The Basics of Endurance Sport -Part 2 Tempo Running

By Tom Daugherty

Read This First…
Remember before starting any exercise program to consult your doctor.

In our last segment we discussed the first phase of training commonly known as base training You should always begin any training cycle with a solid base training phase before moving on to our next phase known as tempo training or efficiency training. For review, let’s take a look again at our training pyramid.

The training pyramid


Again, I am sure most of you are familiar with tempo training. And I am sure that many of you regularly follow some sort of tempo training regimen. But when I ask many well informed runners how they define tempo training I get mixed results and many answers that do not coincide with what is known in current exercise physiology circles. The most common error is that tempo training is done at a pace that is too fast. How fast is too fast? What is the purpose of tempo training? How far should we go for tempo training? What do we do concerning the previous base training phase? So as before we will attempt to answer these questions by giving clear parameters to define accurately how this phase should be done and do this in a concise, scientific fashion.

Tempo training defined

·         the purpose

Why should we concern ourselves with this aspect of training and what benefits will be derived? From my own empirical evidence this phase is one of the most beneficial of all phases (second only to an increased base phase). Simply stated this type of training is meant to decrease the amount of energy consumed at a given pace. In other words, after a successful tempo phase, you will notice that you are running faster for a given perceived effort or that the same pace is accomplished with much less effort. For instance, if you normally run your easy days at 8 minutes per mile you may notice that the same perceived effort, following tempo training, now produces a 7:45 per mile training session. The benefits of this should be obvious to anyone. If you are able to run a given speed at an easier effort, then perhaps your old 5K pace will now be your new 5 mile pace!

·         the duration

We need to define two durations here. The duration of the training phase and the duration of an actual workout. This phase of training is usually best developed over a period of at least 10-12 weeks with a frequency of about once per week in most circumstances. The duration of an actual workout usually consists of about 20 minutes slow warm-up going straight into 3-6 miles at your tempo pace and then followed by a few miles cool-down.

·         the intensity

Obviously, your pace will depend upon genetics and your overall fitness level. If there is one thing I always try to drum into peoples heads is that tempo runs are FUN AND EASY. Sure they are done at a pace that should be faster than your easy days but if that pace is not brisk but “FUN AND EASY” then you are likely going too fast. I have known runners who run too hard on their easy days and are, in essence, doing a tempo run every day.

What are the physiological parameters that make up the mechanism that tempo training influences? The body produces energy differently depending on your activity’s current intensity and duration. Up to a certain exercise intensity, the muscle cells obtain most of the energy they need to work through aerobic respiration. In aerobic respiration, glucose is efficiently metabolized to carbon dioxide and water through an enzymatic pathway known as the Krebs Cycle. At high intensity, the lungs and circulatory system are no longer able to supply sufficient oxygen to the cells to maintain aerobic metabolism. At that point, anaerobic metabolism or glycolysis becomes the primary metabolic pathway for burning glucose. There are two problems with anaerobic metabolism. The first is that it is very inefficient, producing only 6% of the energy per molecule of glucose as the Krebs Cycle. The second problem is that lactic acid is the end product of anaerobic respiration and its accumulation in muscle tissue leads to a rapid decrease in performance. That is why you can’t run even a 5K at your sprint pace. The purpose of tempo training is to train your body to be able to run aerobically at increasing levels of exercise intensity. This is done by running at a pace just below the point where anaerobic metabolism dominates.1 It is also worth noting that training much beyond this pace will NOT increase your benefit and will only add to the drain and potential damage from the workout.
1 Thanks to Bill Tyszynski for his aid in clarifying this section

How do you determine this proper intensity? There are many methods to determine your proper pace. The only way to get it very accurately though is in the lab. Most of us do not have such a luxury. There are workouts to determine this (the Conconi test) that rely on running a workout at progressively faster paces. Each segment however, needs to be extremely precise in its pace… It’s very unlikely that a runner will be as precise as necessary for each and every pace segment. It is also my opinion that the Conconi test, although others would disagree, relates much better to the paces we should be using in our interval phase of training and not our tempo phase. So for the purposes of this article we will stick to easier methods of determining our tempo pace. Remember that we are trying to increase our bodies efficiency. When lactic acid accumulation is not occuring, but you are now moving at a faster speed in the process, we could say that you have improved your efficiency. So we need to determine at what point this lactic acid accumulation begins to occur and run just slower than that pace. For most people it equates to about 80%-85% of your maximum effort. You could determine this pace by using a heart rate monitor and multiplying your maximum heart rate by .85. But you would have to be certain of your maximum heart rate before you could do this. For your benefit below is a small chart to help in determining your tempo pace based on 5K and 10K times.

5K time 10K time Tempo Pace/mile
28:54 60:00 9:57
26:30 55:00 9:12
24:05 50:00 8:25
21:41 45:00 7:37
19:16 40:00 6:49
16:52 35:00 6:00
14:27 30:00 5:11
13:00 27:00 4:42
Resources: materials from Roy Benson Training Camp (compiled by Larry Simpson), published research of Jack Daniels & M. J. Karvonen and “The Perfect Pace”, Runner’s World

Another way to determine the correct pace is to base it on your marathon race pace. It just so happens that your marathon pace is roughly 95% of your tempo pace. So, in a nutshell, you could take your marathon pace and go just a little bit faster and you will be close to your tempo training pace.

In closing, I must remind you from my experience (based on lab tests, Max VO2 tests and my own max heart rate), that this pace should feel comfortably fast. No that is not an oxymoron! You should feel as though you are running fast but know you could hold the pace for a very long time if needed. You should always feel as though you could easily go faster at any point during the workout. However, unless you are training for a marathon (where you must adapt to running near this pace for at least a couple of hours), you only need to hold this pace for 3-6 miles in the midst of a run of about 8-12 miles.

So get to it… Racing season is already upon us!

By Tom Daugherty

For a large part of my life I studied everything I could get my hands on to improve my own running performances. With over 30 years experience and national class performances of my own, I am well suited to get you well on your way to some awesome PR’s! I’ve studied exercise physiology, got well acquainted with some of the top runners in the world (World record holders & #1 rankers – picking their brains to understand what they were doing) and was even a subject in a university lab study (“lab rat”) on runners. Where, by the way, I recorded a Max VO2 of 78 and body fat composition of just a smidge over 4%. Anyway, let’s get on with the training, as that’s what we’re here for!


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