video courtesy of Wattie Ink.

Ed. Note—how many times have you heard the word "tempo" and thought "I don't know what that means..." None other than Heather Jackson is here today to explain what tempo means to her on this particular run. 

We've all heard the term before, and many of us have probably even gone on a "tempo" run, but what does this ambiguous term actually mean? Even the title hides in a fog of vagueness, since the word "tempo" simply suggests a rhythm, not an intensity. Does it mean a slow tempo, like a march? A rapid tempo? Maybe there's no rhythm at all? And once we agree upon the rhythm, how hard or how slow should we perform a tempo run at? To make matters worse, some coaches even split this into more intensities, subdividing a cloudy term into "tempo run" and "tempo intervals." Nothing makes this particular editor more enraged than vague terminology (probably some PTSD from exacting English instructors over the years), so let's try to pin down "tempo" and see what we can learn.

First of all, let's go to the bible: Jack Daniels' Running Formula, 3rd Edition. We start with Daniels because he (along with Greg McMillan) can lay a real claim to the running credibility crown. In his chapter on running intensities, while discussing "Threshold Pace Training," Daniels says "I recommend two types of [Threshold]-Pace workouts. One is a tempo run and the other is what I refer to as cruise intervals. The difference between these two types of T-pace workouts is that a tempo run is a steady run lasting about 20 minutes in duration, and cruise intervals are a series of runs at T-pace, with a short break between the individual runs." OK! We are getting somewhere. America's greatest running coach says that "tempo" runs take place around our threshold pace.

If we head on over to check with Greg McMillan, author of the excellent You: Only Faster, we find a pretty similar answer. McMillan identifies "tempo" as "sitting right at or slightly below an athlete's lactate threshold." Similarly to Daniels, McMillan suggests continuous runs at tempo pace that don't go beyond 35-40 total minutes of continuous tempo. McMillan also suggests breaking that time into chunks that are also called "cruise intervals," but his version of this intensity is slightly faster than lactate threshold pace. That's a small difference, so we're feeling pleased that we have a good idea of the intensity, right? Just around your lactate threshold pace, an effort that both coaching greats describe as "comfortably hard." "The pace is manageable for a fairly long time (20 to 30 minutes in practice," Daniels says. "Peaked and rested, you can race at T-pace for 60 minutes."

Part of the confusion, we believe, comes from triathlon's mixing of sports. Andrew Coggan and Hunter Allen, in Training and Racing with a Power Meter, 3rd Edition, two of the pioneers in power monitoring, give "tempo" its own zone—and it's below threshold. In their zone system, zone 3 is "tempo" and sits underneath zone 4, which they describe as "threshold." Bevan McKinnon, of Fitter Radio and a contributor to these pages, describes tempo as "a reference for race-pace efforts anything from marathon to functional threshold effort. It doesn’t strictly represent one single intensity for me and my athletes but rather is used to define running at “race pace” or marginally below race pace." Elliott Bassett, who coaches many elite triathletes, seems to agree: "Tempo in general is a training pace that is the same speed or slower than a race pace/effort, and one that the athlete uses as a guideline in training. But really, it's a pace/effort that the athlete and coach agree to define as tempo. There is no broad definition—just one definition between each athlete and coach."

As you can see in the video with HJ, "tempo" here means slower than eventual goal marathon pace, but you need to consider the whole workout. With the faster sections averaged with the "tempo" work, the entire run ends up around goal Ironman marathon race pace (or even slightly faster). So, there are several ways to skin this particular cat.

Here's a quick summary of ways to define "Tempo," but, as Elliott Bassett points out, this term is best worked out between coach and athlete, since one woman's tempo may be another man's threshold!

  1. Runs or intervals just at or slightly below threshold pace
  2. Intervals slightly above threshold pace
  3. Runs at "race pace," with the coming race dictating that particular pace
  4. "Comfortably hard," or the pace you could (if fresh!) run for 50-60 minutes
  5. Running intensity around six to seven out of ten, or "moderate-hard" to "hard"