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5 Tempo Run Tips For New Runners To Build Speed

Adding a tempo run to your run training can make a big difference! Here are some top tips from veteran runners for new runners.

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tempo runs
Photo by Damain Strophmeyer

Christine Sinclair admitted that when she first got her marathon training plan from coach Mike Norman, she didn’t understand one of the workouts.

“I’d never done any kind of speed work before,” says Sinclair, 27, from Jamaica Plain, Mass. “So I read ‘tempo run’ and I didn’t really know what he meant by that.”

Sinclair (pictured) is part of the Saucony 26 Strong project, a collaboration between Women’s Running and Saucony that pairs veteran runners with first-timers to train for a fall marathon. Sinclair and her partner, veteran Laura Dempsey, 37, from Watertown, Mass., trained for the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon in Hampton, N.H., this past October.

But while Sinclair had never done a tempo run before, she really likes the change of pace.

A New Runner Tries Tempo Runs

“I’m definitely sweating a lot more,” she says with a laugh. “But I found I kind of like them. It’s nice to get your body moving faster. You feel like you really did something.”

Sinclair is discovering something that many first-time marathoners ignore—that a weekly workout where you increase the pace, usually referred to as a tempo run—can make a big difference, even if your goal is simply to finish the marathon.

“I am surprised by how much speed work has helped my running,” says Theresa Ferguson, 43, another first-timer in Wheaton, Ill., who was training for the Naperville Marathon this fall. “I just didn’t realize how quickly planned tempo work could positively affect my running.”

David Wilson, 50, of Mission Viejo, Calif., has taken to this type of workout in his training as well. His weekly tempo run is a good example of the type of workouts that help a beginning marathoner safely add some speed work to their training schedule.

“I do a 5-mile run,” he says. “Mile 1 is a warm-up. Miles 2, 3 and 4 are at 80 to 90 percent of my 5K pace. Mile 5 is a warm-down at about 70 percent of  5K pace.”

He’s cognizant of the danger in tempo runs—and the reason many first-timers avoid them: There’s an increased risk of injury by pushing your body harder.

“I make sure that I’ve warmed up and I’m hydrated before I start the run,” he says. “I am usually a little sore after a tempo run, so I take an old school Epsom-salt bath.”

The change of pace once a week helps the body adapt to different conditions—and makes the speed of your long run much more comfortable.

The hot summer weather in the Boston area has meant that Sinclair hopped on the treadmill for some of her tempo runs—which allowed her to better measure her pace. “I’d rather be outside,” she says. “But it has been nice to know that I’m at exactly the right pace.”

5 Top Tips For Tempo Runs

• Stay hydrated. You will be sweating more and stopping less for fluids along the way.

• Warm up. Use that first mile as a warm-up before you hit your goal pace.

• Take recovery seriously. Make sure you take it easy the day or two after a tempo run to give your body time to recover.

• Mix in hills. Running hills can serve the same function as speed work. “It’s difficult to get injured running hills” says Chris Spensley, a veteran runner from Newport Beach, Calif. Pushing your weight up an incline means that your joints and muscles incur less pounding with every step.

• Dial it back if necessary. If you’re fighting an injury, drop the speed work for a few weeks. Let yourself heal, then go back to the tempo runs.