Another blog post at the request of the Instagram audience. The topic today centres on the theme of tempo runs. While ‘tempo run’ might be one of the most ambiguous terms in the running lexicon, in this short article we will pare it back to its key principles.


In essence, I like to summarise the effort which we are looking for from tempo runs in two words – ‘challenging’ but ‘controlled’ – with the latter governing the former.




To understand tempo runs from a technical standpoint, we need to possess an adequate insight into the concept of our ‘anaerobic threshold’. For most people, though not all, your anaerobic threshold will be the pace you could sustain for 60-70 minutes before reaching exhaustion. For some people this will be at or close to 10k race pace, for others it will be closer to 10 mile or half marathon race pace.


It is commonly mistaken that we do not produce lactic acid at paces below our anaerobic threshold. Even at rest we produce lactic acid. However, when our pace is below our anaerobic threshold, we are able to clear lactic acid at or very close to the rate at which we produce it. Once we start running at a pace that is above our anaerobic threshold, we can no longer clear lactic acid at the same rate as we produce it and our lactate levels can start to spike very quickly. This can manifest itself in laboured breathing or the heavy legged feeling associated with intense activity.


Your anaerobic threshold is one of the most important barometers of performance in distances from 800m to the marathon. We improve it by gradually nudging the line or point at which it occurs, down to a faster pace. When the concept first came to be understood from a scientific standpoint in the past few decades, it was initially thought that the most effective method of improving it was to run at precisely the same pace (or more accurately heart rate) that corresponded to it. Now while this continues to be an effective method, greater improvements can often be obtained from methods which target paces and heart rates just above and below the point of anaerobic threshold.




Training at an intensity that is just below or lower than anaerobic threshold can be used to shift the point of anaerobic threshold to a faster pace. Generally, this will involve completing continuous tempo runs that are slightly longer in duration than what is considered a standard-length tempo run. This method is often particularly effective with aerobic predominant athletes. It also necessitates less caution than training above the anaerobic threshold line.


Another tactic can be to perform progressive tempo runs, whereby you start at a pace that is notably slower than anaerobic threshold intensity, and finish the run at or even above anaerobic threshold intensity. These runs can sometimes require a lot of experience and skill to perform correctly.


A third method can be to perform an alternating tempo run. With these runs you alternate between anaerobic threshold pace and a pace that is 10-20 seconds per kilometre slower than anaerobic threshold pace for the duration of the run.




Training above the line, as the name would now suggest, involves running at an intensity that is above our anaerobic threshold pace or heart rate. Great care needs to be taken when doing so, as it can be very easy to overcook the session and consequently fail to obtain the desired training stimulus.


Performing continuous tempo runs at a pace that is above the threshold line is not a very efficient or productive method of training. Instead, the most common way to train above the line is to perform anaerobic threshold repetitions with short breaks in between them. A work:rest ratio of 4:1 to 5:1 is usually optimal eg. a common session could be 5 x 5 minutes with 1 minute recovery. The recovery periods facilitate the removal of any excess lactic acid that is produced by running just above anaerobic threshold during the repetition.


Another method is Kenyan style fartlek – which just so happens to be one of my favourite types of session. Unlike traditional fartlek, where you run well above anaerobic threshold for the fast sections and jog very easy for the recovery sections – Kenyan style fartlek involves running at just above anaerobic threshold pace for the faster sections and then running the easier sections at a pace that is about 80% of the pace of the faster sections. For example, if you were to run the faster sections at 4 minute pace per kilometre, then you would look to run the easier sections at about 5 minute pace per kilometre.




When we turn our attention to team sports, we are looking at similar principles, except that tempo run will always be performed in a broken-up fashion. The runs are controlled yet challenging – you will usually accumulate a small amount of lactic acid in each one – but the short recovery periods facilitate the clearance of this lactic acid.


Tempo runs in team sports are often referred to as MAS (Maximal Aerobic Speed) runs. These are short runs intended to be performed at the pace corresponding to your maximal aerobic capacity (or VO2 max). This is usually a pace that would be sustainable for an all-out 8 to 10 minute effort. It will be substantially above the anaerobic threshold line, but combined with the recovery periods, the runs are sufficiently short so as prevent the excess accumulation of lactic acid. MAS runs possess two key advantages over most other forms of aerobic training for team sports. Firstly, they facilitate aerobic development to the greatest extent possible within one bout of exercise. Secondly, they train the body to become really efficient at clearing lactic acid in between bouts of activity – which is critical for sustained performance during a match.




It should now be clear that the term ‘tempo run’ is one that is largely devoid of meaning. A much better way of conceptualising what we are trying to achieve through this training method is to understand the concept of our anaerobic threshold. By knowing how to manipulate this key performance indicator we can substantially improve our results and times.


At MYP Coaching, anaerobic threshold sessions are incorporated into the training programme of every client. Moreover, we provide a lactate testing service which can be used to identify the precise pace and heart rate which corresponds to your anaerobic threshold. Check out our services section for further information in relation to run coaching and lactate testing.