What is a tempo run and how can it make you faster and stronger?

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If you want to improve your running pace and performance, tempo runs should be a regular fixture in your weekly training schedule. Jess Ennis-Hill reveals why these ‘uncomfortably comfortable’ tempo sessions get results...

When it comes to your running sessions, there are broadly three styles of run, with each style having different benefits for your body.

First, there are those conversational longer runs (or steady state sessions), where you run at about 6 out of 10 effort, you can have a comfortable conversation and regular runners can run for 20 mins+ without too much effort.

Then there’s speedwork, where you alternate short, sharp 9-out-of-10 efforts with short recoveries and can’t talk while you’re running (check out the Jennis audio HIIT runs for guided examples)...

Finally, there are tempo runs, which is where you run at 8 out of 10 for effort, but you sustain this pace for longer periods of time - anything from 5 to 35 mins. With tempo runs, you can probably say a few words (or grunts) to your running buddy, but because you’re working at near max capacity, that’s probably about it. 

Tempo runs sound horrible. Why bother?

Before we go deep into the detail, tempo runs are scientifically proven to improve pace and performance, which is why every single pro runner does them. Sure, they're 'uncomfortably comfortable,' but the rewards outweigh the discomfort. Here’s how they work…

“When you do a tempo run, it’s usually done at just below your lactate threshold,” explains Jennis physiologist, Dr Emma Ross. “Lactate is produced when we break down glucose for energy during hard-intensity efforts and - contrary to popular belief - it’s actually a super useful source of fuel for our muscles.

“The problem is that when we’re working at our lactate threshold, it’s often produced at a higher rate than it can be used as fuel and starts to build up. Because we can't use it fast enough, it gets shuttled into our bloodstream and transported elsewhere in the body, then starts to cause acidosis.

“It’s this acidosis that slows down our exercise and causes us to fatigue,” explains Emma.

In a nutshell, exercising just below lactate threshold pushes that threshold up, which means we can go faster for longer without fatigue and muscle ache.

What are the benefits of tempo runs?

“Training at this intensity causes three main adaptations,” reveals Jess Ennis-Hill. “It improves our muscle cells’ ability to use lactate as a fuel. It improves our ability to make helpful energy during exercise and it improves our ability to transport lactate to the places in our body where it’s needed for fuel.”  

Improving your lactate threshold pace by 10 seconds per mile could correspond to a 70-second improvement in your 10K time

“Cutting to the chase, you’re basically training your body to run faster before fatigue and acidosis takes over your body,” says Jess. 

Still not convinced? Then how about this for a persuasive stat? “Improving your lactate threshold pace by 10 seconds per mile could correspond to a 70-second improvement in your 10K time ,” says Dr Emma.

More than physical

Tempo runs not only give you physiological benefits, they also boost your confidence. “The more tempo runs you do, the more you get used to running outside of your comfort zone,” says Jess, “which helps you build up the resilience and confidence to power up hills or push the last few minutes or metres of your next outdoor run. They also inject variety into your training plan, which in turn helps you get fitter and stronger.”

How do you know how to hit the right pace?

For some runners, it’s easier to judge tempo pace by using their rate of perceived exertion or RPE. This is set on a scale between one and 10, where 10 would be your fastest pace. “With a tempo run you are aiming for an RPE of eight,” says Dr Emma. “You can also use your heart rate to hit your tempo pace, aiming for 85-90% of your maximum heart rate.”

How do tempo runs feel?

“The easiest explanation is that tempo pace should feel comfortably uncomfortable,” says Jess. “It’s not all-out running, but it’s not easy either.”

What happens to your body when you’re running at tempo pace?

Tempo runs train your body to improve its ability to use and clear lactate from your blood, and the more you train your body to do this, the stronger and faster your running will become. 

Any of the elite runners you watch in the Olympic Games and London Marathon will regularly do tempo runs, and probably have the same love/hate relationship with them. However, they do them because they know that getting out of their comfort zone helps them reap the training benefits.

You’re basically training your body to run faster before fatigue and acidosis takes over your body

What about amateur athletes?

“This training isn’t exclusive to elite runners or even good club runners,” stresses Jess. “Whether you’re a beginner training for a 5K or an experienced marathon runner, it’s for all runners who want to get faster."

"Yes, tempo runs are hard - and every runner feels the same dread when they see they’re on the schedule, but you really do reap the rewards. 

