Periodization training is the process of dividing a training plan into specific time segments or phases leading up to and including a goal performance or race. This article will show you how can train the body in different ways during successive phases, gradually increasing the stress on the body, so you can ultimately combine the benefits of these workouts. The collective result is that with periodization training you can achieve peak conditioning for a desired race or races throughout the year.
Nearly every elite runner uses periodization. I use this system that includes various meso & micro cycles, each with a specific purpose and different physiological goals and psychological benefits. Using periodization allows you to couple hard training periods with easier periods of recovery to avoid over-training and improve components of muscular fitness such as strength, speed, and endurance to ultimately reach your goals. With the information that I share, you can divide your training plan into three parts to run strong and race well, all year.
Most studies of periodization have proved the superiority of this type of system over non-periodized programs in terms of greater changes in strength, body composition and motor performance (Fleck 1999).
Periodization programs involve a progression from high volume and low-intensity effort towards decreasing volume and increasing intensity during the different cycles. Periodization is not randomly changing volume and/or intensity with no consideration other than to introduce variation into the program. In a University of New Mexico paper, the author discusses how with a periodized program, the manipulation of volume and intensity, over a program that just increases total training volume alone, is an important factor in optimizing training effects.
When I set up a periodization program, I have the athlete, whom I’m coaching, gradually increase the stresses or efforts on their body during a variety of training sessions (distance, intensity, duration and type of recovery vary). Although a large percentage of training is completed at easy or conversation pace, in these programs we stress the body and then allow proper recovery, we achieve cardio gain and muscle growth. Basically, the work or a specific workout stresses your system. The planned recovery is what allows your body to adapt.
The overall training period, so it’s the longest of the three cycles and includes all of the elements of training in the entire training period leading up to and including your race. Typically it’s a year in length. Macrocycles are comprised of four stages or Mesocycles.
The mesocycle is a specific (2 – 8 week) block of training that is designed to accomplish a particular goal. The mesocycle is usually classified into 4 stages: recovery + endurance, endurance + strength/lactate threshold, intensity (interval) training and finally competition or peak performance (which includes some kind of taper). Finally, a set of microcycles, which are generally up to 7 days, make up the mesocycles.
I like the 4 week mesocycle because over the course of 3 weeks of similar workouts, we teach the body to adapt to specific stress, until it becomes not stressful. Then after a recovery week, I like to move on to the next stress.
Basic Periodization Program
First, if you can imagine a triangle, the bottom or base includes the longest phases of your training which are comprised of recovery/rest from your race (typically 3 weeks), followed by base or foundation training. Depending on the length of time between races, the base training can be up to 500 miles at relatively easy/conversation pace. During base training, the athlete will focus on the development of aerobic and muscular endurance which is the foundation of any running plan.
Not every runner I coach starts in the same phase or level of the triangle. Some runners only have 10 weeks until their race, they are more experienced and have a substantial base. They may require some strength runs like tempo or hills, followed by shorter intervals to prepare them for a race. Other runners hire me to help them over the course of 6 – 12 months. I can take them through an entire macrocycle where we develop an entire periodized plan to gradually get them in shape for a few races and eventually a longer race like a half or full marathon.
One of the keys to a successful program is the pacing. Throughout the course of a macrocycle, there’s generally six paces that an athlete will train.
Goal Race Pace (goal the athlete wants to race based on dreams, plan)
Date Race Pace (current race pace, based on a recent performance. Should be reviewed with a qualified coach because variables like temperature, course, competition can affect times)
Lactate Threshold Pace (typically 10k pace for most runners. Moderate heart rate, can be sustained for 30 – 45 minutes).
Interval Pace (faster than date race pace, demanding, can only be sustained for shorter time periods (no longer than 10 minutes)
Rest Pace (slow pace in between intervals or as cool down after hard running).
There are numerous types of running depending on the phase of the periodization program. Some runs like the conversation pace (short, medium or long) runs are completed throughout the program. Other types are tempo, fartlek, hills, long & short intervals and race pace. I posted an article of the essential training runs for middle age marathoners.
As with any personalized plan, mileage and specific workouts during this mesocycle vary. If you’re an experienced runner who can handle 55 – 70 miles/week, your training during this phase includes:
5 mile recovery runs at an easy pace. Gradually build from 6 mile to 11 – 14 mile midweek runs at conversation pace. 8 – 10 mile aerobic or lactate threshold runs at ½ or marathon pace 15 – 18 mile long runs at easy to medium pace (a few runs can include 8 – 10 miles in the middle of these longer runs at marathon pace). These long runs teach your body to run more efficiently.
Training for runners (beginners, less serious or older athletes) who can’t handle consistent higher mileage (including myself) would follow a slightly different program.
4-5 mile recovery runs at an easy/conversation pace. 8 – 10 mile midweek runs at conversation pace Gradually increasing from 10 – 16 mile long runs (runs near the end of the phase that include 6-8 miles at marathon pace) 6-10 mile aerobic or lactate threshold runs at ½ or marathon pace Rest or cross-training twice per week
Speedwork is limited in this phase to strides & “mini-tempos.” Weekly you can either do 6 – 8 100M on a track or 6 – 8 to 20 to 30-second bursts of speed at the end of one or two of your easy runs. Don’t go any faster than ½ marathon pace in your aerobic or lactate threshold runs.
