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How to Do a Tempo Run—and Why It's an Essential Part of Your Training

Plus, how they can help you improve your pace.

By Kells McPhillipsMarch 25, 2024


Tempo runs are the bread and butter of speed workouts. Casual and elite runners alike rely on these workouts to train their physical bodies and their mental toughness. So, if you’re not already incorporating this form of speed training into your weekly mileage, it may be time to lace up and give tempos a shot. 

So What Is a Tempo Run, Exactly? 

“It's important to agree on what a ‘tempo pace’ actually is first as there is some disagreement amongst coaches as some describe the intensity at threshold and some below threshold,” says Peloton instructor Matt Wilpers. “At Peloton, we describe tempo as an effort at threshold intensity. Generally, pace at threshold is the pace at which blood lactate begins to accumulate in the blood faster than it can be removed.”

You can think of tempo pace as the fastest speed you can run without feeling immediately tired or wiped out, about a six out of 10 rate of perceived exertion (RPE).

How to Calculate Your Tempo Run Pace

Once again, Matt emphasizes that there’s some debate when it comes to how difficult tempo runs should really be. While some people distinguish between a “tempo run” and a “threshold run,” others use the two terms interchangeably. 

To keep things simple, some folks judge their tempo pace based on feel (RPE around six out of 10). Meanwhile, others prefer to rely on heart rate data to determine their tempo speed. “The most expensive yet most accurate way to estimate your tempo pace is going to a lab and having you run until they identify your threshold and related pace at threshold,” says Matt. “This is often not a realistic option for most, because it's good to get an estimate on changes in your tempo pace throughout the year.”

There’s also the less precise but more accessible way to calculate your tempo run pace. “If you don’t have this data, you can find your max heart rate by calculating 220 minus your age, followed by the 80 to 90 percentage,” Nicole McComic Santos of Soul and Strides. For example, a 32-year-old would want to keep their heart rate between 150 and 170  (188 x .8 = 150.4; 188 x .9 = 169.72) on their tempo run. 

The last and final avenue for estimating your tempo run pace is to just feel it out, according to Matt. Tempo runs should be conducted at a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of six to eight out of 10 or “a pace that feels ‘comfortably hard,’” he says. 

You should be able to keep this pace up for 30 minutes for an hour, but no more than that. “For more advanced athletes, this is closer to their half marathon race pace, whereas for a beginner, this would likely be closer to a 10k race pace. It often falls between 80 to 88 percent of max heart rate and 85 to 88 of pace at VO2 Max,” Matt explains. 

The Benefits of Adding a Tempo Routine to Your Routine

Whether you’re training for an upcoming race or trying to boost your mile time, tempo workouts are integral to gaining both mental and physical strength. People turn to tempo workouts for: 

Improved Pace

“You are training your body to physiologically adapt to a challenging pace so that you can run at a faster pace more efficiently,” explains McComic. “Incorporating tempo runs will help you run stronger for longer, adapting your legs and lungs to run at a sustained, fast pace.” 

Better Cardiovascular Health

Incorporating fast-paced runs into your training schedule will also challenge your cardiovascular system to work harder than it does on, say, an easy run. Research shows that those who follow an exercise plan that incorporates anaerobic exercise (or exercise that’s high intensity and challenges the body’s use of oxygen) may experience better heart health over time

Higher VO2 Max

Improving your anaerobic health may also help you achieve a higher VO2 max, or the maximum amount of oxygen that’s available to you during exercise.  VO2 max may even be an indicator of cardiovascular health, since having a higher VO2 max is associated with fewer cardiovascular events or better heart health. 

Sharper Mental Strength

At the same time, you’re also teaching your mind to cope (and thrive) when the pace becomes uncomfortable—a major skill for race day. Studies indicate that moderate running may even increase focus and cognition. Meaning your tempo could translate to tackling your to-do list with a little more mental acuteness. 

