A True Tempo

I can be given proper direction over and over again, but if I’m not ready to hear it–I don’t.

When I first started practicing yoga almost ten years ago, I was anxious to fix my ailing back. Seeing that I was waiting tables at the time and hunching over to pick things up all day long, it was no surprise that my teachers suggested that I really focus on all the backward bends in class. (These days I’m hunched over a computer all day instead of tables but nothing has changed–I still have to counteract all the forward bending.)

For the longest time I couldn’t understand why one of the biggest back bends was leaving me in pain. I looked forward to doing it–I longed for the relief of stretching my back so far in the other direction. It would feel fairly therapeutic during the posture, but after class, my lower back would often feel more sore than when I came in. Knowing that things can take time, I kept at it. My back bends grew deeper and deeper, as did my pain and frustration.

Finally, I mentioned something to one of my teachers before class and she assured me that she’d pay extra close attention to me during the posture to see if there was something I was doing wrong. Sure enough, before I even made it into full expression she saw the problem: I was sinking into my lower back. Instead of going so deep, she had me come up from the posture and work on extending my chest up before I went back at all. Every time I went to bend back she’d repeat: Chest up, Chest up, Chest up. It made a WORLD  of difference. Instead of sinking in and overloading my lower back, I began distributing my weight over my entire spine. Concentrating on keeping my chest up has allowed me to achieve a bend that over the years has brought continuous relief to both the front and backside of my body.


That class was such an eye opener–I wondered why I had never been given that direction before. When I came to class the next day with a different teacher, I was surprised when I heard her repeat the same dialogue: chest up, chest up, chest up. And then the next class with yet another teacher…chest up, chest up. Hmmm. Turns out the words I needed were a part of the dialogue the entire time–I had just never heard them until that one class. What happened to me with my backbends illustrates well what happens in other areas of my life as well: Once I’m fed up, frustrated, or in enough pain, I become ready to listen, ready to change, ready to do something different. This is how I got sober, moved to a new city, found a life partner. All acts of desperation.

Although these days I try not to require so much discomfort to enter my life before I try something new, I still tend to have some pretty selective hearing. I try not to be too hard on myself about it. I like to think that my ears are actually protecting me–not allowing me to take in anything I’m not ready for. I guess that’s why during marathon training last year I never actually completed a true tempo run. It was my first marathon, but I wanted to train for it perfectly. I was taking in advice that was coming from a lot of different directions. Immediately I could see the value in all the different types of runs–intervals, hill repeats, the long run. I tried my best to incorporate them all into my training. I completed what I called my tempo run on Wednesdays. It was always my longest weekday run. My goal was just to run consistently at what I thought would be my race pace. Truthfully though, I think what I was doing was actually a progression run. I would start out very slowly, gradually increase my pace, and end much faster than even my goal race pace. When I’d check my Garmin at the end of the run I’d look at my average pace and think: cool, I’m pretty much spot on where I need to be.

It’s not that these progression runs weren’t useful to my training. They certainly were and they illustrate what’s probably my favorite way to run. I love starting slow and ending so strong I can barely catch my breath. Still, these runs weren’t tempo runs. I only realized this recently as I began doing some research on how to gain speed. Right now I’m focusing more on strength training and shorter runs to build up some different muscles and to eliminate some of the insulation (stored fat) I built up during marathon training. I knew that interval runs had been essential to me slimming down before and had already began to dedicate two of my three runs a week to that type of workout. After months of running long and slow on Sundays, I was anxious to change it up and hopeful to challenge myself in a way that would have me looking forward to my weekend strides. Enter the true tempo run.

While before I was averaging out my pace at the end and calling it a tempo, I understand now that this run includes a warm up, and then a block of time where I consistently maintain my threshold pace. My aha moment was when I read this paragraph from an article in Runner’s World:

A tempo run is a faster-paced workout also known as a lactate-threshold, LT, or threshold run. Tempo pace is often described as “comfortably hard.” Tempo running improves a crucial physiological variable for running success: our metabolic fitness. [Tempo runs work by] by increasing your LT, or the point at which the body fatigues at a certain pace. During tempo runs, lactate and hydrogen ions—by-products of metabolism—are released into the muscles. The ions make the muscles acidic, eventually leading to fatigue. The better trained you become, the higher you push your “threshold,” meaning your muscles become better at using these by-products. The result is less-acidic muscles (that is, muscles that haven’t reached their new “threshold”), so they keep on contracting, letting you run farther and faster. 

After reading this it became clear to me why so many of the runners I look up to claim the tempo run is their bread and butter–a crucial part of their training. These runs build both the physical and mental stamina you need to withstand discomfort for longer and longer periods of time.