In the second phase or mesocycle we will still work on endurance, but we’ll step up the lactate threshold training. We introduce strength workouts which consist of tempo, hill & fartlek workouts. We want to push yourself a little, so it’s not a shock when you go faster in the next phase. If the overall training plan is 18+ weeks, this mesocycle can last for 9 weeks. According to coach Greg McMillian, “these workouts strengthen the muscles, ligaments, and connective tissues, which will prepare the body for the demands of fast running.”
Key Workouts for Lactate Threshold + Endurance Mesocycle:
6 mile recovery runs at conversation pace 8 – 10 mile lactate threshold at 15k to ½ marathon pace. See this detailed article about Tempo running. Strength Training with hills and fartlek. Hills are a great strength training workout. Run them at a hard, but not all-out effort. Fartlek is an easy way to introduce longer (1 – 2 minutes) of fast running. 16 – 20 mile long runs. Start to introduce finish fast runs (last 4 – 8 miles at marathon pace) in your long runs.
This 2nd phase is essential to strengthening the body for the fast running that comes in the third phase. You continue to build endurance through long runs, but a few of your workouts become tempo miles or hill repeats prepare you for the intensity/race preparation phase where you will complete more & longer intervals (800m to 2miles).
INTENSITY / RACE PREPARATION MESOCYCLE
During the intensity or 3rd phase, the focus switches to additional lactate threshold and then interval pace (VO2 max). The goal is to ready your body to enter the competition phase, so you need a greater emphasis to be placed on boosting anaerobic capacity and neuromuscular power.
During the beginning of this Mesocycle, we will run longer intervals (the exact length depends on the race) at 5k race pace. Typical workouts may include 5 x 1000m or 5 x 1600. Long runs are typically 17 -20 miles with last 8 – 10 miles at Marathon Pace. There should still be plenty of 5 – 7 mile recovery runs included.
Later speed sessions include run tune-up events like 8k to 15k races to help you prepare for your main event and then shorter intervals (such as 600m – 800m) at 5-K pace. The distance of your intervals depends on the length of your race & your athletic ability. Besides 100m strides, there’s no need to complete 200m– 400m repeats if you’re training for a marathon. If you’re a novice or training for a 5k, these shorter intervals are perfect.
TAPER / PEAK PERFORMANCE MESOCYCLE
This last, peak phase includes short, fast workouts that simulate racing. These workouts fine-tune the speed you began in phase two by recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers. During this phase, one of the goals is to improve running economy (how efficiently your body uses oxygen) and strengthen muscles. You accomplish this by gradually increasing the intensity of your workouts and then in last few weeks before your race, decrease the overall volume while maintaining intensity. Coach Greg McMillan calls it “keep the engine revved.”
One of my favorite runs 2-3 weeks prior to the marathon is a 12 – 13 miler at race pace. This gives you a great indication of your fitness and how close to your goal time you can expect to finish. During the last week prior to the race, I also like to complete a 6 mile run with 4 miles at marathon pace.
In order to peak for key races, I recommend you mark your event on a calendar and either work with a coach or develop a plan that maps out your base, endurance, preparation, and peak phases. Each should be four to eight weeks long (you can extend the base or preparation phase beyond eight, but not the peak, to avoid burnout). I recommend that every fourth week, recover by reducing your miles by 10 to 20 percent. Also ease up on strength training. Once you peak, start again with recovery and base training and work your way through the phases over and over again.
In conclusion, you can get the most out of your training by having a good understanding of each of the three cycles of periodization and then using these cycles to create a plan that allows you to peak for your most important events throughout the year.
I’m linking directly to this article or Q&A from Coach Pete Magill’s column on PodiumRunner (used to be Competitor.com) because it’s relevant to our audience. The question was in reference to loss of speed & endurance as we age.
There’s been numerous studies over the years from RunnersWorld & the New York Times regarding this topic. The good news is that lower endurance capacity does not automatically mean slower running speeds. The reality is it’s just much more difficult to maintain the faster speeds as we age. The reason is older runners have a shorter stride length & actually push off more “weakly” than younger runners.
In a 2015 study, researchers found that leg muscles age earlier than other muscles in the body. Also leg muscles’ repair systems weaken earlier than other muscles. The take away to maintain more our speed as we age is to strengthen calf and ankle flexor muscles.
Coach Magill goes into a little more detail in his post. He follows with a detailed recommendation to complete various training exercises & even some diet advice to help repair tissues broken down by hard workouts. Go ahead and start reading the article below and click through to finish.
How Strength Training May Help
Paul DeVita, published a famous study where he showed older people, when they walk, take shorter steps than younger walkers. He also found that older people also rely less on the muscles around their ankles and more on the muscles around their hips to complete each stride than do younger walkers.
In a more recent study, he observed that older runners (40+ years old) showed much less activation of and power in their lower leg muscles, especially around the ankle and in the calf. Basically, there’s a shift away from reliance on the lower-leg muscles during running as we age.
This explains why Achilles tendon and calf injuries tend to increase” as runners get older. So it makes sense that in order to lessen the chance of such injuries and potentially also maintain more of our speed as the years pass, we probably should consider strengthening our calf and ankle flexor muscles.
Technically, speed goes first, but the outcome for distance runners is a loss of endurance.
First off, before I explain more, don’t get mad. Every time I address age-related performance decline in running, some readers get upset. Age is just a number, they write. Fifty is the new forty. Yadda yadda yadda. I agree with all that. But I also believe that the more we explore the issues facing aging runners, the better equipped we are to meet them head on with smart, effective training.