How to Do a Tempo Run

Ready to jump into your tempo workout? Gear up and follow this basic, step-by-step template to get running. If you’re a more advanced pavement-pounder, feel free to increase the distance in each segment of the run. For example, you may opt for a two-mile warm-up followed by a 45-minute tempo and a two-mile cooldown. 

Warm Up: Start with a 10 to 15-minute warm-up at an easy pace (three or four RPE out of 10).

Tempo Run: Next, Matt recommends slowly upping your effort until you meet the correct pace (Six to eight out of 10 RPE). Stay here for 10 to 20 minutes. While running at tempo pace, it's important to work on making it feel as comfortable as possible (even though it's not comfortable). “Things like breathing, posture, stride rate, and focus are all good things to work on,” he says. 

Cooldown: Resume that comfortable conversation pace (about three or four out of 10) for about one mile. Chill and celebrate a successful tempo. 

Variations of Tempo Runs

If you’re hoping to add some variety to your tempo runs, worry not: You have options. Opting for a long tempo run or shaking things up with intervals or a progression run can refresh your routine when you’re deep into a training block and feeling, well, bored. Below, Matt and McComic share three takes on the tempo run to try when your workouts start to feel stale. 

Long Tempo Run

Challenge yourself by extending your tempo run. “A long tempo run is a steady effort run that can be maintained for 40 to 60 minutes. A short tempo run would range from 20 to 40 minutes,” says McComic. Remember to include a warm-up and a cooldown of at least one mile. 

Warm Up: Start with one to two miles at an easy conversational pace (three or four RPE out of 10). 

Tempo Run: Slowly push your pace until you reach a five or six out of 10 RPE, or your desired heart rate range. Hold this pace for 40 to 60 minutes. 

Cooldown: Resume that comfortable conversation pace (about three or four out of 10) for about one mile. 

Tempo Intervals 

Throw these workouts into the mix when you’re not in the mood to complete a traditional tempo workout. Once again, feel free to scale the below workout up or down depending on your fitness and energy levels. 

Warm Up: Start with one mile at an easy conversational pace (three or four RPE out of 10). 

Tempo Intervals: Complete five by six minutes at tempo pace with a one minute rest between each interval. 

Cooldown: Resume that comfortable conversation pace (about three or four out of 10) for about one mile. 

Progressive Tempo Run 

This workout is all about negative splits, mile/kilometer splits that get faster as the workout goes on. “A progressive tempo run is a run that progressively gets faster as you go. You will start at a pace slightly slower to your regular tempo pace. With each mile, you will increase pace,” says McComic.

Warm Up: Start with one mile at an easy conversational pace (three or four RPE out of 10). 

Progressive Tempo: Start at a four or five RPE and slowly increase your speed as the miles fly by, making sure you never go above six or 6.5 RPE. You can complete this segment by time or mileage, so decide beforehand what structure makes sense for you. Ideally, when your workout is over, your smartwatch should indicate that you shaved a little time off each mile in this progressive tempo. 

For example, if you’re running a three-mile progressive tempo and your tempo pace is 8:30, your splits may look like one mile at 9:00, one mile at 8:45, one mile at 8:30.

Cooldown: Resume that comfortable conversation pace (about three or four out of 10) for about one mile. 

Remember, the Peloton App is home to many guided tempo runs from experts. So, if you don’t feel like coaching yourself, head to the App for guided outdoor and indoor runs. 

Incorporating Tempo Runs Into Your Training

Tempo runs are a form of speed work. While these lightning-fast efforts are key to any training regimen, it’s important not to overdo them. “As Tempo runs are more intense than an easy run, they take longer to recover from,” says Matt. “No more than one to two times per week. I would recommend some easier recovery days or workouts in between your tempo run and another more intense run.” 

By this logic, a runner who laces up four days a week should run one speed run (which could be in the form of a tempo) per week. On the other hand, a  runner who hits the trails six or seven days a week could complete two speed runs a week with plenty of easy miles in between.


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