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What's The Difference Between Tempo Runs And Lactate Threshold Runs?

Updated: Jan 18

Tempo runs and lactate threshold runs are terms often used interchangeably, but they can have slightly different interpretations depending on the context. In general, both refer to workouts aimed at improving the lactate threshold, but the specific details may vary.

Coach Cory Smith running a lactate threshold run

Here's a breakdown of the differences:

What Are Tempo Runs?

  • Definition: Tempo runs are often used as a broad term for sustained efforts at a challenging but manageable pace. They can encompass a range of intensities, from the upper end of aerobic to the beginning of anaerobic effort.

  • Intensity: Tempo runs typically fall around the lactate threshold but may include a broader spectrum of paces, such as marathon pace. The goal is to sustain a pace that feels comfortably hard, just below the point where lactate accumulates significantly. You can use this training pace calculator to determine your tempo pace.

  • Purpose: The primary purpose of tempo runs is to improve overall endurance, mental toughness, and the ability to sustain a challenging pace. They may include variations like steady-state runs and cruise intervals.

What are Lactate Threshold Runs?

  • Definition: Lactate threshold runs specifically target the point at which lactate begins to accumulate in the bloodstream more rapidly. This threshold marks the transition from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism.

  • Intensity: Lactate threshold runs are more narrowly focused on the intensity associated with the lactate threshold. The goal is to train at or slightly below this threshold to enhance the body's ability to clear lactate efficiently. A runner's lactate threshold is roughly a pace they sustain for a 50 to 70-minute race. You can use this training pace calculator to determine your tempo pace.

  • Purpose: The primary purpose of lactate threshold runs is to improve the pace at which an athlete can comfortably run without a significant increase in lactate levels. This improves the ability to sustain higher intensities for longer durations.

While the terms may have nuanced differences, they are often used interchangeably in practice. Many training plans and coaches use the terms interchangeably because both involve sustained efforts around both of the lactate thresholds (LT1 and LT2). It's essential for runners to understand the specific goals of their workouts and tailor their training plans accordingly.

Ultimately, whether referred to as tempo runs or lactate threshold runs, the key is to consistently train at an intensity that challenges the body's ability to clear lactate efficiently without crossing into excessive fatigue.

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