Tempo Intervals

tempo-intervalsTempo intervals are simply tempo runs that are broken into bite-size intervals to help you run longer at your threshold pace, or as an opportunity to run faster than you would for a normal tempo run. On your training schedule, they may look something like this:

1-3 mile w/u, 2 x 3 miles @ target pace w/3-5 minutes rest, 1-2 mile c/d

1-3 mile w/u, 3 x 2 miles @ target pace w/2-4 minutes rest, 1-2 mile c/d

1-3 mile w/u, 3 miles, 2 miles, 3 miles @ target pace w/2-5 minute rest, 1-2 mile c/d

The exact combination of interval distances will change throughout your training plan as we introduce new stimuli, manage fatigue, or target specific energy systems.

The rest in these examples are given as a range because the exact rest periods between intervals is based on your ability level, current fitness and goals. Likewise, the pace is based on your fitness level and will fluctuate at different points in the training cycle. Typically, your target pace will be between 12k and 10 seconds slower than half marathon pace.

Purpose

As mentioned earlier, the main benefit to tempo intervals is the opportunity to run either longer at threshold pace or to run faster than threshold pace while still maintaining a high overall volume. Let me try to explain a little more in-depth:

Your lactate threshold is defined as the fastest pace you can run without generating more lactic acid than your body can utilize and reconvert back into energy. This pace usually corresponds to 10 mile or half marathon race pace. Most runners can hold their lactate threshold pace for 20-40 minutes in training, depending on how fit they are and the exact pace they are running.

So, by breaking up the tempo run into two or three segments that are 20-30 minutes in duration, you can run an 50-80 minutes at your threshold pace. This enables you to spend twice as much time during one training session improving your lactate threshold compared to a normal tempo run. Likewise, we can also run these 20-30 minutes tempo intervals at a faster pace than you might have been able to hold for a tempo run lasting 40-50 minutes all at once. Here is a graph to help you visualize this concept:

tempo intervals

Tempo intervals are also advantageous because the rest between hard intervals gives you a mental break and can help you more easily tackle the workout. Instead of worrying about having to finish 6 miles all at once, you can focus on each interval one at a time and go far beyond what you believed you could do on the day.

Execution

Performing tempo intervals is pretty straight forward. Your training schedule will assign you a specific pace to target for the entire workout and your main goal should be to be within that target pace range as best you can. For example, you may have a workout that looks like this:

2 mile w/u, 2 x 3 miles @ 7:00 – 7:10 pace w/4 min rest, 2 mile c/d

  1. To perform this workout, you would run an easy 2 mile warm-up, which includes light stretching and a few strides to loosen up, to begin.
  2. You will then begin you first 3 mile segment with a target goal of 7:10 for the first mile. If you hit 7:10 and feel comfortable, you can speed up to 7:00 or 7:05. If 7:10 felt difficult, remain at 7:10 pace. Always start your workouts on the slower end of the suggested pace range and only increase the pace to the faster end of the range if you feel good.
  3. After you have finished running the first 3 mile segment you will rest for 4 minutes, which can be either walking or slow jogging, before beginning the last 3 mile interval.
  4. Run the second 3 mile repeat as you did the first and finish the run with an easy 2 mile cool down.

Coach’s Notes

  • Concentrate on one interval at a time. Some of the tempo interval workouts can seem daunting, but if you just focus on completing each segment to the best of your ability and not worry about what is to come ahead, you’ll get through the workout easier.
  • I mentioned this earlier, but always start your workouts on the slower end of the suggested pace range and only increase the pace to the faster end of the range if you feel good.
  • If you’re struggling during the workout, don’t be afraid to slow the target pace down to something you can handle. We all have our off days, whether it be from outside stress or just a bad running day. Don’t beat yourself up and simply focus on getting in as much of the workout as you can.
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References

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4 Responses on “Tempo Intervals

  1. Excellent stuff. I have run 3-Half Marathons, the last by default as I was attempting a full marathon and various things got in my way. My new motto is: keep it simple. I not only understood this article and how to adapt it in many ways, it also proves progress is really that simple. Thank you.

    • Glad the article was helpful, Becky. Yes, progress in a sense is very simple. Consistent and solid training, nothing fancy, but just week after week of good workouts, will almost always produce great results. Good luck at your next half!

  2. Is Lactate Threshold directly related to heart rate? The reason I ask is that I’m only 33 years old, but when I do these tempo intervals, my heart rate gets up in the low 150s and I feel like that’s about all I’ve got, but a lot of friends my age run the same run with me, and their HRs are in the high 170s! I’m confused. Am I just not pushing myself hard enough? Is it a lactate issue?

    • Great question, Sam.

      Heart Rate and Lactate Threshold are linked, but not directly as there are a few other factors that determine your lactate threshold. Here are a few possible explanations to your issue.

      (1) You have a lower than average max heart rate. Max heart rate is individual and can vary quite a bit based on a number of fitness and genetic factors. You just might be on the low end. This is the most plausible answer.

      (2) Lactate is a bi-product of energy production. Typically the higher your HR is, the higher the demand for oxygen and energy. However, you may be particularly inefficient at clearing lactate, which would mean even a slight amount of lactate build-up will cause you to slow down. On the other hand, elite runners can clear lactate very efficiently, which allows them to run at a very high heart rate while still producing little lactic acid.

      I hope that gives you some guidance.

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