What is a tempo run, a long run, a speed workout?

tempo runs, long runs, easy runs. What does it all mean?

When I put together a training plan for a runner, I ask myself the question “What is the purpose of this training session?” for each session I put on their program. It helps me to create a training plan which makes the best use of the time that particular person has to prepare for their goal race, whilst minimising their risk of injury.

But…runners are funny creatures. They can convince themselves that running faster, further or harder, is going to have them ahead of the pack, even if the evidence of their own body suggests they might just be overdoing it. I always impress on my runners that running more or running faster than their body needs, could actually inhibit their long term progression, and slow them down in their short term goal race as well. The same applies to all runners of course, not just the ones I coach!

Distance Running Training Plans

There are a few things about a distance running program that are important to note.

  1. You should actually have a training plan. A plan that will tell you each day what you should be doing. If you just have some vague notion in your head that you should be doing this or that, then it’s not a training plan. It’s just a vague notion in your head.
  2. Your training program should be tailored for you. Not much point in you following the same plan as someone who’s going to be running the race in half the time you will be, or who’s 30 years younger!
  3. You should not exceed the mileage or the paces prescribed in your training plan. Doing more and running faster than prescribed, could actually slow you down.

Main Types of Workouts in a Distance Running Program

A distance running program is mainly made up of four workouts types, tempo runs, speed workouts (VO2 max), long runs, and easy recovery runs. Depending on your fitness level, your long run may be an easy run, or it may include some more intense periods of running either mid-run or for the last 20-25% of the run.

Here’s a run down on the different types of workouts that make up a distance running program, what they are used for, and why running them too hard could be detrimental to your training.

Tempo Runs

If done right, tempo runs improve your lactate threshold. They improve your endurance and ability to maintain a faster pace over longer races.

When you’re exercising, your body is breaking down glycogen to fuel the muscles. A by-product of this is lactic acid. Your body recycles this lactic acid into energy, and expels any waste products.

As you run faster, the amount of lactic acid produced increases, to a point at which your body is not able to utilise all the lactic acid for energy production. This point is your lactate threshold. Your lactate threshold pace is the fastest pace you can run without generating more lactic acid than your body can utilise and convert back to energy (usually about your half marathon pace). It usually corresponds to somewhere between your 10km pace and your half marathon pace. It’s about a 7- 8/10 on the rating of perceived exertion (RPE).

During a tempo run, you build up gradually so that you are running at a pace just below your body’s lactate threshold (about 6-7/10 on the RPE). You are training your body to improve its conversion of lactate back into energy. It should be challenging without being exhausting. You should be able to talk in short sentences, but you’re best off doing it on your own with no-one to talk to. Your tempo is unlikely to be the same as someone else’s.

Because a tempo run is aimed at getting your body better at clearing lactate, you have to let it practice doing that. If you’re going too fast, your body won’t be effectively clearing lactate, and so won’t be learning how to do it. If you let the body handle a moderate and consistent amount of lactate, it will learn what to do with it. But if you run too fast and flood the body with lactate, it can’t handle the excess, and doesn’t learn how to utilise it for energy.

So by running too hard, you don’t achieve the benefits the workout is designed to give you.

Speed Workouts (also known as VO2 Max workouts)

VO2 max is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilise during exercise. Your VO2 max can be improved with training, allowing your body to utilise more oxygen and run faster.

Speed workouts also increase leg muscle strength and power. This means it takes you a smaller proportion of your overall energy available to you, to run at a certain speed.

Because you’re pushing pretty hard during these workouts, you’re at an increased risk of injury. Go just that little bit too fast during these workouts, or do that one repeat too many, and you could push yourself over the edge into injury.

That’s why it’s important not to do more than prescribed in these workouts, and also use your common sense. If you have, say, 8  x 800’s planned, but on rep number 6 your left hamstring’s pinging like there’s no tomorrow, you’d be mad to try to complete the session as planned. Calling it a day at number 6 would be the sensible thing to do, as would telling your coach. Or if you don’t have a coach, you’d need to adjust your next training session yourself as necessary.

Recovery Runs

It may come as no surprise that recovery runs help you to recovery from the harder workouts on your program. Your muscles are likely to feel sore after your harder sessions. This is due to the micro tearing of muscle fibres during the forceful contraction of your muscles when running at faster speeds. These muscles need nutrients and oxygen to repair, which is delivered to them via the blood. Given a chance, your body will heal itself, but it does require sufficient rest between hard workouts.

Recovery runs (easy runs/easy paced long runs) increase blood flow to these muscles, delivering oxygen and nutrients without putting too much force through the muscles. But run too fast on these days, and you’ll cause more micro tearing in the muscles which the recovery run should be helping to repair. This increases the amount of time you need to fully recover. Your body won’t perform as it should in your next tempo run or speed workout, as the muscles are still fatigued. In turn, that means you’re not getting the benefit from these workouts that you should.

If you keep your easy days easy (even if that means some walking during your run) your body will heal more quickly and will be much better prepared to take advantage of the next hard work out.

Know the Purpose of Your Workout

Before you put your running shoes on for your next workout, ask yourself, “What is the purpose of my run today?” It’ll help you keep on track and not be tempted to overdo it.

If you think you could do with a little extra help with your running, we’d love to be the ones to help you.  Find out more about online running coaching from less than $11 per week 

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