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Weekly Tempo Runs Will Build Your Capacity at Marathon Pace

Over two to three months, take the time to practice your race pace with tempo runs. Trust us, the work will pay off.

Photo: Getty Images

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Tempo runs will help you get a feel for what it is like to run race pace through a variety of conditions. Over the course of training, your tempo runs will span a number of months, requiring you to maintain race pace through an assortment of challenges and circumstances.

Internalizing pace is one of the most difficult components of training. If you feel great at the start line and go out 30 seconds per mile faster than you planned, you’ll likely hit the halfway point ready to throw in the towel. No significant marathon records have been set via a positive split (running the second half slower than the first). Put simply, if you want to have a successful marathon, you are better off maintaining a steady pace throughout the entire race, rather than following the “fly and die” method.

Tempo runs teach an important skill: control. Even when the pace feels easy, tempo workouts train you to hold back and maintain. Tempo runs also provide a great staging ground for experimenting with fluids, gels, and other nutrition.

Since you’ll be running at marathon pace, you will get a good idea of what your body can and cannot handle. The same goes for your gear. Use the tempo runs as dress rehearsals to try various shoes and outfits to determine what is most comfortable. Regardless of training, these things can make or break your race; tempo runs provide perfect opportunities to fine-tune your race-day plans.

The Physiology of Tempo Workouts

In the same way that easy and long runs improve endurance, so do tempo workouts. Although tempo days are faster than easy days, they are well under anaerobic threshold and thus provide many of the same adaptations. The longer tempo runs also mimic the benefits of long runs since the aerobic system is worked in similar ways. Specifically, from a physiological standpoint, the tempo run has a great impact on running economy at your goal race pace. One of the most visible benefits of this is increased endurance throughout a long race.

The tempo run has many of the same benefits as strength workouts (faster than race pace but much shorter in distance, such as 1600 meters), minus those that come from recovery between sets. Also, since it is slower than a strength workout, it elicits more aerobic benefits, similar to the long run. With tempo runs, the ability to burn fat is very specific to the workouts. The intensity is just enough that the aerobic system is challenged to keep up, but it’s slow enough that the mitochondria and supporting fibers can barely keep up.

Over time it is the tempo run that will dictate whether or not you have selected the right marathon goal. With speed and strength sessions, you can in one sense “fake” your way through as a result of the relatively short repeats and ensuing breaks in between. However, with a tempo run, there is no break and if you are struggling to hit the correct pace for long tempo runs, then there may be a question as to whether you can hold that pace for an entire marathon. Perhaps the greatest benefit that tempo runs offer is the opportunity to thoroughly learn your desired race pace through repetition. With time, your body figures out a way to internalize how that pace feels in heat, cold, rain, snow, and wind, which is incredibly valuable on race day. When runners cannot tell if they are on pace or not, then the tendency is to be off pace (usually too fast), setting their race up for unavoidable doom. Learning your pace and the feel of that pace can make the difference between a good race and a bad race.

How to Execute a Tempo Workout

In the Hansons Marathon Method, the tempo run is completed at goal marathon pace. For many other coaches, a tempo run is much shorter at paces closer to strength pace, but for our purposes, tempo and marathon pace are interchangeable. The pace should remain at goal pace. Never hammer a tempo run because it feels “easy.” Not only are you compromising physiological gains, but you’re also not learning to be patient and internalizing pace. It will take a good number of tempo workouts before you fully internalize the pace and can regulate your runs based on feel. What does change throughout training is the distance of these workouts. Tempo runs are progressive in length, adjusting every few weeks, increasing from 4 miles for a beginner and 5 miles for an advanced runner to 10 miles over the last few weeks of training. As an advanced runner begins to reach the heaviest mileage, the total volume of a tempo run, with a warm-up and cooldown, can tally 12–14 miles and approach 90 minutes in length.

With the long run looming after a tempo run, that 16-miler might look a lot tougher than it did initially. This is a prime example of how the Hansons Marathon Method employs cumulative fatigue. Rather than sending you into the long run feeling fresh, we try to simulate the last 16 miles of the marathon, and there’s nothing like a tempo run to put fatigue in your legs.

A Sample Tempo Workout

Try this tempo workout after you’ve developed some endurance and comfort at race pace. Remember: a tempo workout is challenging, so workouts one day before and after it should be at an easy pace.

Run 4–10 miles at race pace. Include a warm-up and cooldown (1.5–3 mi. each).

Table showing tempo paces for goal marathon times

Adapted from Hansons Marathon Method: Run Your Fastest Marathon by Luke Humphrey, with permission of VeloPress.

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