with great effect. By the end of this blog, we hope you have an understanding as to what a tempo run is and how and why you would use it to effectively train towards your next PB!

Understanding where our tempo zone sits in relation to our other aerobic zones in crucial to making sustainable improvements to your running performance

Understanding where our tempo zone sits in relation to our other aerobic zones in crucial to making sustainable improvements to your running performance

What is a Tempo Run and how does it differ from a Threshold Run?

As we have discussed in our previous blogs, understanding the metrics of a tempo run requires an understanding as to how the body uses oxygen (O2) and how this changes depending on the intensity of your run. For a detailed breakdown of aerobic metabolism, please see our threshold blog HERE.

A tempo run is performed at an intensity that sits between our aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. As it is below our anaerobic threshold (AT), we are not working to the upper limit of our O2 stores. The key difference between a tempo and threshold run is this “oxygen (O2) reserve” that we have during tempo running. As our threshold runs have a very small O2 reserve, a small increase in pace results in a significantly larger increase in energy demand, making the pace unsustainable in the long term. However, when we run at our tempo zone, we do in fact have oxygen to draw upon if we wish to run quicker. The beauty with this is the volume of training we can now do at this pace is much longer than if we increase intensity up to threshold.

Having an understanding of this process is fundamental in learning to execute a tempo run. As there is an oxygen reserve, initially (when our muscles are fresh) the pace will feel relatively comfortable and controlled. What makes a tempo run challenging is the associated increase in muscular stress due to the accumulation of volume, opposed to the rising levels of hydrogen ions (H+) at the end of a threshold run. This is the origin of the saying we often cover at Front Runner sessions; a threshold run should work the heart and a tempo run should work the legs. That’s not to say that a tempo run won’t produce significant aerobic adaptations at the cardio-vascular (CV) level (it certainly does) but at the end of the run, most runners will find that soreness or heaviness in the legs will be the primary source of fatigue opposed to a significantly high heart or breathing rate.

A tempo run can now be defined as a run that sits between our aerobic (~2 mMol/L) and anaerobic (4 mMol/L) threshold’s, where there are H+ being produced in the muscle but being cleared into the blood at a rate that is sustainable and does not lead to accumulation.


Defining your Tempo Run Pace

Now we know what our tempo run is aiming to achieve, we need to know how to train at this intensity. The gold standard for zone testing is a lactate threshold test. This test is typically performed on a treadmill and involves gradually increasing your running pace to find the point at which the AT occurs. Once we know where the AT occurs, we can then accurately estimate your tempo running zone through pace prescription.

Accurate estimates can also be made of your tempo zone through a practical running session. At Front Runner Sports, we will often perform what’s known as a Critical Velocity (Vcr) test to assist runners in finding their aerobic pace zones. The test is simply a time trial for 30min, where the runner aims to cover as much distance as possible in the allocated time. The resulting average pace that you sustained for this 30min is known as your Vcr. To derive your tempo pace from the Vcr testing, simply use our Aerobic Pace Zone Calculator HERE


Why Should You Perform a Regular Tempo Run in training?

A tempo run is of particular benefit to runners who feel they have more speed than strength or endurance and wish to increase their economy (how much oxygen it takes to run a particular pace). As the run works both your muscular endurance and CV system, the duration of the run is often the difficult aspect; opposed to the actual pace, which is often controlled at the beginning and becomes difficult as the run progresses. This is a common scenario in events longer than 1h (e.g. Half & Marathon distances) where fatigue can be more localised to the legs rather than the heart vs. a 5 or 10km race. So if you feel you want to cover the first half of your race with more ease OR want to translate your new PB time over the shorter events into a longer race, a tempo run will assist your performance.


As our tempo run aims to enhance our muscular endurance, adding some rolling hills into the run can be a great addition if you're up for a challenge!

As our tempo run aims to enhance our muscular endurance, adding some rolling hills into the run can be a great addition if you’re up for a challenge!

Training at Your Tempo Zone

Once you have your tempo pace we can set about training to enhance your strength endurance! As your tempo pace is a set percentage of your AT, initially we don’t want to actually improve the pace at which we run tempo, but rather see an improvement in the duration (volume) at which we can spend at this zone. If you were to re-test and subsequently improve your AT, then your tempo pace will increase. We know that the most effective way to improve our tempo efficiency is to train on our tempo pace, not above it, to ensure we maintain our O2 reserve below the AT.

How long you can spend at your tempo pace is a reflection of your current muscular conditioning and endurance. Most regular runners should find that in training, they should be able to run for ~30-45min (either continuous or in long intervals) at their tempo pace when working moderately hard. As you gradually improve your muscular endurance we need to gradually increase the amount of time we spend running in the tempo zone. We can achieve this by having less (and more active) recovery between longer intervals or spending more continuous time at your tempo pace.

Recreational runners should look to spend ~25min at their tempo zone, whilst more advanced and conditioned distance runners can aim to spend ~45min in their tempo zone. Some example sessions can be seen below:

Recreational Runner (~25min for 5km)

  • 3 x 10min @ Tempo with 2min easy jog recovery (R)
  • 2 x 15min @ Tempo with 2min easy jog R
  • 1 x 30min @ Tempo

Serious Recreational Runner (~20min for 5km)

  • 3 x 12min @ Tempo with 90s steady jog R
  • 2 x 18min @ Tempo with 2min steady jog R
  • 1 x 40min @ Tempo

Advanced Runner (~15min for 5km)

  • 3 x 15min @ Tempo with 2min steady jog R
  • 2 x 20min @ Tempo with 2min steady jog R
  • 1 x 45min @ Tempo


The 3 principles of progressive overload can be applied to tempo training to improve both the aerobic and muscular stimulus the session will provide:

  • Firstly, make the run more continuous. E.g. Instead of running 3 x 10min @ tempo, run 2 x 15min @ tempo. Both will stimulate the body for 30min, but a more consistent application of the training stress will make the run more difficult.
  • Secondly, employ a more active and shorter recovery. As tempo running does not provide an acute CV stress, a jog recovery (easy or steady pace) should give you a brief mental and muscular reprieve, before launching into your next effort.
  • Lastly, increase the time period you spend at tempo. If you can aim to get up to 45min you will be in a position to demonstrate your strength and fitness in your next race.
Jumping onto the softer trail surfaces can increase your variability when increasing your tempo run volume

Jumping onto the softer trail surfaces can increase your variability when increasing your tempo run volume

We trust you now have a greater understanding as to what the tempo zone is and how you can use this knowledge to improve your running. If you wish to know more about this topic, or anything to do with your running training, please get in touch with our expert coaching team who are ready to assist you towards your next running goal! Please email coach@frontrunnersports.com.au or see our website: www.frontrunnersports.com.au


Running Regards,

Team Front Runner