Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff


Tempo Training – Alternating Tempos

Improving your lactate threshold is one of the most efficient ways to train yourself to run faster at any distance over 10k.  Luckily for runners, we have more than one way to improve your lactate threshold, so you don’t have to keep doing the same workouts over and over. Mixing up workouts can keep you mentally fresh and motivated over a long training segment. One of my favorite variations on lactate threshold workouts is what I call the alternating tempo.

What is an alternating tempo

As you learned in your quick lesson on lactic acid, our body can only “clear” or reconvert a certain about of lactic acid back into energy before the lactate floods our system and causes fatigue. To race faster, we must teach our body to clear lactate more efficiently.

Simple tempo runs and threshold intervals help your body develop this skill by gradually increasing the level of lactate in your system and allowing your body to slowly adapt to the increased lactic acid levels. However, if we can flood the body with lactic acid by running at a fast pace and then drop back to half marathon or marathon pace to “recover”, the body will respond by becoming more efficient at clearing lactate while running fast.

Simply speaking, we’re trying to adapt the body to clear lactate more efficiently while still running at race pace. For the marathon and half marathon racing, this means that you can more effectively use lactate as a fuel source and run faster or farther with less corresponding fatigue.

Alternating tempos are not races

When performing alternating tempos, running as hard as you can or faster than the prescribed “recovery” pace isn’t better. You won’t be allowing your body to become more efficient at clearing lactate. This is why I feel it’s important for runners to understand the workouts they are performing. By understanding the structure of the workout and its intended benefits, you’re better able to stay on target and maximize the benefits.

I first learned about alternating tempos from my college coach, John Gregorek (1980 and 1982 Olympic team member in the Steeplechase). We used alternating tempos in the early phase of our cross country season when we were developing our endurance and establishing a base for the long season ahead.

To be honest, I really hated theses workouts at first because I didn’t understand the concept. Like most runners (the runners who I coach will appreciate this), I didn’t like to slow down or run any workout less than as hard as I could. (See, I’m human too – I feel your pain when I urge you to stay easy). By always wanting to push the limits, I wasn’t able to maximize my own training.

Alternating tempos teach your body how to adapt to race situations

While we would all love to execute the perfect race plan each time out, it rarely happens. Sometimes in a race, you need to surge to get around other runners or you accidentally get sucked into a pace that is too fast by the runner next to you. The increase in pace spikes your production of lactic acid and now your body needs to process the excess lactate as quickly as possible. If all you do in training is perform basic tempo runs, you’re less likely to adapt to this increase in lactate and you start to slow down.

One of my rules for better racing is that you should never expect your body to perform something on race day that you haven’t done in training. This idea applies directly to why you want to include alternating tempos in your training and why they are a part of our training plans at RunnersConnect.

How alternating tempos work

Alternating tempos are a more advanced training technique, so make sure you have done a few tempo runs already and you’re ready to handle the change in stimulus. For marathon and half marathon training, I suggest alternating between 10 second faster than marathon pace and 5-10 seconds slower than 10k pace.

For a 3:30 marathon runner, the workout would like this:

1-3 mile warm-up, 6 miles at (7:50, 7:25, 7:50, 7:25, 7:50, 7:25 – no rest), 1-2 mile cool down.

As you get more fit, you can increase the distance of the run to 7-10 miles depending on your normal workout volume. The total workout, not including the warm-up and cool down is 6 miles. This workout is also a good chance to hone your pacing skills. You don’t need to start sprinting to achieve the faster pace on the schedule, let yourself adapt over a 10-20 second period and adjust to the correct pace.

We include alternating tempos in our half marathon and marathon training schedules, so if you’re looking for a way to break through to new PR’s, signup for a RunnersConnect membership and see how you like the change of pace.

If you have questions about how to include alternating tempos into your schedule, or you’ve experienced a lot of success with a similar technique, please let is know with a comment below.

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5 Responses on “Tempo Training – Alternating Tempos

  1. re alternating tempo runs. All of my training routes include hills of varying grades and distances, most of the uphills are taken in a ‘relaxed’ manner and the downhills as ‘freewheelers’ i.e. using slight forward leaning and gravity. Consequently it is usually only the flat sections that are used ‘at pace’; how would this fit with your concept of alternating tempo runs? Up hill and downhill training are taken as separate issues.

    • Good question. I would simply use effort to control the pace. Meaning, let’s say the goal of my alternating tempo was to alternate between 7:30 and 8:00 pace. I would run based on effort. So, on a flat, 7:30 effort would be 7:30 pace. Uphill and downhill, the effort would change accordingly (good research on just how much here). yes, the pace wouldn’t be 7:30, but effort would be. In the end, these workouts are all about effort since effort is what signals the physiological energy systems we’re targeting with training.

  2. Pingback: Tempo Runs : The Slow Road

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