I’m an aging runner myself. And, like everyone else, my age 55–59 record (15:42) is slower than my age 45–49 record (14:34)—over a minute slower. I don’t know about you, but I want to know why I’m slowing down so that I can put on the brakes of that process. Which brings us back to the question: speed or endurance?
Let’s start by looking at American records for speed and endurance in three different age groups. That’ll give us an idea of who gets hit hardest by the aging slowdown. The following table shows age group records, then lists the percentage of slowdown for athletes in the older age groups (versus the age 39-and-under record): via Ask Pete: Which Goes First with Age—Running Speed or Endurance?
Have you heard of training by feel, running with your inner GPS or simply training without a GPS watch? They’re basically the same, but I had never tried this strategy myself, until the last 5+ months. Last Sunday, I crossed the finish line of the Vancouver Lake Half Marathon and I saw the finishing time of my run for the first time since last September. In this article, I will briefly tell you what I learned, how I trained and the results of my race.
Training With a GPS Watch or Electronic Stopwatch
Since 2010, I’ve religiously tracked every run that I completed outside. I uploaded runs to my Garmin Connect, Polar Flow or Strava Accounts. Prior to 2010, I used a simple digital stop watch (traditional Casio) and documented the results in a log book. I was never obsessed with my times, but I would compare similar workouts from year-to-year.The GPS watch was merely to ensure I was following the assigned workout paces. I wasn’t typically concerned about distances, since I’ve been running in/around my town for the last 19 years, I know the approximate distances.
Running By Feel
In Matt Fitzgerald’s book: RUN – the mind-body method of running by feel, he provides numerous reasons to ditch the gadgets and listen to our body. The biggest reason to run by feel, as opposed to increasing/decreasing your pace mid run, based on what you see on your GPS watch, is that how you feel during runs is the most reliable indicator of how well the training process is going. Many who run without a GPS watch claim that it reduces performance pressure and can help prevent injury, because when they make adjustments to their pace based on how they feel, they’re not over-extending themselves. Instead, they’re actually working within a smart, yet challenging, training zone.
So, if you feel good during a run, you’re likely fit. In general, the more fit you are, the better you will typically feel during your runs. Now, I understand that if one was running slow, they may feel good, but that doesn’t mean that they’re fit. So, let’s assume you need to be running at what is a fairly quick pace (within your abilities) and then determine how you feel. Ultimately, the only way to get fit is to work hard, which likely means you’ll end up suffering through some workouts.
Remove the Watch To Create A Positive Mindset and Momentum
Momentum in running, occurs primarily in training and can take the form of a period of improving fitness. In many articles and interviews, it’s apparent that even the most confident athletes know that they do not have complete control over every situation. They are aware that their success often depends on the situation shaping itself to their benefit. Why not remove the watch from the equation and simply run by feel where you can create both a positive mindset and momentum.
In my experience, with runners I coach, the most effective way to manage their fitness/fatigue balance is to tell them to pay attention to how they feel. When they don’t feel good, regardless of the time/pace on their watch, we must must determine whether it’s because of lack of fitness or excessive fatigue. If it’s lack of fitness, we can correct this with more hard work. However, excessive fatigue should be corrected by more rest, which also could mean simply slowing the pace of the workout and upcoming workouts.
Another term for running by feel is “using your inner GPS.” Some coaches, like McMillan, have written extensively about calibrating your inner GPS, so I won’t get into the details in this post. It’s important to understand that inner GPS training or running by feel should not take the place of traditional time/distance-based training. At least not until you have a lot of experience running by feel. I recommend that if you want to run a time like 1hr 59 minutes for ½ marathon, you better know exactly that pace.
Heart Rate Monitor
If you don’t feel completely comfortable about ditching a gadget, an alternative to using a GPS watch is using a heart rate monitor. You’ll still need the watch, but you can just adjust it so you only see your heart rate. One could make a sound argument that this is technically running by feel. Instead of running at preassigned paces that you monitor with your watch, when you train with a heart rate monitor, you simply adjust your pace by keeping your heart rate within a specified zone. This is why this is also referred to as zone training. I discuss how to train using a heart rate monitor in an article I wrote a few years ago.
My 5 Month Challenge of Training without a watch
What started out as just running my base/easy mileage without the watch, soon turned into 5+ months of not tracking my times or pacing for any training run. The majority of my runs were on the road, some were on hotel treadmills. Typically the treadmill runs were 4 – 5 miles at an easy/conversation pace (low 7s) and an elevation of 1.5 – 2 degrees. Duration of my treadmill runs were 30 – 40 minutes. Over the first 3 months I usually ran 18 – 30 miles per week at an easy or conversation pace. I don’t know for sure the pace of any runs, but for the last 5+ years, I’ve been able to easily complete 6 mile runs between 46 – 48 minutes.
To a large extent, due to my many years of experience of being a long distance runner, my inner GPS has been calibrated. I’m confident that I was probably running the majority of my runs at 7:45 – 8:15/mile pace. As you can see below, I also completed a few faster/tempo paced runs of 5-6 miles. On a weekly basis I would also get to the track to complete strides to keep my legs moving faster.
Since last September, while I completed my base or foundation training, I also performed 2 – 3 different CrossFit workouts per week. The CrossFit consisted of 45 minute High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) with a variety of challenging body weight exercises. I also regularly completed a 45 minute routine where I would rotate between 1 minute on a stationary bike at a controlled to vigorous pace with 1 minute of body weight, BOSU and/or barbell exercises. The key to these workouts was the variety and intensity. They were supervised by a personal trainer in a group setting at my health club. My goal was to get stronger, build an injury resistant body and reduce the pounding on my legs while completing aerobic exercise.
