Someone once asked me if I could only do one hard workout for the rest of my life what would it be? In the first place that’s an unfair question, kind of like asking if you could only eat one thing what would it be (my wife’s lasagna), but I digress. The fact is that there is a plethora of workouts that we can do on a rotating basis to help us avoid getting stale or bored and keep us fit and in the position of being able to afford to eat more of my wife’s lasagna. But if pressed for the all time single workout that by itself would do more to positively impact your race day performance I would answer with a clean conscience, the tempo run.
Tempo runs are those runs done at a steady pace at or slightly beyond your lactate threshold. Your lactate threshold is the point at which your ability to buffer lactic acid begins to be surpassed by lactic acid production. Studies have shown that running speed at lactate threshold is the best predictor of distance running performance. By running at least once a week at our lactate threshold we can gradually “push the envelope” outward as we physiologically adapt. The big question for many of us then is how to determine what our tempo run pace should be? Fortunately, there are a few ways to access your tempo time.
Comfortably Hard: I know it’s an oxymoron, kind of like “good grief”. How can something be “comfortable” and at the same time “hard”? Yet that is exactly what tempo run pace should feel like. You are running fast enough to feel like you are working hard, but if you had to, you could keep it going for an hour. If running with a training partner, conversation is limited to a few words here and there but no lengthy diatribes can be tolerated. For that reason I suggest a tempo run with your boss.
80% of VO2 max pace: Odds are you don’t know your VO2 max pace and you don’t have a handy treadmill with a team of crack exercise physiologists to figure it out for you. The speed that you can run a 3000-meter race would be a close estimation of 100% of your VO2max pace. Take 80% of that speed (20% slower) and you know how fast to run your tempo run. I work with a young man who has run 3000 meters in 7:52 which is 63 seconds every 400 meters (the dude is fast). 20% of 63 seconds is 12.6 seconds. Adding 12.6 seconds to 63 gives you 75.6 seconds for 400 meters x 4 equals about 5:02 per mile. 5-minute miles are typically what he will maintain for a 5-mile tempo run (I told you he was fast).
Heart Rate: This can sometimes be tricky as heart rate at lactate threshold varies from person to person between 85-95% of maximum heart rate, sometimes higher in women. It also requires you to locate your pulse within 5 seconds of finishing your tempo run and counting beats for 10 seconds before multiplying by six. But just for the sake of figuring, lets take one formula for exercise heart rate and figure 85% of maximum. Maximum heart rate = 220 – age – resting heart rate x .85 + resting heart rate = 85% of maximum. If I admitted to being 40 and had a resting heart rate of 50 (measured first thing in the morning before getting out of bed or doing any extra-curricular activities) than following the above equation 220 – 40 – 50 = 130 x .85 = 110.5 + 50 = 160.5. Was it a miracle of science or just plain luck that my heart rate was within 2 beats of 160 at the conclusion of my tempo run this morning?
Respiration rate: When we hit our lactate threshold our breathing intensity also increases, this increase in breathing is referred to as our ventilatory threshold. Most of us breathe in a rhythm that coincides with our stride rate. 3 to 3, three strides while we breathe in, three strides while we breathe out, and 2 to 2 are most common for easy running. But when we hit 2 to 1, two strides while you breathe in, one stride while you breathe out, we are cruising in tempo land.
Time off 10k-5K: If you’ve raced a 10k or 5k then your tempo time will be about 20 seconds per mile slower than 10k pace and 30 seconds per mile slower than 5k pace.
There you have five ways of estimating your tempo run pace. 15-25 minutes run in your tempo zone once a week can be enough to see some real improvement. Now that you know how fast to run your tempo run we’ll take a look next month of various ways of incorporating it into your weekly schedule.
by Ed Eyestone – Brigham Young University Head Distance Coach | Olympic Distance Runner