I’ve completed a tempo run each of the past three Sundays and they have all been an adventure. They are hard–and I love it! What I find interesting is how difficult it is for me to maintain that just hard enough pace. I am so accustomed to intervals that it takes all my willpower not to mess with the paces on the treadmill. Often times I’m even tempted to increase the pace, I think I’m just anxious for the variance that always helps pass the time during my speed-work. Right now I am warming up at a 10-9:45 pace for 15 minutes, then running 20 minutes at an 8:42 pace for my tempo, then cooling down for another 10 minutes, back at around a 9:30-9:45 pace. Because I like to get in a full hour/ 6 miles on the treadmill, I’ve also been adding 15 minutes of hill walking at the end. It’s been a nice workout. I’m sweating buckets at the end and something about it feels very different from running intervals. I feel like I’m making new strides, like I’m really pushing my fitness in a different way. These runs have been a great challenge. I feel encouraged–like getting faster isn’t just for the superior athletes with naturally thin-limbed runner’s bodies. I can do this too. It’s been a great feeling.

Now that I’ve got a grasp on what a tempo run actually is and am realizing it’s benefits, I’ve got a couple of questions for you guys who’ve been using them for a while:

If for now my goal is improve my 5k race pace, is 20 minutes the correct amount of time to stay at my threshold pace or should I be training to keep that pace for a full 5k distance?

How often would you recommend increasing pace/amount of time? I would love to eventually improve both my 5k and 10k race times, but I’m not sure what that means in terms of how long I should be spending in that threshold pace. I’m wondering whether I should keep the 20 minutes consistent and just gradually increase the pace–or if I should keep the pace and gradually extend the amount of time I spend in it. I think I want to get faster more than I want to run further at the moment. Perhaps I’ve answered my own question? Either way, I’d love to know how frequently you might recommend pushing the pace up.

Have you had your own experiences with tempo runs? I’d love to hear about them, and any other running tidbits on your mind this week!


44 thoughts on “A True Tempo

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  3. they’re easier with a running partner or a group, in my experience. if i wanted to use a tempo run for a 10k i would try and make it about 4 miles in the proximity of race pace, like withing :20 per mile of your goal pace. good luck. i didn’t see what region of the country you live.

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  4. Love the post, Cat! I gotta try your treadmill workout – sounds interesting. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with tempo runs; I love what they tell me but I hate how I feel doing them! LOL! I generally tell my athletes to train for holding your race pace 5 minutes past the finish time you’re aiming for, so 25 minutes if aiming for 20, etc. There’s physical benefit to going a little longer but the mental strength training pays HUGE dividends on race day. (Remember I mostly work with teenagers – the mind game is sometimes the difference between great and crap!) It’s all about perception. They know they can run x amount of time at this pace, so if they’re having a great race then they know they can floor it at the end because they’ve got it built into the tank. If it’s not going the way they expected, they’ve got that cushion built in so no excuse to not hold on and push through. I’ve learned I can make my body do almost anything I tell it to do, as long as my mind is willing to be BOSSY! You know – you gotta train your brain as much as your body! Our inner slackers are such poops at times.

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    1. Hey lady! Yes, I think tempo runs are officially the toughest type of run I’ve encountered now. I love what you’ve shared with me about how you coach your kids–it makes a lot of sense how important and useful it will be to have that confidence that you’ve got more left in the tank and you can really push it.
      And yes–training my brain as much as my body, SO true! Lately my goal has been to get my brain and my body working and communicating together rather than using my brain to force my body into things–but it’s def not perfect, all a process! Grateful for your insights here, they are really helpful!


  5. I always seem to need to be on the edge of broken before I start listening too 😂 this week it’s my insides letting me know things have to change!

    As you know I’ve never been one for conventional training plans. But they work for people so hope you find the balance that pushes you forward chick 💪 you’ll keep looking until you do anyway, thats for sure 😁 x

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    1. I feel like having problems with our backs when we’re yoga practitioners can be even more frustrating—we think, “aren’t I taking care of this, why am I in pain!?” So much to learn though, always, I’ve been practicing over 9 years and I’m amazed at how much I still have to learn, and how much direction is probably being said but I’m not hearing yet!
      Thanks for sharing, Happy to have you here!

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  7. I’ve forced myself to do tempo runs recently because I feel like I should make myself do them but I have terrible trouble pushing myself. But they are quite rewarding and also I find I can go longer at a faster pace than I thought I could.

    WRT to the time of your run, what is your 5K PB? I would say 20 mins is good for a training run because you want to have SOMETHING left, whereas in a race, it’s OK to have NOTHING left. That’s why I always try to train such that I have something left for a sprint at the end but don’t collapse when I get home. Not that it’s ever OK to collapse, but you know what I mean.

    Also NO mara training is every perfect and you did really bloody well at it. Just sayin’.

