What is a Tempo Run?

What is a Tempo Run?

ON August 29, 2019 by Zwift

You may have heard “Tempo Run” or “Threshold Run” referenced on Zwift Run or in other running circles. What do runners mean when they talk about doing a Tempo Run?

You can describe the Tempo Run in three ways. It is a session in which you run at:

  • Lactate Threshold
  • Heart Rate Zones 3 and 4
  • Half Marathon Pace

Lactate Threshold

You will often hear the Tempo Run described as a Lactate Threshold Run. This is because you run at a pace at which your body is able to flush out the lactate as fast as it is produced.

Historically, build-up of lactate has been seen as a cause of significant slow down in a race where your legs start to burn and feeling heavy. This usually happens in an ‘all-out’ effort such as a 5K or 10K race. In a Threshold Run, you are training just below that threshold and, rather than slowing you down your body is able to utilize lactate as fuel. You should be able to maintain a consistent, fast pace for at least 20 minutes.

Heart Rate Zones 3 and 4

Traditionally, and certainly in Zwift, we divide heart rate into 5 “zones.”

  • Zone 1 is Blue: Endurance, Recovery, Easy
  • Zone 2 is Green: Fat Burning Zone, Endurance, Recovery
  • Zone 3 is Yellow:  Tempo, Marathon Pace, Moderate Effort
  • Zone 4 is Orange: Threshold, Tempo, Half Marathon Pace, Hard Effort
  • Zone 5 is Red: Anaerobic, 5/10K Pace, 1 Mile Effort, All Out

A Tempo Run is completed in zones 3 and 4. This is around 80-90% maximum effort and it should feel “comfortably hard,” according to Jack Daniels Ph.D., who discusses the Tempo Run in his popular ‘Running Formula’ book.

Running to heart rate is very popular in Zwift because of the large, color-differentiated HR display in the top left corner which makes it easy to see what zone you are in.

Half Marathon Pace

Another way to break down the Tempo Run is think of it in terms of pace. Daniels suggests this should be around 25 seconds slower than 5k pace. For many, this equates to approximately half marathon pace. If you run 5k in 20 minutes at 6:25min/mi, you should be capable of running a half marathon in around 1 hour 30 minutes. Give or take 5 minutes, this could be anything from 6:40mins/mi to 7:15min/mi.

A half marathon effort at 6:40min/mi would be at the top end of Tempo pace and a 7:15min/mi run at the lower end. Anywhere between these paces can be regarded as a Tempo Run.

How Far Should I Run?

When done in isolation Tempo Runs are generally shorter efforts between 4 and 8 miles and should be incorporated into your training block every week or every other week.

However, running at tempo can be a very flexible way to train. You could work a tempo effort into your long run by running 5 miles easy, 5 miles at tempo and 5 miles easy. Or 10 miles easy and 5 miles at tempo. You could also use tempo running in a long form interval session. Run at tempo for 2-3 miles then run a mile easy. You could repeat this three times.


Tempo running, like the Progressive Run, is a very beneficial form of physical and mental training. Running at a consistent pace for a prolonged period teaches strong race management.

Knowing you can hold a fast pace while staying controlled and comfortable will give you huge confidence for upcoming races. Furthermore, knowing you can do this in the later stages is also a major confidence boost.

Physically, tempo running is good training for any distance, improving stamina and endurance at speed. However, races 10K and under require you to run a hard effort above threshold, at the top end of zone 4 and into zone 5. As the Tempo Run is at or below lactate threshold, you are training the body specifically to run at this pace, which is going to be most beneficial in your half marathon or marathon races.

Consistency is Key

Use Tempo Runs consistently in your training regime. You could alternate them weekly with Progressive Runs or build them into your Long Run. Make sure to warm up properly before jumping into a Tempo Run session as you risk injury by making the muscles work hard from the get go.

If you’d like to try tempo running on Zwift, Run in the Park is the place to be. RITP is the perfect event for practicing tempo pace without the pressure of being in a workout or race. Check out Zwift Companion and join Group A, B C or D depending on the pace and distance you wish to go. We will see you on the Zwift run paths very soon!