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!