If you’ve heard anything about race training or speed workouts, you’ve probably heard the term ‘tempo run’ thrown around — and for good reason. Among all the workouts we’ve discussed so far, tempo runs are probably the most beneficial speed workout you can add to your regimen. Don’t take these workouts lightly and throw them into your schedule all willy nilly, because tempo runs are often some of the hardest workouts you can do! As White Goodman tells Average Joe’s Gym’s dodgeball team, “best bring your bib, ‘cause it’s gonna get messy.”

In a tempo run, your pace should be just a bit slower than your goal race pace. During a tempo run, you’ll be picking up the pace for a more sustained distance or time, as opposed to the shorter, faster intervals you do in fartlek training or pyramid workouts. That pace will be somewhere between goal race pace and 20 to 30 seconds slower — a pace that is difficult, but can be sustained for anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour depending on what distance of race you’re training for. Oh, and forget about those little bits of rest that you get in fartlek training or pyramid workouts!

At the beginning of your training cycle, you’ll be keeping up that tempo pace for 30 to 40 percent of your target race distance, with no rest intervals. In the weeks and months leading up to the race, you’ll work your way up to 60 to 70 percent of race distance. 60 to 70 percent is the most you’ll want to go — a tempo run takes a toll on the body, and you need to be able to fully recover ahead of the other runs and workouts on your schedule.

Let’s pretend you’re training for a half marathon and want to start using tempo runs in your training. For the first couple tempo runs, your workout will look something like this:

  • 2 miles warm-up at easy pace
  • 4 miles tempo at 30 seconds/mile slower than half marathon pace (HMP)
  • 2 miles cooldown at easy pace

Just like other speed workouts, warm-ups are very important to get blood flowing to the muscles and the heart rate climbing steadily so as not to shock the system by immediately running at this difficult pace. A tempo run can also be done on any type of terrain — I find it helpful to do it on a similar surface and grade to the race I’ll be running to simulate the race environment.

As you progress through your training, you’ll gradually add distance to the tempo period or increase your pace. At two weeks before your race, your last tempo run should look something like this:

  • 3 miles warm-up at easy pace
  • 9 miles tempo at 15 seconds/mile slower than HMP
  • 2 miles cooldown at easy pace

Yes, that tempo run as a whole is longer than a half marathon, but we’re really focusing on those 9 tempo miles. You’ll want to focus on staying consistent and smooth to ready your mind and body to run like that on race day.

So, why is this the most beneficial speed workout you can do to prepare for longer races?

First and foremost, it helps the body prepare for long, sustained efforts at close to goal race pace. We learn how it feels to run at that goal race pace, and we get some practice maintaining that pace. That also helps us figure out how to most efficiently use our body’s fuel — that’s why the tempo run is a great opportunity to practice and experiment with different types of nutrition that you plan to use on race day, whether that’s trying out a new gel or drink mix or using what we will be provided on the course on race day.

Tempo runs are just as much about mental preparation as physical. With longer races, it can be difficult to stay focused on good pacing for an extended period of time. It can also be difficult to push your body to keep up a difficult pace when it’s tired or lacking fuel. Running at these harder paces trains our minds to push through fatigue and pain.

Just like any workout, the numbers above are suggestions. Experiment and find out what works for you, as you don’t want to get injured or burned out by trying to follow any certain plan to a T.  However you decide to approach it, the tempo run is the key to success due to its similarity to race day. Although there are several other great workouts you’ll also want to use ahead of race day, with the tempo run, you are now equipped with your Mjölnir to hammer race day!