Tempo Workouts: A Marathon Training Staple

By Ben Connelly

Tempo training (meaning workouts run at lactate threshold) is one of the most valuable variables you can include in your marathon preparations. Many beginners underestimate the importance of tempo workouts, which will improve their lactate threshold.

Lactate threshold is the pace at which lactate begins to build up in the blood faster than your body can clear it. This is also the pace at which running begins to feel painful. An experienced runner can easily find this “comfortably hard” pace without using a watch. Essentially, you run as fast as you can without much pain at all. If it starts to really hurt, you are running too fast. This is also the pace you can sustain during a race lasting one hour.

Why Tempo Workouts are Important:

While lactic acid does not actually cause the pain people attribute to it, the buildup of lactic acid in the blood does coincide with pain. Improving your lactate threshold means you can run faster, for longer, before experiencing that pain. In addition to VO2Max, lactate threshold is one variable that affects marathon performance. (Given the length of the race, it is a more important variable – at your marathon race pace, your ability to clear lactate matters more than your ability to move oxygen in and out of your lungs.)

Improving your lactate threshold, just like improving your efficiency and your vVO2Max, will make you a better runner. Which will improve your chances of success in the marathon.

Types of Workouts:

A classic marathon training staple is the 2-mile tempo repeat. 2 miles run at tempo pace, followed by a rest (perhaps 2 minutes of standing or walking), followed by another 2 miles at tempo pace. I typically run 4 of these 2-mile repeats in a single workout. Depending on your speed and weekly mileage, you may run 2-3 or even 5. You want to approach 1 hour of tempo pace running, without exceeding it (unless you are very advanced). Perhaps 45-50 minutes. If your tempo pace is 6:00/mile, 4 repeats is 48 minutes.

Another classic tempo workout is the continuous tempo run. Usually, 20-40 minutes of running at tempo pace, without any rests. Early in training, you can throw in weekly 20-minute tempos. As you increase mileage and intensity, you can push that length over 30 minutes.

Finally, mile repeats at tempo pace. To mix up the 4x2mi workouts, I sometimes throw in 7-9x1mi at tempo pace (with 1 minute standing rests). In your final week of training before your race, you could also add in a 3x1mi tempo workout, which should feel very easy at that point.

When to Run Tempo Workouts:

You can run a tempo workout almost every week during marathon training. If you run 3 workouts a week, only 1 of those should be a key focus. A 4x2mi tempo is a key workout. But a 20-30min tempo is not. One benefit of tempo training is its versatility. You can throw in an easy tempo workout to round out a week with a different focus workout.

Tempo workouts should have a place throughout training. Some of your very first workouts should be tempo workouts. And you can continue running easy tempo workouts while tapering as well. Even the hardest tempo workouts should not feel too hard. But they will prepare you well for the rigors of your race.

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