Tempo runs, also called threshold runs, should be a staple for runners of every distance from the 1500m to the marathon. If you are unfamiliar with tempo runs, legendary distance running coach, Jack Daniels, describes them simply as "steady prolonged runs." He continues by explaining that the effort of a tempo run should feel "comfortably hard."
For those of you who have never run at tempo pace, that statement might seem oxymoronic. Indeed, it is a fine line between tempo running and all-out racing. But once you have run a bit at threshold pace, the feeling is easy to recall.
The easiest way to determine proper tempo pace is to add 24 to 30 seconds per mile to your 5k PR. The result should be about the pace you would be able to sustain for a full hour of running without needing a break. Typically, tempo runs are about 20-30 minutes in length and should NOT feel like a race at any point. At the beginning of the workout your breathing may seem labored. But as your body adjusts to the pace you should begin to feel, as Daniels described, as if you are running fast but in control.
The advantages of utilizing tempo runs are numerous. Notably, running at a sustained, hard pace for a long period of time builds endurance. Tempo runs train your cardiovascular and muscular systems to better deal with fast paces over longer races. Those who lack endurance often struggle in the middle to late stages of racing.
In addition to the physical benefits of training at tempo pace, there is an incredible psychological benefit for many runners. As stated earlier, tempo runs are to be completed at about 30 seconds slower than 5k race pace. For many runners, this pace can feel fairly comfortable once they settle into the workout. The knowledge that one can run a pace so close to race pace, yet continue to feel in control, will give many runners a tremendous boost in confidence.
There are several mistakes, though, that a runner can make when attempting a tempo run, notably going too fast. Even though tempo runs often feel comfortable, you should never push the pace. When you are feeling good, it is easy to fall into the trap of racing a tempo run, but this is incredibly detrimental to a training plan.
Tempo runs are a specific workout meant to build endurance. By turning them into a race, you often leave yourself tired for future workouts and increase the possibility of burnout or injury. Another pitfall is trying to run a tempo run faster than you ran that same run in the past. Once again, proper pacing is imperative. You should never speed up your tempo pace until an improvement in racing shows that you are ready to train at a faster pace.
If you avoid these mistakes and implement tempo runs properly, they can be one of the most important workouts in your training plan.