Monday, February 1, 2016

Our Favorite Workouts: Understanding the Tempo Run

by Gina Kehr

The Tempo Run. It has been defined many ways by many great coaches. Daniels calls it a pace between T pace and M pace and it is based on the amount of tempo you do (20-60 minutes). McMillian says it is a “comfortably hard pace and your heart rate will be around 85-90% of your max heart rate.” Hanson says it is simply “marathon pace.”

I knew while I was racing that the tempo run was one of my best workouts to gain speed and strength for ironman. My coach at the time, Michael McCormack, would prescribe me these 60-90 minute runs that varied multiple paces. I would start easy, build to steady, then hang there for a while and bounce from mod-hard to hard several times then go to easy and repeat. These runs made me strong and really helped me hone in on pacing which really paid off over 26.2. I would brick these runs up with a bike or a swim and often sneak them into my long run. I would mix it up often by having one tempo run be on flat terrain and another be on rolling terrain.

So how do you do these runs on different terrain? Do you slow down on the hills and if so how much? And what pace is steady or moderate-hard? These are a few of the questions that I will get in regards to the tempo. Let’s discuss each one a bit further.

  1. What is rolling and what is hilly terrain? I live in northern California and we have a lot of rolling terrain and a lot of hilly terrain. Rolling terrain is road/trail that you may have to press for 30 seconds to 2 minutes or so and then quickly go into downhill or flat terrain. There are big rollers where you may have a 6 to 10 minute climb but then quickly go into a downhill or minor “rollers” that you can keep pace on. These roads/trail roll but you are able to keep a rhythm. Hilly terrain means long big climbs that take 10 to 20 minutes and typically do not have a good downhill or flat to follow. There may a bit of a reprieve but then you may find yourself climbing on another 10 minute hill soon there after. In both of these types of runs it is hard to get a rhythm and should not be used for tempo but more for strength and stamina.

    Both terrains are beneficial in that you can work on leg strength and turnover as well as pacing.

  2. Do you slow down on the hills and if so how much? When doing a tempo run in rolling terrain it is important to note that if you are prescribed actual paces you should not chase the pace on the uphill. The key is to hit the roller at the pace and then to maintain the same perceived effort taking into account how long the roller is. Your pace will slow down but your press will stay on and you want to hold that press (pending on size of roller) over the top of the roller and then use the downhill to gain some free speed. As in the uphill, you do not want to “chase and make up time” on the downhill but more use the downhill to your advantage to get some free speed. Focusing on your lean, your hip drive and your leg turnover will be key to running fast all the while “recovering” from your press on the uphill. You may find yourself back at your pace or slightly faster on the downhill. The key to rolling terrain and paces is you have to know you RPE. Blasting yourself will just burn you out but also slowing down too much does not teach you how to race. You have to find your RPE that gets you where you need to go.

  3. What paces should I do in my tempos? The authors I referenced above are two that I found to go in line with how I did my tempos. I prescribed to my athletes anything from a steady state effort to slightly faster than 10K pace pending on the athletes focus races. Every coach has his or her system system but for the purpose of this article I use this formula which also coincides with a great training zones chart Alan put together for Endurance Corner.

  4. Should I use my watch on my tempos? I think it is important to use technology but I think sometimes we let it rule our training. There are times when the watch is a good tool and there are times when it might be best to lose the watch and see how you do by feel. To really mix it up, use the watch and go by feel. Do a tempo run and see if it falls in the pace you were thinking. Take you splits after every interval and then look at the data after the run. How did it go? Did you run as you thought you were running? You may find some surprising results.

Sample tempo runs:
Note that I’ve split out Moderate and Moderate Hard into two paces.
Steady = Ironman pace
Moderate = Marathon pace (ironman pace for advanced athletes)
Moderate Hard = Half marathon pace (half ironman pace for intermediate athletes and ironman pace for elite athletes)
Hard = 10K pace (half ironman pace to ironman pace for elite athletes)
Very Hard = Faster than 10K pace

Below are a couple tempo runs that I frequent. These are from my coach Michael McCormack way back in the day and I still use them today because I love them so much.

Workout 1
20 min Easy to a Steady effort
10 min Mod effort + 5 min Mod-Hard effort
5 min Easy effort
10 min Mod effort + 2x (3 min Mod Hard + 2’ Hard)
To make this one longer I may do two rounds of 10 min Mod effort + 5 Mod-Hard effort prior to the 5 min Easy effort

Workout 2
20 min Easy to Steady effort
10 min Steady effort
3-5x (2 min Hard effort + 3 min Mod Hard effort + 1 min Easy)
20 min Steady effort

Gina Kehr was a professional athlete for 15 years, competing in events ranging from Olympic Trials to Ironman World Championships, where she achieved five Top 10 finishes in her career. She coaches athletes of all levels and all distances. Her experience comes from her journey as a novice age group triathlete who quickly worked her way to becoming an established professional triathlete. Gina also works with the Stanford Tri team, is a coach with Stanford Masters and leads a squad of short and long course athletes. You can read more about Gina at
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