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Tempo Run – What are Tempo Runs and Lactate Threshold Running?

Marcus Sladden

Marcus Sladden

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The term tempo run and threshold run may be known to many of the people who have decided to get a bit more in-depth with their run training. Tempo runs are also known as threshold runs. Both of these runs could be essential for the runners of any distance which can be ranged from 1500m to the marathon. To understand tempo runs or threshold runs the following blog is definitely going to help!

What is a Tempo Run?

A tempo run is a prolonged and steady run, which can help the runner to fight off that lactate builds up as they are racing. It can be easier for the runner to maintain the tempo run for various times. For example, you may do a session that is 2 x 2-mile threshold or a straight out 4-mile tempo session. The term tempo running and threshold running are being used interchangeably but there is little difference between the two.

What Is Blood Lactate?

To get a better understanding of how you can apply blood lactate to your training, it is important to first know what it is and just how it affects you during exercise.

Blood lactate or as it is more commonly know ‘Lactic Acid’ is formed when the body requires more oxygen to the working muscles when you are working hard, this occurs when there is a breakdown of carbohydrate. When there is insufficient oxygen, the increased rate of lactate will build up which then results in more hydrogen in the blood.

This increase in hydrogen is okay for the first point of threshold and can actually be sustained for about an hour, it is when the intensity increases that we run into problems. A further increased amount of hydrogen could stop the lactate being cleared and therefore causes a build-up of blood lactate which initiates high fatigue if the intensity is sustained or increased even further.

Here is a great video by Dr Andy Galpin on Blood Lactate:

What is the BEST way to find your Tempo Pace?

For the people who never had experienced a tempo/threshold run pace, this word could seem very alien to you. However, if you have run even once at threshold pace then the feelings are going to be easier for you to recall.

The tempo run – also known as an anaerobic threshold or lactate-threshold run, is a pace about 25 to 30 seconds per mile slower than your current 5K race pace. This is according to running coach Jack Daniels, Ph.D., who popularised the tempo run in his book Daniels’ Running Formula.

The best way to describe a tempo pace is that feeling that you can only hold a certain pace for around an hour in total as described above. Most threshold sessions are only held for about 20 to 30 minutes steadily. The result of this tempo pace will make you able to sustain the one hour of running without feeling a need of any break. This is where you’ll see terms like comfortably uncomfortable thrown about!

Having a sports physiologist take you through a blood lactate lab test is the best way to find out what your lactate threshold is. It is very specific to the individual and that’s why it’s a more reliable result than guessing it from your recent race times.

What Does a Tempo Run Pace Feel Like?

At the start of your tempo workout, you may feel like your breathing is laboured, but once you get going you’ll soon adjust to the pace.

So to put it technically so that you can understand the tempo run pace in an effective way. Tempo/threshold pace is the level of effort at which the body of the runner will become to clear most of the lactate. Which is actually a byproduct and is produced by burning carbohydrates.

The lactate clearance of your body must be at the same level as the production of the lactate. This can be done with tempo runs. It effectively teaches your body to run with this burning sensation in your legs, adapts to it and moves that threshold point further along the scale.

With 6 weeks of structured tempo runs your body will become more tolerable to the specific pace. You’ll then have to start thinking about running a little faster to reach the point in which your body is producing lactate due to physiological adaptations to your body.

Benefits of a Tempo Run

Tempo runs can be an effective method for runners who want to build their speed endurance and strength in an effective way. Read on for some benefits to adding a tempo run to your training:

1. Tempo runs can prevent the runner from muscle fatigue – Tempo runs are highly effective and can play a positive role in your lactate threshold, which is highly essential for those who want to run faster.

Lactate threshold is a point when the lactic acid of the body of the runner starts to accumulate in his or her muscles. This accumulation of lactic acid into the muscles can cause fatigue and soreness which most of the runners experience when they have to run hard.

2. Tempo runs help you to increase your speed over distance – These are comfortably uncomfortable runs which can build your slow-twitch muscle fibres in an effective way. These can be effective in the process of developing capillary beds which can lead to the major gain in your speed.

You gain a psychological advantage because the more you train your threshold, the easier it will be for you to run at the comfortably uncomfortable pace. You can then replicate that on race day with better pace judgement. It is also a great way to track your improvement on a physiological scale.

3. These runs can make workout fun for you – Tackling the repeat miles can be hectic but the tempo run has a beauty to run down the clock and you have to rely on time only instead of miles (depending on the session). It also trains your mental capacity to run comfortably hard, emulating what it is going to feel like on race day.

4. Tempo runs can add variety to your training – Incorporating tempo runs in your regular routine can help you to add some spice in your regular workout routine. These runs are different from your typical mile repeats of 400m efforts and emulate a race situation. 

How to Integrate a Tempo Run into your Training Routine Effectively?

When you are looking at the best activity to enhance your fitness level or trying to set a personal record then you must think about to make tempo runs an essential part of your workout routine.