Increasing the Intensity as the Race Gets Closer
Two months out from the ½ marathon, I started to gradually increase my weekly long run from 7 to 12 miles. I also increased the intensity of 1-2 runs per week. All the while, I never used a GPS watch. Following are some of the workouts that I completed: Training started in September. During Weeks 1-4, I continued with base training (conversation pace runs of 4 – 7 miles) and cross-fit training.
Week 5 of 10 8 miles at easy/conversation pace (CP) Fartlek 3 other easy/CP runs of 4 – 6 miles (1 day w/ strides)
Week 6 10 miles at CP 4 mile Tempo (at ½ Marathon Pace (MP)) 3 x CP runs of 4 – 6 miles (1 day w/ strides)
Week 7 11 miles at CP (last 2 miles at ½ MP) 6 mile Tempo (at ½ MP) 3 x CP runs (1 day w/ strides)
Week 8 12 miles at CP (last 3 at ½ MP) Track Workout – 4 x 1600M at 10k Pace 3 x CP (1 day w/ strides)
Week 9 10 miles at easy pace (last 3 miles at ½ MP) Track Workout – Ladder (400M, 800M, 2 x 1200M, 800M, 400M at 5k pace) 3 x Easy Runs
Week 10 9 miles at easy pace (last 4.5 at ½ MP) 4 x CP 4-6 miles (2 days w/ strides)
Race Day – February 24th
Because I didn’t train too hard for this race, I wasn’t sure what kind of time to expect. The last ½ marathon I completed (2 years ago) was 1:27:45. I figured anything around 1:30 (6:55/mile pace) would be great. With almost ideal conditions of 35 degrees, overcast and no wind, I positioned myself at the start, slightly behind some runners who were projecting finish times of 1:25 – 1:28 (6:30 – 6:45/mile pace).
My strategy wasn’t to try to keep up with the faster runners. Instead, I wanted to keep them within range (gradually let them get 3-4 minutes in front of me). Turns out, this is exactly how the race played out. There were no splits given at any point, so I only knew my time as I approached the finish. My finish time was 1:30:25.
After the race I spoke with others who had run near me and told them that I had not used a watch for the last 5 months. Overwhelmingly, the response was positive and a few thought “how liberating.”
It really was liberating to train without a watch. However, I think I would use a watch for longer runs & track workouts if I was really concerned about achieving a goal time. The key to being successful when you’re not training with a watch is to be honest with yourself and push during the hard workouts and of course during the race. I knew I was getting fit when I was able to comfortably push the last 4.5 miles of my 9 mile run the Sunday before the race.
Due to some tough weather in January, I condensed the timing of the strength & track workouts (typically they start 8 weeks out), I never worried about splits during any of these harder runs. My goal was to self calibrate what I thought were 5k, 10k, ½ and full Marathon paces during each of the tougher workouts. During each one I always felt like I could have gone further or completed another interval at the desired pace. This doesn’t mean that I wasn’t running fast enough, because I felt fatigued.
I’m certain I could have run faster in the race if I had a 6 or 8 mile split. Also, if I included more strength and interval workouts in my schedule, I would have benefited. I also believe that if I had used a GPS watch during the race, I would have pushed the pace a bit more during the middle and end to get under 1:30.
If you’re interested in joining me, I can put together either a custom training plan or I can personally coach you. Either program will be specific to your goals and athletic abilities. Just click on the links for details.
Many runners hate hills because they’re hard. This is exactly why you need to include hill training into your training. Hills can increase your strength & speed. They also boost your confidence, improve form and help to minimize the chance of injury when you complete them on a soft surface (grassy hill). The muscles you use when completing a hill workout are the same as ones used for sprinting, so the strength you build will improve your speed. This article discusses the benefits of hill training and outlines when in your training plan they should be completed to achieve the maximum benefit. Lastly, I will provide some examples of hill training that can be performed for short races and other hill workouts that are best for ½ and full marathon training.
Which Phase in Your Training to Complete Hill Training
Usually hill training is completed during the strength training phase of a plan. Similar to Fartlek and Tempo runs, hill workouts help you transition from base training to faster interval workouts.
Typical hill workouts include a brisk running uphill with rest breaks on the flat or on the downhill. You can run at a sustained pace uphill, then relax back to conversation pace (catch your breath) on the downhills or flats. 15-30 minute of faster running is a good target. Paces depend on the grade and amount of repetitions. If you’re going by heart rate, target 85 – 95%.
Before completing hill training I recommend starting with an easy warm-up at conversation pace for 10-15 minutes. Next complete some stretching exercises including lunges, leg swings & strides. Complete your workout and then finish with an easy cool down and stretching.
Another benefit of hill training is that it can make you a more efficient runner because you’re training the cardio-respiratory and muscular systems to absorb, deliver and utilize oxygen while removing waste products such as lactic acid.
Types of Hill Running (Workouts)
Hills at conversation pace (just including hills during your general training). Just be cautious of doing too many hills and/or too often. A good example is picking a hilly course for whichever distance you run. A hilly long run is a great workout for ½ and full marathon training.
Hill repetitions – vary your workouts to include any of the following:
Hilly out-and-back course. This is the most common and probably best way to get yourself into hill training for a marathon or half marathon. Run comfortably hard on the uphill and then relax or run controlled downhill. Be careful of running too fast/hard on downhills. The distance of these workouts depends on the athlete’s ability, goals and what kind of base/foundation they have. New or novice runners should simply just try running up the hill without stoping. Don’t worry about picking up the pace (hills are hard enough).