“When I feel I’m struggling,” reveals Jess, “I try projecting forward to the end of my session and imagine the endorphin high and massive sense of achievement I always feel, especially in the colder, darker months.”

What does a typical session look like?

There are many different types of tempo sessions, but the Jennis audio tempo runs give you two flavours. First is ‘Tempo Interval Runs’. This is where you would do shorter intervals of 4 x 5 minutes at tempo pace, broken up by a short period of a slow jog recovery of between 60 and 90 seconds. These slow recoveries help you to get your breath back, ready for the next effort.

In the Jennis programme, these look like this:


Total time = 21 or 25 minutes

4 sets of 3 or 4 minutes, with a 1-minute rest in between

3-minute warm up at an RPE of 4

Set 1 - 3 or 4 minutes at an RPE of 8-9

1-minute rest at an RPE of 4

Set 2 - 3 or 4 minutes at an RPE of 8-9

1-minute rest at an RPE of 4

Set 3 - 3 or 4 minutes at an RPE of 8-9

1-minute rest at an RPE of 4

Set 4 - 3 or 4 minutes at an RPE of 8-9

3-minute cool down at an RPE of 4

Traditional tempo runs

The other style of session that’s available as a guided audio run is a traditional tempo run. These are usually more suited to more experienced runners and feature longer, more sustained tempo efforts - see below. 

If you’ve never tried one of these before, it’s worth starting with a shorter effort so that you become more accustomed to the feeling of running fast without running too fast. You can then build up from there. In the Jennis programme, these look like this:


Total time = 10 - 35 minutes

5-minute warm up at an RPE of 4

Your choice of either a 10 / 15 / 20 / 25 / 30 or 35-minute session at an RPE of 8-9

5-minute cool down at an RPE of 4 

How to work a tempo run into your training

If you’re completely new to this type of training, starting with shorter intervals of tempo pace, such as the tempo intervals we mentioned above, can help your body adapt and get fitter in a progressive way.

“Don’t over-do your efforts as you don’t want to feel broken at the end of your run,” says Jess. “The key is to try to make the fast sections of your runs consistent, so don’t go too hard in the first one and blow out.”

In your Follicular Phase, your muscle adaptation and recovery is on fire, making it a great time to add tempo interval sessions into your week

“You should also take your time in finding what ‘your pace is’. This is often harder to do than you think and can take a few practices,” says Dr Emma. “But it’s well worth the perseverance and definitely makes you focus on what you are doing, which is great from a mindfulness point of view.”

Working tempo runs into your menstrual cycle

When introducing tempo runs, it’s important to be aware of the critical role your menstrual cycle hormones have in terms of your performance and motivation levels, plus when you can make the most of your physiology to feel better when doing them and adapt faster post run.

Every woman’s menstrual cycle is different, but here's a hormonal cheatsheet to help you out:

YOUR PERIOD PHASE: With 7 in 10 women experiencing symptoms such as cramps and heavy bleeding and your hormones flatlining, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t want to do a tough tempo run during your period. But if you do get a burst of energy (as some women do), tune into that and go for it. 

YOUR FOLLICULAR PHASE: Oestrogen levels are on the rise, so you’ll feel motivated and strong. Add to this the fact that your muscle adaptation and recovery is on fire and this makes it a great time to add in tempo intervals on your high intensity days, as well as focusing on strength training.

YOUR LUTEAL PHASE: Oestrogen levels fall and progesterone increases during your luteal phase, switching your metabolism so that it prefers to fuel with fat over carbs. This makes it a great time to up your endurance / longer steady runs. If you’re a runner, you should choose a HIIT Run or tempo run once a week during this phase.

YOUR PRE-MENSTRUAL PHASE: In your pre-menstrual stage when falling oestrogen and progesterone can make you feel sluggish, bloated and moody, you might want to stick to slower runs as well as yoga and stretching. 

Top tempo tips

Before your tempo run, always factor in some time to properly warm up. “The warm up is essential,” says Dr Emma, “as it primes every system in your body to get ready for the harder efforts. It does this by improving blood flow to your muscles to warm them up, it gets your nervous system firing and helps you mentally prepare so that you can be present in your run.” 

During your tempo run, make sure you keep your head up and your eyes about 10-15 metres in front of you. This means you don’t slouch your shoulders, which is great for posture. Plus, you keep your chest up, which is good for body position and opening up the lungs.

"After your workout, it may be tempting to lie down, but the intensity of the session means it’s crucial to take the time to do an active cool down and stretch," reminds, Jess.

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