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    1. Liz! I can’t believe I missed this! The past 9-10 days have been a bit of a shit show for me–the flu i had was insane!
      Anyway, like your point here about training to have something left–I think you’re right, 20 minutes should work well for what I am working for.
      How is your training going? How much longer now? I know this has been a tough one, hope you are seeing that light at the end of the tunnel! x

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      1. Proper flu is vile, glad you’re getting over it now. I managed to force myself to do a tempo run yesterday and was pleased that my last mile (a little uphill) was as fast as my fastest mile (very much downhill) so going in the right direction.

        This hasn’t actually been as tough a training campaign as the other two – although I had a month out of serious training after the last marathon due to injury, I’ve generally come out of being a lot fitter and stronger and have been able to increase my mileage with few issues. I am also not piling on the weight this time – I think my body must have realised this is something we do! I have been able to add in some tempo and speed work and strength training, which I wasn’t able to fit in the last two times as was coming back from a cracked rib and an operation respectively, so could literally only work on stamina. Mara is 8 April so not very long to go now – two blocks of two long runs with a rest week in between then taper time!

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  8. Great post Cat! I haven’t incorporated a lot of genuine tempo runs into my training to be honest so I’m not going to be full of advice on this topic 🙂 I’ve tended to focus more on hill repeats and the LSD runs but I have started incorporating some speed work into my regime and it seems to be paying dividends! I think each of us just finds a method that works for us and it’s great to hear the tempo runs seem to be a real positive for you!

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  9. I’m impressed by your training discipline, Cat, and am following along, although I am still building base more than anything.

    I so resonate with the hearing/not hearing of direction. I think its a variation on when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. As a college freshman, I was doing some judging of gymnastics, and attended a workshop for judges. Something I learned there really helped one of my own gym moves, and I remember enthusing about it to my high school coach when I was home on vacation. She just started at me. I’m pretty sure her thinking was somewhere along the lines of “Girl, I only told you that 3 times a week for a year or two”. Curious critters we are.

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    1. You know how there are some things about ourselves that drive us crazy? This is one that kind of delights me. I really don’t hear it till I’m ready–and when I’ve realized after I’ve heard it that it’s been said to me all along, it just makes me smile now. Maybe that’s “trusting the process”? Yeah, I’ll call it that ;).

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  10. I need to do more of these types of runs myself – my harder runs are just going faster than normal for 3 miles. I’ll be checking out these comments for advice! Also this post made me sit up straighter at my work desk. 🙂

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      1. Ha I returned to this post because you just linked to it, and wanted to see if I had commented. 🙂 So funny because I recently wrote about tempo runs (although not this in depth) and I also quoted that Runner’s World blurb, LOL. I only JUST started doing tempo runs – just one last week – and I LOVED it! Also our paces are about the same. 🙂

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      2. Dude, I’m such a bad writer–I didn’t even credit them did I? Ugh, I’m kind of the worst–I get so lazy on here. I need to be better!
        But yes, TEMPOS! Aren’t they the greatest? I was not doing them correctly at all when I was marathon training– I really was thinking of it more as an average pace. It’s really in the holding of that pace where the magic happens, right?
        You’re gonna kick ass in your first marathon, I feel like you’re putting so much good work in!

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  11. I would focus on lengthening the time you spend in your tempo pace until you hit the amount of time your goal race distance/pace would take (e.g. ~25min 5k). You need the endurance those workouts bring as a base, and you can work in interval work in a different workout to push the pace. You can also just add some strides to the end of your other runs to start working on your turnover.

    Ideally, you’ll do some check-ins every month or so (via race or via your own time trial) to figure out what your balls-out mile or 5k pace is. You can use that to adjust the pace at which you’re running your tempos. Or, you can just feel it out. Once you hit 25min at the pace you’ve been cranking on, check in. Does it feel doable? Does it feel hard but not as hard as it did? Then maybe work on pushing the pace on the next one – increase your range by 10 seconds at a short distance. These workouts should feel like steps. You build up at one pace, and then step down a bit when you increase your pace, and on and on. Consider these like you would your yoga practice. You wouldn’t do inversions before you could do more basic things, so work on the basics (length) before adding difficulty (speed), because the latter will come naturally from the former. 🙂

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    1. Lady!! I’ve missed you, so great to hear from you—I hope all is well!
      This is all incredible advice, thank you. I’m feeling good that both you and my girl Hanna threw out that 25 minute number, I think that’s a good goal, it makes sense.
      Question: what exactly do you mean by adding strides to the end of my runs? Could you explain that one? I’ve got lots to learn!
      I’m also really glad you mentioned the importance of stepping down with my pacing after building up. I remember applying this concept to marathon training as my long run kept getting longer and longer. Those step back weeks felt key to maintaining and growing a strong base and feeling confident I wasn’t overtraining. I can see that working here as well—different goal but still applies!
      I can’t tell you how helpful this all is. Thanks girl!!