400m-1000m. Alternatively 1.5 – 4 minutes uphill. 5 – 8 repetitions with rest or easy jogging on downhill. Try to avoid hills that are too steep. I recommend no more than 7-8% grade. This workout is perfect for marathoners. 3 – 4 minutes for recovery depending on the length of the hill.
Short hill (100m-400m) or 30 – 90 seconds. 5 – 8 repetitions with rest or easy jogging on downhill. Pace is faster than the longer uphills. Recovery is 1.5 – 2 minutes depending on the length of the hill.
Combo hill. Instead of distance, run uphill and vary by time. Start at 1 minute uphill and increase by 1 minute up to 4 minutes. Then decrease by 1 minute for 7 total hills. This workout more closely simulates what you’ll see in a race where the size of hills varies.
Downhill training – important for some race courses. Although it may be easier for your heart and lungs to run downhill, your legs certainly don’t get a break. It’s important to remember that you don’t want to run too fast downhills. I strongly recommend practice running downhill to prepare you for races like Big Sur and Boston. A perfect workout before the Boston Marathon is to add 2-3 miles of downhill after a long run of 14 – 18 miles.
I recommend including various hill workouts in your training. Modify the distances and speed of each hill. For example, to start hills complete 3 x 600m at 10k pace and 3 x 200m at 5k pace.
Last year, I ran Sauvie Island Marathon, which is flat, so I didn’t incorporate hill training into my 12 week plan. Instead, I ran hills in March, just before I started my plan. I completed the short hill workout by time. I completed 8 repetitions of 90 seconds. I didn’t complete any other hill training. In previous years when I ran either Portland or Boston, I included a lot more hill training in my plan.
To prepare me for the last 6 miles at Boston (which is downhill), I would add 2+ miles of downhill after my 16-18 mile long runs. To prepare me for the St John’s Bridge in Portland (which is around the 15 mile point), I would finish my 14 – 18 mile long runs with a 2.5 miles uphill.
Where to find Hills?
For many runners out West or along the East Coast, finding a hill may not be an issue. However, you don’t need to live at elevation to get in a hill workout. For many athletes in the Midwest or Florida, where it’s flat, you may have to get creative with your hills or inclines. Try parking garages (just be careful) or stadium ramps. High school stadiums, office buildings or hotels with stairs could also be used, but the duration of the uphill will be shorter. A word of caution about stairs is to start with just a few stairs and then build up. Stairs can really stress your achilles.
Another alternative for hills and stairs is using the treadmill or stair climber at the gym. If you’re completing stairs or stair climber workouts, ensure you stay sufficiently hydrated for longer workouts.
Hill Running Form:
Practice surging at the top of the hill with confidence & speed.
Lean forward, but don’t hunch
Keep your shoulders relaxed and drive your elbows back
Use a shorter cadence, but faster arm swing
Look a few feet ahead, not straight down at the ground
Try landing on your toes
Remember that every hill has an end
The more you include hills in your training, the less intimidating they’ll seem when you face them in a race. Hill running is an important component of any well-rounded training plan. As you can see, hills will help you become a more complete athlete. The improved strength and technique you gain from regular hill workouts will provide you with a significant confidence boost when you’re racing.
In this article, you’ll learn what a tempo run is and why they are so important (for any race of 5k+). I will also tell you the proper way to run a tempo,and when during your training schedule you should include these workouts. Finally I’ll provide some examples of proven tempo run workouts.
Bottomline, this is the probably one of the most detailed guides to Tempo Runs that you will find and I’m sure it will help you understand why these workouts are so important to help you achieve your goals.
What Exactly is a Tempo Run?
At the risk of getting a little too “sciencey,” I’ll do my best to describe tempos.
There are multiple types of tempo runs. You may hear them referred to as aerobic threshold (most common), anaerobic threshold or lactate-threshold runs. However, it’s important to note that there are 3 different types of runs that each serve a purpose. Aerobic threshold runs are the most common and run at a pace where you’re producing the maximum amount of lactate that your body can clear from your muscles. If you were to run any faster, you wouldn’t be able to clear the lactate that’s being generated and you would then experience a burning sensation or fatigue in your legs. This is the feeling you get at the end of a short, hard race or during an interval workout.
To get the benefit of Aerobic Threshold Tempo Run for marathoners you want to run it just near your lactate threshold and not any faster.
The goal of the lactate threshold workouts is to move that point where lactic acid begins to accumulate. We can accomplish this with repeat 2-3 mile intervals, sometimes referred to as cruise intervals. These are completed at a specific target pace (discussed below).
Lastly, the anaerobic threshold run is performed at the level of intensity where lactic acid accumulates faster than it can be cleared. Increasing our anaerobic threshold is important because it allows the body to run at faster speeds before fatigue and lactic acid take over.
Why Should You Include Tempo Runs in Your Training?
Tempo run workouts are essential for long distance runners training for races of 5k+. Depending on the distance and type of tempo, these are the most “race specific” workouts you will complete during your training. However, tempo runs shouldn’t be the only hard workout during your training. Remember, variety is essential to getting in shape (10 rule to marathon success).
Aerobic Threshold runs for marathoners should teach our bodies how to burn fat efficiently at marathon pace and improve our body’s ability to run longer at this high end aerobic pace. Tempos improve your ability to hold a challenging pace over a longer period of time. However, if we run too fast at what’s a anaerobic threshold pace, we improve the body’s ability to slow lactate, but we don’t improve our body’s marathon specific readiness.
