© 2017 Runner’s Tribe, all rights reserved.

Galen Rupp and Coach Alberto Salazar before the 2013 New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

“The idea behind tempo runs is that by being right at lactate threshold you can consistently nudge it down. For instance, Matt Centrowitz, 4:50 (minutes per mile) is probably his lactate threshold, I’m hoping that 6 weeks from now it will be 4:40, and we will keep nudging it down”  -Alberto Salazar

Tempo training – that training term everyone keeps muttering. It’s been around for decades. However, it stands to reason many coaches in the past probably haven’t harnessed its true power as much as they maybe should have.

It is important to note that the words ‘Tempo’ and Threshold’ both get thrown around a lot and even though technically they have different meanings, coaches and athletes often use the words interchangeably (as will we in this article). Technically, Salazar is referring to ‘Threshold’ runs, although he prefers to call it ‘Tempo’.

For a clear understanding, check out this article

Know Your Aerobic Training Zones

“Arthur Lydiard was a revolutionary coach, a great coach. My training system is very different. My belief is that the human body likes continuity, it likes doing things repetitively.”  -Alberto Salazar

So what the hell is it?

As explained by Salazar in an easy to understand way:


“Anytime you run a race, probably from 800m up, you’re using your aerobic system and your anaerobic system, you’re always using both. And the idea is that your aerobic system, which is using oxygen and fatty acids.. the more you can get your system, your body, to use as high a percentage as possible of its energy expenditure to come from that aerobic system, the better. The anaerobic system is kind of like the rocket fuel, your glycogen, and you’ve only got a limited amount of that”  -Alberto Salazar

Building that Aerobic Engine

“The idea of a tempo run is to run right at your lactate threshold” -Alberto Salazar

As explained by Salazar above, it is important that tempo runs remain just below your lactate threshold, in order to slowly improve (lower) this lactate threshold.

Once again, as explained by Salazar:

“The idea behind tempo runs is that by being right at lactate threshold you can consistently nudge it down. For instance, Matt Centrowitz, 4:50 (minutes per mile) is probably his lactate threshold, I’m hoping that 6 weeks from now it will be 4:40, and we will keep nudging it down” -Alberto Salazar

For this reason of needing to keep the pace of the tempo run right at the lactate threshold, many athletes may need to do these runs by themselves. Running with athletes of varying standards will not result in an optimal tempo run.

Run too fast, and you take away the point of the whole session, it will go from an aerobic to anaerobic session, and your lactate threshold won’t be lowered. The session will be harder on your body, more like a race, and it will take a long time to recover. Run too slow, and your lactate threshold will never improve – it’ll be just another ‘easy’ run.

“If you go too far below it, you have basically jumped into the anaerobic right away” -Alberto Salazar

So, How Fast is it?

“A tempo run, if you are basing it on your lactate threshold, that should be somewhere about a minute and fifteen seconds slower over 10km, or 6 miles, over would you could do if you ran all-out.”  -Alberto Salazar

So we know not to go too fast, or else our anaerobic system will take over. As stated above, Salazar argues the pace for a 10km tempo should be about a minute and fifteen seconds slower than your all-out pace. I think it makes sense that this guideline needs to be flexible. Considerations need to be made for the surface it’s run on. For example, trying to run 1:15 slower on a grass course, or one with hills, compared to a flat road course, won’t be easy. Considerations also need to be made for athlete fatigue, stage in the training cycle and various other outside influences.

 “For instance, Mo and Galen, if I think they need to run 26:40 for 10km, I think that they have to be able to run about a 28 minute 10km in practice, in order to have worked that lactate threshold system, right at the brink, in order to nudge it down” -Alberto Salazar

It is also possible to use heart rate monitors in order to help set the ideal pace. Nike Oregon Project, Melbourne Track Club and numerous other training squads utilise heart rate monitors to make sure their athletes are staying just below their lactate thresholds. In the perfect world, a runner would have their lactate threshold measured using a blood gas analysis, organised by a sports scientist, or suitably trained professional, so that they know their ideal heart rate training zone (a range in which to maintain the heart rate between).

For further reading on Tempo training also check out this article

Mastering the Threshold Run – By Sub 2:14 Marathoner Mark Tucker

How Often?

Salazar has stated that he likes his athletes to complete tempo runs every two weeks. He has also indicated that it is athlete dependent and if for some reason he thinks a once a week tempo would suit a particular athlete, then so be it.

“Matt Centrowitz, about 3 weeks ago, ran the best tempo run he has ever run. He ran 5 miles at 4:50 pace. About 5 days ago he had another tempo run (we try to do one every two weeks) coming up and he was dreading it because he hates running them and he was by himself in Eugene. He had just run a really fast short interval workout a few days before, so I told him to run a little slower than last week, to start at 4:55 per mile. So we backed him off a little bit. In two weeks when we come back to the tempo run he’ll try to improve it again, to say 4:47-4:48 pace. The goal is that, by the time we get to about February 1, he will run a 5-mile tempo run at 4:40 pace. We take two steps forward, one step back.”           -Alberto Salazar


  • Nike Cross Nationals Coaching Clinic 2012 Videos.
  • Men’s Journal 2004, by Adam Buckley Cohen.

Article by Sam Burke – Runner’s Tribe

© 2017 Runner’s Tribe, all rights reserved.

Some more great articles

‘A Body Built on Pain’ – The Training of Herb Elliott

First Under 3:30 – The Training of Steve Cram




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here