  12. Tempos are great for increasing your endurance, but if you’re looking to build raw speed and power for short distances, I would focus more heavily on interval work. Speedwork will help you actually get faster, while tempos will help you maintain the speed you build during your speedwork, if that makes sense. It might also be worth your while to research some 5K and 10K training plans to get a good idea of what kind of work will help you get faster at those distances.

    Personally, I would try to do tempos by time instead of distance, and aim to do your tempo portion for the amount of time you plan to run the 5K in. For example, if your goal is a 25:00 5K, I would work toward running 25:00 at your tempo pace (which is NOT your 5K pace but should ideally be closer to your 10K-HM pace). This will help you practice being uncomfortable for the amount of time you will need to be uncomfortable during the race.

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    1. Yes! My girl! I needed you on this one for sure. What you’ve said about maintaining that speed–that is why the tempo appeals to me so much. 3-6 miles still isn’t a sprint (it may be for some, but not for me!) so it seems like it would the tempo would be good to pair with my speedwork to start maintaining those gains.
      I also like what you are saying about time instead of distance. The past three sundays are the first time in years that i have focused on time instead of distance and there is something i really like about it–it’s different mentally. And you’re right, I should aim for 25 minutes or so, closer to what it will take me to race. Knew I could count on you. Good stuff lady, thank you!


      1. No prob! I train almost exclusively by distance (not sure why I’m attached to it…I guess because I like to track mileage in nice whole numbers?). And it is so weird to try to run by time! But I like it because I think it helps me pace myself better. I can get through 3 miles faster, but I can’t make 25 minutes go by faster – I know I gotta be out there that long so there is less incentive to push myself harder than I should!

        I’m kinda toying with the idea of training for a shorter goal race later this year instead of a fall marathon. I think it would be good for me to try something new, and I’m really not sure I want to put in marathon training mileage this summer.

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  13. I’ve used tempos many times over the course of training for long distance races (half or full marathons), but I’ve never really used them as a tool to get try and PR 5ks or 10ks. My tempo paces have never been as fast as my 5k/10k race paces. I guess I prefer speedwork for 5k/10k prep. A compromise would be mile repeats or 2 mile repeats (long distance speedwork), but they wouldn’t be “comfortably hard”. They’d be pretty damn uncomfortable haha.

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    1. Yeah it’s weird Randy cause i feel like I’ve read about a lot of people using tempos to train for marathons. So much of what I read though seems to suggest you can use them for shorter distances as well. You do your speedwork on a track right? Now I am curious about different speedwork workouts now that you mentioned the mile repeats!

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      1. For my last marathon training, I ran one speedwork day and one tempo day per week. I ended up with a PR in the 5k and half marathon distance and I’m sure I’d have PRd a 10k if I’d have run one. Speedwork doesn’t NEED to be at the track, but that’s convenient because 1/4 miles are easy to track without staring at GPS and it’s fun to run fast there. There a TONS of speed workouts to do. My favorite is what my friends call a Birnschein Classic (or a 3, 2, 1), which is 3 mile repeats, 2 x 800m and 1 x 400m. Sorry, long comment. I can talk speed work ALL DAY 🙂

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  14. I was never as organized and disciplined as you. I never did a tempo run. My training was basically do 3 miles at some speed 3x a week and run slow and long on the weekend. Sometimes I threw in one or two intervals, but that was it. Oh. I did hill repeats once. 🙂 You are doing so well, and will continue to get stronger and meet your goals because you are so focused.

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    1. Thank you lady! I can’t say I always feel so focused but I appreciate the encouragement. I think my favorite thing about life is that there is so much to learn–whatever we decide we want to do or pursue–the learning is never ending! Makes things pretty exciting I think ;).


  15. Tempos make such a huge difference. There are different variations of tempo runs one of which was yesterdays main workout. Warm up. 3mile at tempo pace. 3 minute rest. 3mile tempo pace. Cool down. Running a true tempo took time to get used to. And the confidence in running them well took even more time.
    That yoga pose looks awesome and something I need to do. I have been sitting so much more lately now that I am back in school and oh, my back!!!
    Hope all is well in NYC!

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    1. I was hoping you would chime in girl! What do you think about what i have going now–should I stick with the 20 minutes and slowly increase the pace? (Working on the treadmill so it’s really easy to pace myself). Do i need to “tempo” for longer than 20 minutes to train for a 5 k? (Since i don’t run a 5k in 20 minutes!)
      And yes, sitting is the WORST! Bend it back girl!

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      1. Not longer than 20 for a 5k. It can be steady or increasing. Make sure to get in a faster interval session at least once per week as well. : ) Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. Been going from workout to class to project to second workout etc all week.

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  16. I struggle with maintaining pace at the best of times, so like you my marathon training Tempo runs were NOT actually Tempo runs! I really want to achieve a faster pace this year so I’m looking to your comments for help too 🙂

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