Tempo Running- Developing Mental Toughness for Racing

As endurance runners, we must maintain our aerobic capacity.

Every training session should have a purpose whether that is to build aerobic capacity, to increase lactate buffering or speed development.
The body and mind reacts very well to variability.

Tempo running can be a great foundation for improvement and crucial for racing success. They should be incorporated into endurance training from 1500m right up to the marathon as they train your body to sustain speed over distance.
They are good workouts for practicing your ability to concentrate on a running task and keep in touch with how your body feels while running comfortably hard. Training at this intensity  can actually help runners avoid overtraining and yield more satisfying workouts and better consistency.

These are hard sessions and when mixed up with other training sessions like VO2max workouts, require sufficient recovery!

A tempo run (88%-92% max HR) is a sustained period of running a comfortably hard effort.
For most runners, it is between 10k and 10 mile race pace or approx 15 seconds slower than current 10k race pace, you know you are working but not racing! You should feel challenged but at a level you can sustain. Training at speeds that are not quite all-out efforts tap into the concentration required to develop mental toughness for racing. You should feel like you have an extra gear.
It can be based off actual lactate readings, current race fitness at different distances or simply effort. Because the relationship between LT and heart rate varies depending on genetics and fitness, your heart rate at 10 mile race pace (or the effort you could maintain for an hour) is probably a more accurate estimate. 

A tempo sits between our aerobic (2 mMol/L) and anaerobic (4 mMol/L) thresholds where hydrogen (H+) ions are being produced in the muscle but being cleared into the blood at a rate that is sustainable and does not lead to accumulation.

Lactate threshold is the point at which your body starts to produce lactic acid faster than it can be removed from your muscles so lactate starts to build up in the bloodstream. We refer to the lactate turnpoint and try to nudge on this point. The great thing is that training slightly below or at this turnpoint, you will be able to improve it over time. Everyone’s lactate threshold pace is slightly different and we need to keep accessing this stimulus. It is the fastest speed in which lactate production and clearance are in equilibrium.

For runners of all levels and targeting distance events of 1500m and longer improving their Aerobic Threshold (AT) is a significant predictor to distance running performance

Almost all of the gains in performance will derive from improving the capacity and/or efficiency of the aerobic system primarily.
They train it to use oxygen for metabolism more efficiently. Running at a comfortably hard faster pace helps the body clear lactic acid more efficiently from the bloodstream and boost performance.

Remember our AT is the point at which we go from being sustainable with our aerobic energy demands, to unsustainable. So if we can raise our AT (increase the pace at which H+ are produced and cleared at the same rate) our aerobic performance ceiling is increased and our distance running performance can improve significantly.

Tempo runs can be performed at a continuous pace or in intervals

Improving lactate threshold can be done by the following new approaches:

  1. Training up to 10s per mile faster than LT pace
  2. Interspersing harder efforts with training at or slightly slower than LT pace.

Both of these methods may provide a greater stimulus for the adaptations in the muscle fibers that lead to improvements in LT pace.

Cruise intervals are repeated runs of between 3-15 mins at threshold pace broken up by short recovery periods of usually 1 minute or less. Rather than focusing on a certain pace for a certain amount of time, e.g, 20 minutes at 7:00 minutes per mile pace, cruise intervals are tempo runs interspersed at regular (say, one kilometer or 5 minute) intervals by 30 to 60-second rest periods. This pattern diminishes the psychological difficulty of the workout while preserving the aerobic benefits, allows greater volume and may help guard against excessive speed, which can lead to overuse injury or burnout.
The total amount of quality running for a cruise interval workout must never exceed 10% of the weekly mileage.

It is important to run at this pace and not any faster which is hard for many over-enthusiastic runners to do. Running at a higher intensity does not enhance the physiological adaptations to this type of training. We lose the aerobic stimulus required to get maximum aerobic adaptation for minimal anaerobic input (and therefore fatigue – the anaerobic system produces significantly greater levels of fatigue relative to the aerobic system).
Remember that the purpose of the workout is to stress lactate-clearance capability, not to overstress that capability.

To continue to improve your AT, we need to gradually increase the amount of time we spend running at your AT. This can be achieved by having less recovery between AT intervals or spending more time at your AT.
For runners of all levels, improving their AT is a significant predictor to distance running performance. For runners targeting events of 3000m and longer, almost all of their gains in performance will derive from improving the efficiency of their aerobic system.

If you want to keep improving the threshold, the stimulus has to change. You can do some work above LT, some mixed intervals, aerobic intervals, or alternations, LT hills Whatever you chose, the stimulus must change.

As you become more competent, some runners can aim to spend up to 40min at their AT. If you can achieve this, then it would be recommend to re-test your AT to quantify the improvement you have seen.
Individuality of the athlete and training response must be taken into account.

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

Begin a tempo workout with a good warm-up of at least 10 minutes of easy running and some drills and light strides.

Beginner Session
5′ jog warm up, running drills
4 x 3′ at threshold pace/1′ rec
5′ jog cool down
Progression, keep same pace but increase the reps.

10′ jog warm up, running drills
10′ at threshold
2′ rec
2 x 5′ at threshold pace, 1′ rec
10′ jog cool down
Progression, 2 x 10′ at threshold, 2′ jog rec

20′ threshold》last 5′ slightly faster

15′ warm up, running drills
15’/10’/10’/5′ 1′ rec
15′ jog cool down

20′/15′ at threshold, 1′ jog recovery

25′ threshold

Often, some runners want to see progress in their workouts and sometimes try to perform a particular workout at faster speeds over the course of a fairly short period of time.

Trying to compete against yourself in this way is inadvisable. It doesn’t conform to the principle of letting your body react and adjust to a particular type of stress before increasing the amount of stress.

It’s better to perform the same workout a few times at the same speed, or until a race performance indicates that you’ve achieved a higher fitness level.

This is very important!


You want to be able to experience doing a standard workout with diminishing discomfort.
When a workout begins to feel easier, use that feeling to support the idea that you are getting fitter. Prove then that you are getting better in a race, not in a session.

Make sure to gently introduce faster running into your programs and only add more according to how your body responds to the new training stimulus. You must have laid a good aerobic and structural foundation first in order for these workouts to be beneficial through easy aerobic runs, long runs, stability, mobility, quality of movement, strength and conditioning, drills, strides etc.

Having a solid foundation, you will be more robust, and better able to handle faster paced workouts and a larger volume and intensity of training. This must be maintained during the fast paced training season.

Michelle Greaney (MG Coaching)
Athletics Ireland Level 2 Endurance Coach

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s