The art of tempo running

By #teamxnd athlete Sean Fontana

We’ve heard this phrase time and time again, but what really is ‘tempo running’?

A lot of people talk about it being your 10 miles personal best pace and doing it over a straight 6-mile segment or breaking the 6 miles down into smaller segments, for example, 2x3miles with 2mins rest or 3x2miles with 2mins rest between each rep. However, this is based on your 10-mile peak condition for a race that you may have tapered for, likely on an extremely flat, fast course with good weather and no wind. Basing your tempo running pace off these ideal conditions is maybe not the most beneficial thing to do in a high volume non-tapered week.

That’s why tempo running isn’t a set pace. Yup, you heard that right… tempo running is not a set pace and the reason for that is as follows. Let’s say your 10 miles personal best is 60 mins, 6min mile pace/3.40km pace, on a flat fast course with no wind. On your regular training week, it’s blowing a gail and you’re on a trail/grit surface that’s slightly undulating with rolling hills. To hit that 6min mile/3.40km pace you will have to work so much harder in certain sections to achieve the set pace, so ultimately, you’re now working harder than tempo pace and that isn’t the purpose of the session.

Tempo running is a sweet science of hitting a certain heart rate intensity, and can be tested properly in a lab. You’ll run at set paces on a treadmill for just 3mins at a time with 30s-60s recovery, whilst the lab technician takes a small sample of blood from your ear or finger. Then you’ll jump back on at a pace 1kmph faster than the previous 3min stage until there is a spike in your blood lactate. Usually, there is a small 1st spike called aerobic threshold then the 2nd spike is where your lactic threshold is. Even though you may have been running at 16kmph on the treadmill when that happened it doesn’t mean 16kmph is your tempo pace. You look at your heart rate value - it may say 168bpm, that’s your sweet spot where your body buffers and accumulates lactic acid at the exact same time.

So even when you’re running up a slight incline or into a headwind, if you’re sitting at the right heart rate intensity then you’re in the right physiological zone called tempo running, where your body learns to cope and work with lactic acid.

I would usually put a tempo workout into my athlete’s running plan once per week during a phase where there are no races on the calendar to build a strong aerobic foundation for a big peak come competition time. Tempo running allows the body to buffer and use lactic acid at the exact same time, which during distance races is extremely beneficial.

When tempo running is done at the correct intensity there are a huge number of benefits. To enhance your tempo running and the ability to clear lactic acid in the body more efficiently I use something called Xendurance Lactic Buffer tablets. I've been using them for around 4 years now and each time I go back and get my lactate/ threshold testing done in the lab my results keep getting better and better. With the correct intensity and volume of training combined with the Xendurance Lactic Buffer tablets, I've really found the benefits flourish over my mid-week tempo runs.

Examples of tempo running sessions –

  • 4 miles straight tempo
    • 3x10mins tempo with 90s recovery
    • 5 miles straight tempo
    • 6x1mile with 45s recovery at tempo HR

Hopefully, this helps you understand the science of tempo as nowadays athletes throw it around as a sub-maximal interval workout, which it isn’t it is an extremely important part of your training and one of the only training sessions that aren’t done off of pace but off heart rate for maximum benefits.

If you would like more guidance on your running and training then, by all means, you can contact me – sean@fontanafit.co.ukor you can view the online running coaching – https://fontanafit.co.uk/online-running-coaching/

I have also started a podcast on how to stay focused during this tough time “The Sean Fontana Podcast” on Spotify podcast, iTunes podcast and Castbox.

Spotify – https://open.spotify.com/show/6sOWbG7fR64xOWwsqZezze?si=Akc4Nb3xQE-DZYBMBm6XTw

iTunes Podcast – https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/sean-fontana-podcast/id1509660461

Castbox – https://castbox.fm/va/2527085

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