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Three Types of Tempo Runs To Break A 3:30 Marathon

Tempo runs are a cornerstone of sub-3:30 marathon training, targeting specific physiological and psychological aspects essential to breaking a 3:30 marathon. Incorporating them strategically, understanding their purpose, and adapting their intensity over time can significantly enhance your preparation for the demands of a sub-3:30 marathon race.

Coach Cory doing a tempo run in a quest to break a 3:30 marathon

What Is A Tempo Run?

A tempo run, also referred to as a threshold run, is a targeted running workout designed to enhance the lactate threshold – the point at which the production of lactate surpasses the body's ability to clear it efficiently, leading to increased fatigue. Characterized by a comfortably hard intensity, tempo runs are performed at a pace just below the lactate threshold, challenging the runner's cardiovascular system and endurance. 

Typically lasting between 20 to 60 minutes, these runs require a pace faster than an easy jog but slower than an all-out sprint. Consistency is key, and runners often incorporate tempo runs into their training regimen once per week. Proper warm-up, including dynamic stretching and light jogging, precedes the tempo segment, while a cooldown, consisting of easy jogging and stretching, follows. 

What Is The Purpose Of A Tempo Run 

The purpose of tempo runs is to improve the body's ability to clear lactate, ultimately delaying fatigue during longer races such as a marathon. As runners progress in their training, they might include longer tempo runs that simulate their goal race pace, providing both physical and mental preparation. It's essential to tailor the intensity of tempo runs based on individual fitness levels, listen to the body's signals, and consider expert guidance to optimize training benefits.

Role of Tempo Runs in Sub 3:30 Marathon Training

Lactate Threshold Improvement

Tempo runs are performed at a pace just below your lactate threshold, which is the point at which lactate accumulates in the blood faster than it can be cleared. By running at this threshold, your body becomes more efficient at clearing lactate, delaying the onset of fatigue during prolonged efforts like a marathon.

Aerobic Capacity Development

Tempo runs primarily target the aerobic energy system, helping to enhance your aerobic capacity. This is crucial for marathon runners, as the race relies heavily on aerobic metabolism over an extended period.

Increased Running Economy

Tempo runs contribute to improved running economy, which refers to the efficiency with which your body utilizes oxygen at a given pace. A better running economy allows you to cover the marathon distance with less energy expenditure, potentially leading to a more controlled and sustainable race pace.

Race-Specific Pacing Practice

Tempo runs are typically performed at a pace close to your goal marathon pace. This specificity allows you to practice running at the pace you intend to sustain during the race. It helps familiarize your body with the demands of the target pace, making it easier to execute on race day.

Mental Toughness

Running at a challenging but sustainable pace during tempo runs builds mental toughness. This mental resilience is crucial during the latter stages of a marathon when fatigue sets in. The ability to maintain focus and push through discomfort can be developed through consistent tempo training.

Progressive Adaptation

Incorporating tempo runs progressively throughout your training allows for a gradual adaptation to faster paces. This reduces the risk of injury and provides a structured approach to building the specific fitness required for marathon racing.

Long Run Support

Tempo runs complement long runs by adding intensity to your training regimen. Long runs build endurance, while tempo runs enhance the pace at which you can sustain that endurance. Combining these elements is key to successful marathon preparation.

Tempo Runs To Break A 3:30 Marathon 

When training for a sub-3:30 marathon, it’s important to follow the law of progression. This refers to the principle of gradually and systematically increasing the intensity, duration, or volume of your workouts over time. This principle is a fundamental aspect of training programs for athletes and runners, and it helps to optimize performance improvements while minimizing the risk of injury or overtraining. 

For marathon training, increasing your duration and volume should take precedence over intensity. Each of the below workout examples includes a lower and upper range of volume. Your goal should be to increase your volume of each workout, not to run them faster. You can use this calculator to calculate your training paces. 

Steady Tempos 

A "steady tempo" in running refers to maintaining a consistent and controlled pace during a workout. This type of run typically falls within the tempo intensity range, where you run at a challenging but sustainable pace. The goal is to sustain this steady effort level throughout the entire duration of the run, helping improve aerobic fitness, lactate threshold, and overall running performance. An example of a steady tempo for a sub 3:30 marathon runner may look like this:

  • 2 miles easy, 4 miles at 7:25 - 7:40, 1 mile easy 

  • 2 miles easy, 5 miles at 7:25 - 7:40, 1 mile easy 

  • 2 miles easy, 6 miles at 7:25 - 7:40, 1 mile easy 

  • 2 miles easy, 8 miles at 7:25 - 7:40, 1 mile easy  

  • 2 miles easy, 10 miles at 7:25 - 7:40, 1 mile easy 

Broken Tempos 

A "broken tempo" run refers to a type of running workout where a continuous tempo run is interrupted or "broken" by intervals of either rest or a slower-paced recovery. This workout structure combines the benefits of sustained tempo running with the added challenge of short, high-intensity bursts or active recovery periods. It can be an effective way to increase overall fitness, improve lactate threshold, and enhance speed. After a 2-mile warm-up an example progression may look like:

  • 4 x 5 min @ 7:10 - 7:20 w/ 2 minutes easy between each interval 

  • 5 x 5 min @ 7:10 - 7:20 w/ 2 minutes easy between each interval 

  • 6 x 5 min @ 7:10 - 7:20 w/ 2 minutes easy between each interval 

  • 7 x 5 min @ 7:10 - 7:20 w/ 2 minutes easy between each interval 

  • 8 x 5 min @ 7:10 - 7:20 w/ 2 minutes easy between each interval 

Cutdown Tempo 

A "cutdown tempo" run is a type of running workout where the intensity gradually increases, or "cuts down," as the workout progresses. This structured run involves starting at a moderate pace and progressively getting faster as the run unfolds. Cutdown tempos provide a dynamic and challenging training stimulus, incorporating both aerobic and anaerobic components.

  • Run 5k, 4k, 3k, 2k, and 1k, starting at half marathon pace and dropping 5 seconds per mile with each, take 1 -2 minutes easy between each 

  • Run 4 miles at marathon pace, 3 miles at half marathon pace, 2 miles at 15k pace, 1 mile at 10k pace with 2 minutes between each

In conclusion, incorporating three distinct tempo runs, as well as targeted long runs into your marathon training regimen can be a game-changer in your pursuit of breaking the 3:30 barrier. Each tempo run serves a specific purpose, collectively enhancing your lactate threshold, aerobic capacity, and race-specific pacing. The Steady Tempo cultivates endurance and stamina, allowing you to maintain a challenging yet sustainable pace over extended distances. The Broken Tempo introduces intervals, simulating race conditions and promoting adaptability to variable intensities. Finally, the Cutdown Tempo progressively challenges your limits, preparing you for the demands of sustained effort at higher speeds.

Breaking the 3:30 marathon barrier requires a holistic approach, and these tempo runs contribute significantly to the comprehensive training needed for success. As you embark on this journey, trust in the progression of your training, celebrate milestones, and embrace the mental and physical fortitude that comes with pushing your limits. Your commitment to these tempo runs will undoubtedly contribute to realizing your marathon goals. Best of luck on your journey to breaking the 3:30 marathon barrier!

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