The goal for these workouts is to boost our lactate threshold. We do this best by running at or near our threshold pace for an extended period of time, because our body becomes more efficient at clearing lactate. Tempos are usually completed at one assigned pace (as opposed to progressive runs or intervals where you vary the pace). One of the goals of tempo runs is to improve your sense of pacing.
The faster you can run while still clearing lactate, the faster you’ll be able to race. However, there’s also a significant mental aspect as well. Tempo runs are challenging, stressful and mentally fatiguing. You need to train yourself to maintain your tempo pace for the duration of the workout. I’ve coached many athletes and some tell me that the hardest part of the tempo (especially longer tempos) is being able to maintain the pace throughout the run. Your mind can wander, you get tired and your pace can slow if you don’t concentrate on maintaining the designated pace.
In summary, tempo runs help you run faster for longer periods of time. These runs also they teach your body how to tolerate more discomfort and I believe that they do a great job to help develop your mental toughness.
How to Pace a Tempo Run
Completing a tempo can be challenging for many runners because they don’t understand the pace and or distance for the workout. I’ll admit, it can be confusing and you may be tempted to run the workout too fast or start too fast and fade. But, it really doesn’t need to be too difficult to determine your pace. The problem comes when runners perform this workout at the wrong pace, because they can greatly compromise its intended training benefits, get injured or worn down.
There a few variations to tempo workouts (which I will discuss below), depending on the outcome desired and the timing in your training schedule.
The tempo workout is run at a pace that’s faster than “moderate” but not exactly “hard.” Many experienced runners can run them by feel or perceived effort.
It’s important to understand that your tempo pace at the beginning of the season will likely be slower than at the end due to fitness improvements. Your pace could also vary in weather elements or fatigue levels.
Tempos are NOT run at your goal pace
This is very important. Instead you need to figure out the pace at which you can no longer comfortably speak a full sentence (try repeating something like the “Pledge of Allegiance”). This is the point that many coaches call “comfortably hard.” It’s a tough effort, but you shouldn’t be gasping for air. As discussed above, do enough tempo runs correctly and you will see improvement.
Depending on the race for which you’re training, tempo pace should be similar to a very recent 1/2 marathon or 10k pace. However, my strongest recommendation is to simply use the “talk test” and run by feel. The longest tempos in my marathon training are about 60 – 70 minutes.
Another way to run a Tempo is by heart rate. This only works if you know your max heart rate (mine is in the low 170s). After your warm-up, I typically recommend about 80% of max heart rate through the duration of the run. Any faster and you’re actually in an anaerobic zone and you’ll likely won’t be able to maintain the pace for too long. You can learn how to calculate and train by heart rate by reading my article (training using a heart rate monitor). For many runners, using a heart rate monitor can be an easy way to ensure they’re in the right range for the workout. If you don’t have a HR monitor, it’s simply a matter of looking at your watch and monitoring your pace as you move through each mile.
If you run your tempos by feel, your pace will eventually quicken.
Types of Tempo Runs
There are generally three types of tempo workouts. (1) sustained tempo runs (20 – 70 minutes at one pace). (2) repetitions (repeat 10 – 20 minutes at tempo pace with a short (1-2 minutes) recovery in between each). (3) Tempos that are mixed into intervals or longer runs. As with other two types of tempo workouts, this latter type of tempo is beneficial for increasing the aerobic threshold. It’s important to maintain the assigned pace during the tempo portion of your workout.
Legendary coach Jack Daniels also recommends inserting periods of Aerobic Threshold running into long runs. For example, two 20 minute tempo runs that bookend a one hour easy run. Coach Daniels schedules this run bi-weekly in the latter stages of race preparation.
The one real requirement of tempo running is that you stick to a steady, specific, planned pace.
When to complete Tempo Runs
If you’re training for a shorter race, tempo runs are best done early in the season during base or foundation training. Tempos completed early in your training will help build endurance that can support race-specific fitness later in your training cycle.
For longer races such as a 10km or longer, tempos are best if completed during the mid to late portion of your schedule.
Some coaches have their runners perform two of these workouts every three weeks during a marathon build-up. As the race approaches (but before tapering) the runner can increase the frequency to one tempo effort weekly. I typically perscribe weekly tempos in weeks 7-11 of a 12 week marathon training plan.
Tempo Run Workouts
Tempo Workout #1
I completed this workout when I was training with Coach Greg McMillan. In the past, I’ve had excellent results training under Coach McMillan. This first workout is perfect for 10km or half marathon. You complete multiple tempos, but with some hills between. It’s a tough workout so my recommendation is to insert an additional recovery day before your next hard/long workout.
The steep hills between the 3 mile tempos will fill your legs with lactic acid so the second tempo helps to simulate that feeling of tiredness at the end of a race.
The key to this session is to try your best to run the second tempo run at the same pace as the first. To make things a little easier, if you’re really struggling, the 2nd Tempo can be shortened to 2 miles. This workout teaches your body & mind to “dig deep” when you’re aching and simply want to stop. Successfully getting through this workout will really boost your confidence.
1. 15 minutes warm-up at easy pace
2. 3 mile tempo run
3. 3 minute jog recovery
4. 4×30 second steep hills
5. 3 minute jog recovery at easy pace
6. 2 – 3 mile tempo,
7. 15 minute cool down at easy pace.