It is because these are highly effective to build your endurance and speed. How you can make these a part of your regular routine actually varies. Some runners would be run up to 9 miles between half or full marathon race pace. While some may be able to do only 3 miles at there half marathon race pace.

The thing to remember is that the real recommendation of tempo runs is to stick to it. Perform these steadily according to a specific and planned pace to reap the benefits and build upon them on a six-weekly basis to see improvements.

That being said it is also important to add some variety to your training by switching up your running workouts over the weeks.

The Three Energy Systems – What System Effects Blood Lactate.

Why is Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) SO Important For Athletes?

ATP is a molecule found in living cells that is solely responsible for transporting energy to working muscles. It is the universal unit for of energy for living organisms and without it, various metabolic activities cannot happen.

ATP-PCr system

This system kicks in with any type of exercise in the first 5-8 seconds. Adenosine Triphosphate is stored in the muscles constantly for this very reason. With the help of phosphocreatine it can be used without oxygen, so for the sprinters out there, this system has your back. After 8 seconds your body then looks for other ways to produce energy for the body.

Glycolytic System

The Glycolytic system produces ATP through the breakdown of Glucose (Clue is in the name). The by-product of this breakdown is pyruvic acid. Now, this can either get processed through the Krebs Cycle (explained later) through slow glycolysis or gets converted into lactic acid which is fast glycolysis.

This fast glycolysis produces energy at a much faster rate but at the cost of lactic acid as the by-product which as we know with enough of the acid built up causes fatigue.

This system can be relied on for 10-45 seconds before the Oxidative system kicks in.

Oxidative System (Krebs Cycle)

Now the oxygen kicks in. This is the alternative to the glycolytic system where pyruvic acid is converted into acetyl coenzyme through slow glycolysis. This then gets converted into ATP through the Krebs cycle.

In this system, the primary source of energy that gets broken down comes from carbohydrates and fats. Protein only gets used after exercise of above 90 minutes where the body starts to starve and looks for other energy sources. This is why it is important for us to take on energy whether that is in the form of gels or whole foods in our long runs.

To fully understand the Krebs Cycle further, here is the process in song! 

How can we, as runners use blood lactate as a valuable training tool?

All runners are different and it is important to realise that when it does come to these physiological processes. It is also important to realise that blood lactate should be used as a training tool rather than to be implemented on race day.

Sure, there are going to be races where you know what your lactate threshold is. Say you know you can run 6-minute miles for an hour, that is a 10-mile race for some runners.

Where blood lactate can play its role is by thinking about the pace you are running at threshold and realising that with the correct training, that pace will change and you’ll be able to deal with lactic acid more efficiently and a more brisker pace.

So, how do we find out our blood lactate?

Applying Test Results to Training

So, you have now got the results of your blood lactate test. Using these results and the prescribed heart rate that has been given for your threshold, you should be able to use this to apply to your training and a specific training plan can be made.

The goal for you would be to raise that pace in which your lactate threshold occurs so you are able to run faster at your ‘hour’ pace.

Not forgetting to mention that with this threshold heart rate zone, your training can become more specific at other ends of the spectrum, you’ll know what is the best heart rate zone to train at for your easy runs.

Example Sessions for Lactate Threshold Training:

Session 1: Beginner

Warm-up – 5 to 10 minutes.

3 x 1 mile at threshold pace with 2 minutes recovery.

5-10 minute cool down.

Session 2: Intermediate

Warm-up – 5 to 10 minutes.

2 x 15 minutes at threshold with 3 minutes recovery between each then 10 minutes at threshold.

Cool Down – 5 to 10 minutes.

Session 3: Advanced

Warm-up – 5 to 10 minutes.

20 minutes at threshold – 90 seconds recovery – 18 minutes at threshold – 90 seconds recovery 12 minutes at threshold.

Cool Down – 5 to 10 minutes.

Summary

  • Your lactate threshold is the pace you can sustain for an hour, so use this as a pace judgement tactic when implementing a tempo run into your training schedule.

  • If you feel like you are breathing too hard during your tempo run and find it unsustainable. Reel the pace in a bit, you are most likely running too fast and getting into oxygen debt. The lactic acid will build up quicker than you can flush out of your system.

  • Always follow a tempo run with a cool down at an easy pace. This helps flush any lactic acid build-up and will ensure you recover more efficiently. Not forgetting to mention you’ll feel less sore the next day!

  • Remember lactate testing isn’t just for the elite, anyone can get a test done, don’t be afraid to enquire and get your training super specific!

References:

Lactate Threshold Training: https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/lactatethreshold.html

Post-analysis methods for lactate threshold depend on training intensity and aerobic capacity in runners. An experimental laboratory study: http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1516-31802016000300193

Anaerobic Threshold: https://www.firstbeat.com/en/science-and-physiology/anaerobic-threshold/

Five Year Physiological Case Study of an Olympic Runner: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1756052/pdf/v032p00039.pdf

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