What is a Tempo Run?

Perform a tempo run at least every other week to realize some big returns. They teach your body to handle lactate and get you accustomed to running at an uncomfortable pace for a prolonged period. A tempo run is one of those workout terms that is often mistakenly defined and/or executed. It is no wonder since there are several other synonymous workouts that all refer to the same thing. Some of these terms include lactate threshold(LT), anaerobic threshold(AT) runs or lactate balance point (LBP). At meet-your-running-goals, tempo runs are indicated in the half and full marathon training programs as 'AT' runs, since it is short and easy to write :)

The important thing to note about these runs, is that they are an extremely powerful training stimulus for distance runners; particularly half and full marathoners. When performed at the right intensity, AT runs train your body to become more efficient at clearing out the build up of excess lactate that is an inevitable result of increased running pace. I have personally experienced quantum leaps in marathon performance as a result of introducing these runs into training and I am not alone in this experience. However, while tempo runs are a very effective training stimulus, they should not be attempted by beginner runners since they are difficult to execute properly requiring focus and a high level of bioawareness. They are also very taxing on the body and so adequate recovery before and after the runs is paramount. Failing to do this can easily result in injury and/or overtraining.


Lactate is always present in your blood, even at rest. During any given easy run, for instance at a pace that allows you to converse, your body is able to produce energy in the presence of oxygen. This is known as your aerobic zone. As you increase your pace, your muscles demand oxygen at an increased rate and so your breathing (respiration) becomes more rapid.

As the pace continues to increase, an inevitable shift in your metabolic response begins to occur. Eventually, you will reach a pace where your body needs to produce useable energy in a way that depends much less on the presence of oxygen - your glycolytic pathway which is anaerobic. Your body will burn up your blood glucose to obtain this energy and the waste from this process is lactic acid. If you continue to push the pace, the lactic acid accumulates faster than your body can flush it out of the muscles. The heart rate and corresponding pace at which this is occurs is your anaerobic threshold or, more accurately lactate balance point (lbp).


The most accurate way to find your lactate balance point is through a treadmill step test that is typically administered through a sports lab. The pace of the treadmill is increased in increments of 3 minutes while your heart rate is monitored and recorded. Blood is taken from your finger tips at the end of each step, measuring the concentration of lactate in your blood. When your balance point is reached, an upward trend in your lactate concentration begins. At this point, your heart rate is recorded and a zone is established that is typically a range of about 5 beats per minute. For example, my AT zone is a heart rate of 160 – 165 bpm.

Another option that is quickly gaining in popularity, is a hand-held lactate analyzer. These are becoming more accessible for self testing. A unit can be purchased along with test strips for approximately $500.00. This amounts to about the same cost of 4 lab tests. Since your lbp will move with training, it’s a good idea to retest every 4 months in which case a hand held unit is a good investment.

Another more crude way to estimate your lactate threshold, is by your recent race times. The bottom of your lactate zone should be very close to the pace at which you can race a half marathon at your full potential. By wearing a heart rate monitor, your average heart rate throughout the race, particularly miles 3 to 12 should be a fairly accurate reflection of your zone.

Cruder still, is to run until you are ‘huffing and puffing’ – the point at which you feel that you would need to stop very soon - then back off the pace a bit and hold.


While a tempo run can be performed outside, ideally it should be run in an area that is void of elevation changes, obstacles such as traffic and extreme weather. You should also have quick access to fuel without having to carry it. The key strategy when performing your tempo run is to stay in your heart rate zone without interruption for the amount of time your program prescribes. This will require focus and minimal disruption as this pace is typically uncomfortable. A track on a day that is not windy would suffice however if possible aim to complete your tempo runs on a treadmill. This will allow you as much control as possible. In order to simulate outside conditions and reduce the amount of speed that will be needed to get your heart rate up, put the treadmill at in incline of between 1% and 2% for your tempo runs.

Like any hard effort, always begin tempo runs with ample warm up. Since tempo runs are training for endurance events, it’s not uncommon to have up to a 3 mile warm-up period. Throughout the warm up, creep your pace up steadily so that there is not an abrupt jump in pace to achieve your desired zone. Once you’ve reached your target LBP heart rate, relax your shoulders and focus for the remainder of the run.

Tempo runs are not for the faint of heart and there will be times that you will want to pull the plug but the rewards of doing them consistently and properly will be clearly evident when you crush your next goal!

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