Completing this workout will do wonders for your confidence because you must overcome the feeling of lactic acid that builds up in your legs during and after the hill repeats. Completing this workout will help prepare you to not give up when you feel like you can’t keep going.
I really like this this Tempo for runners who are fit, but don’t have a race scheduled anytime soon.
Tempo Workout #2
Your traditional Aerobic Threshold Tempo Run and includes one block of running at tempo pace. Depending on where you are in your training plan will determine the length of the run at tempo pace.
1. Start with a 10-15 minute (or 1 mile) warm-up.
2. Run 20 – 30 minutes but with no break or recovery in the middle of the effort.
3. Each week increase the length of the tempo by 10 minutes until you reach 60 minutes.
4. End each tempo with 10-15 minutes (or at least 1 mile) cool-down.
Tempo Workout #3
Just like intervals, but will help improve your Lactate Threshold because it’s done at your tempo pace. The recovery is kept to a short 60-90 seconds and the repetitions are generally longer.
1. Start with a 10-15 minute (or 1 mile) warm-up.
2. 3 x mile at tempo pace with 90sec jog recovery.
3. Finish with 10-15 minutes (or at least 1 mile) cool-down.
Tempo Workout #4
Similar to the sustained or traditional tempo mentioned above except in this run is called a lactate clearance run. Technically it’s a anaerobic threshold run.
The way to accomplish this is during your sustained tempo runs insert a 30-60 second surge at about 5k pace every 5-8 minutes. The surge will bring on more lactate into the blood stream. When you slow back into your tempo pace, your body will then have a chance to clear that lactate, even as you maintain tempo pace.
It’s a tough workout again, but it will train your body to process lactate more efficiently, which ultimately makes your lactate threshold pace slightly faster.
Tempo runs are an excellent way for runners of all levels to work on building their speed and strength.
These runs are also helpful for developing the mental toughness and stamina needed for racing, since you practice running at a pace that’s a little outside of your comfort zone.
To summarize, each of these types of workouts & their associated paces causes increased effort and physiological difficulty when completed. When we successfully run at these paces or training zones, you can ultimately race farther and faster more comfortably.
photos courtesy of Chicago Marathon, Rock n’Roll Marathon, Marine Corps Marathon
Typically marathoners perform best when they run in cooler (40-55 degrees (F)) temps. For many runner’s their best chance to have a good time is with a Fall Marathon. Use this Fall Marathon Guide to select a race & follow the numerous links for valuable training information that can help you achieve your goals.
The only “pitfall” for training for a Fall marathons is that you need to putting in the biggest miles of your plan in the hot summer months. However, the good news is that this is a time when the days are long, and you don’t have worry about ice and snow. Also, there’s typically plenty of build-up races (1/2 marathons & 10ks) available during the Summer or early fall. You can integrate these races into your training schedule and use them as a way to to test your fitness.
Throughout this blog, I provide I number of detailed references which can be used to help you train for your race. I recently published a detailed marathon training follow along of my training for the 12 weeks leading up to Portland’s Foot Traffic Flat marathon. Posts include details of how to set race goals and training paces, nutrition, how to make adjustments to your training, strength training for marathon runners and much more.
Other very helpful posts to ensure your success include:
Here’s a list of some great Fall Marathons. As you can see, I provide some details of each race (like if it’s a flat course, good crowd support, etc). I also include feedback from previous participants so you can decide which marathon is best for you.
If you’re interested in participating in any of these races, please let me know if you would like some help setting your goals or setting up a customized training plan that will be specific to your athletic ability, goals and your busy schedule. I specialize in working with busy middle age athletes, so please contact me if you have questions.
St. George Marathon – great scenery, fast & well organized race, net downhill of nearly 2,600 ft Location: St. George, UT Date: Saturday, October 6, 2018 Website: St George Marathon
Bank of America Chicago Marathon – huge race (45k+), but very well run and tons of spectators throughout the fast & flat course. One of my best running experiences was at the 12 mile point in this race (downtown and packed with loud cheering spectators, truly amazing). Location: Chicago, IL Date: Sunday, October 7, 2018 Website: Chicago Marathon
Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon – very well run & supported race on beautiful twin cities course. Tons of spectators. This race gets fabulous reviews, year after year. Typically perfect racing conditions. Location: Minneapolis, MN Date: Sunday, October 7, 2018 Website: Twin Cities Marathon
Steamtown Marathon – net elevation loss of almost 1,000 ft. Good course to BQ, but be careful with the 2 hills near the end. Gets very favorable reviews from past participants. If you live in the Northeast, this is an excellent alternative to the bigger Fall marathons. Location: Scranton, PA Date: Sunday, October 7, 2018 Website: Steamtown Marathon
Mohawk Hudson River Marathon – Easy hills up front when adrenaline is high and only a few shorter, steeper uphills around 12/13. About 1000 runners participate. The bike trails make for fast, easy running. Past participants love the nice spread of post race “goodies.” Location: Schenectady, NY Date: Sunday, October 7, 2018 Website – Mohawk Hudson River
Portlandathon Marathon – for 1 year, the owners of Portland Running Company and the company that manages many Portland area races, will operate a marathon in the City of Portland. The course will differ slightly from the Portland Marathon, but it’s still a USATF certified and BQ course. Location: Portland, OR Date: Sunday, October 7, 2018 Website: Portlandathon Marathon
Nebraska Marathon – starts/ends downtown with much of the course near the Missouri River and into Council Bluffs, IA. A fairly new race, but has excellent reviews from participants. Location: Omaha, NE Date: Sunday, October 14, 2018 Website – Nebraska Marathon
Baltimore Marathon – mixed reviews due to hills in the 2nd half and because ½ marathoners converge with marathoners in the 2nd half of the race. It’s a challenging course that may not be best for 1st timers or runners hoping for a BQ. Past participants generally rave about how well the race is organized and run (lots of aid stations). Crowd support is excellent. Location: Baltimore, MD Date: Saturday, October 20, 2018 Website: Baltimore Marathon
Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon – very positive reviews from past participants. Most had a great experience between expo, pre and post race activities. It’s well organized and there’s excellent crowd support. A few hills, but nothing that runners complained about. Bottomline, it’s highly recommended. Location: Columbus, OH Date: Sunday, October 21, 2018 Website: Columbus Marathon
Edward-Elmhurst Health Naperville Marathon – small race in suburb outside of Chicago. It’s not the fastest course (due to a few hills and lots of turns), but if you don’t want to run in Chicago with 40k+ other runners, this is a good alternative. Location: Naperville, IL Date: Sunday, October 21, 2018 Website: Naperville Marathon
Detroit Free Press/Chemical Bank Detroit International Marathon – Good organization, but not a lot of crowd support during the middle of the race. Relatively flat course, but there is a climb up the Ambassador Bridge which is a little steeper and longer than many would like. This race has been selling out because it’s very popular, so register before end of August to ensure you get in. There is an underwater mile between Miles 7 & 8. Location: Detroit, MI Date: Sunday, October 21, 2018 Website: Detroit Marathon
Ashworth Awards Baystate Marathon – billed as BQ marathon because of it’s mostly flat course. Right outside of Boston along the scenic Merrimack River. Gets a lot of positive feedback for being well organized. Location: Lowell, MA Date: Sunday, October 21, 2018 Website – Baystate Marathon
Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon – very well organized, plenty of water stations and exuberant spectators throughout the course. Relatively flat (just a few hills) course, so it sets up nicely as a Boston Qualifier. Location: Toronto, ONT Date: Sunday, October 21, 2018 Website: Toronto Marathon
If you’re interested in joining me, I can put together either a custom training plan or I can personally coach you. Either program will be specific to your goals and athletic abilities. Just click on the links for details.
Marine Corps Marathon – this was my first marathon 30+ years ago, when approx. 9,000 runners participated (really big for back then). It’s now a much bigger race with 30k+ participants. Because there’s no corrals at the beginning, it can get a little crowded. Past participants have commented about how the beginning of the race is tough when after mile 1 the course narrows significantly. Overall, mixed reviews, but many are positive. You get to run by a lot of monuments, so it’s a memorable experience. Location: Washington, D.C. Date: Sunday, October 28, 2018 Website – Marine Corps Marathon
Indianapolis Monumental Marathon – 10th most Boston Marathon Qualfiers among all North American marathons, with this flat, fast course. Lots of crowd support, bands, cheering sections. Very positive comments from participants. Location: Indianapolis, IN Date: Saturday, November 3, 2018 Website – Indianapolis Marathon
TCS New York City Marathon – The largest marathon in the U.S. Not much for me to say here as most runners are very familiar with this race. If it’s on your bucket list, definitely apply and train hard because it’s a tough course through Central Park and across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge at the beginning. Location: New York, NY Date: Sunday, November 4, 2018 Website – New York Marathon
Anthem Richmond Marathon – Really positive race reviews from past participants. Many rave about the course, organization and fan support. A lot of runners say they would run this race again because they had such an enjoyable experience. Location: Richmond, VA Date: Saturday, November 10, 2018 Website – Richmond Marathon
Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon – mixed reviews, mostly bad, about the course. It’s fun to run through the Vegas lights in the evening, but most complaints centered around the course and challenges with the start (in 2017 additional security measures were taken due to the mass shooting in October). Lots of bands, entertainment and crowd support throughout the race. They offered a finisher jacket in 2017. Location: Las Vegas, NV Date: Sunday, November 11, 2018 Website: Las Vegas Marathon
Fort Worth Marathon – Fast and flat out and back course along the scenic Trinity River. Don’t expect big cheering crowds or perfectly executed signage at every mile. The course is out and back. Not many spectators line this course. Location: Fort Worth, TX Date: Sunday, November 11, 2018 Website – Fort Worth Marathon
Gore-Tex Philadelphia Marathon – mostly flat with a few slight inclines. Some recent negative comments about poor/confusing organization. Lots of friendly spectators Location: Philadelphia, PA Date: Sunday, November 18, 2018 Website – Philadelphia Marathon
Williams Route 66 Marathon – this is a challenging course with multiple hills. Overall reviews are favorable because the support is excellent, expo was fun and the course through the neighborhoods of Tulsa gets lots of local support. Location: Tulsa, OK Date: Sunday, November 18, 2018 Website – Route 66 Marathon
California Intl Marathon (CIM) – billed as fast course with net downhill. This course has wide streets so you don’t feel overly crowded, but with rolling hills for the first 20 miles, If you don’t train for hills, your quads may be “trashed.” Bottomline, you can BQ here, but you must train on hills prior to coming to this race. Location: Sacramento, CA Date: Sunday, December 2, 2018 Website: CIM
BMW Dallas Marathon – This is a highly regarded race. It’s 40+ years old and they have plenty of spectators on the course to keep you motivated. Location: Dallas, TX Date: Sunday, December 9, 2018 Website: Dallas Marathon