Tempo Runs,Threshold Runs, And Lactate Threshold

The terms threshold run, tempo run and lactate threshold are foreign to most new runners. Here at Run With Strength we aim to make running accessible to everyone. So in this article we demystify these terms and explain how to incorporate this style of running into your training program.

A threshold run or tempo run are workouts run at a pace where your blood lactate is at an elevated but steady state. It is a run where markers of fatigue are building up in your blood at the same rate as they are cleared.

This may seem confusing at first because, well… it is.

For new runners and those who don’t care for all the jargon. A threshold workout is run at a “comfortably hard pace”, similar to your 10km race pace. At this pace, you will increase your aerobic capacity by improving your bodies ability to clear blood markers of fatigue. In essence, the longer you can hold off markers of fatigue, the longer you can run at a particular pace, making you a faster runner!

However, we and most experienced coaches believe threshold and tempo runs receive too much attention and are completed too often. This is because they produce a significant amount of fatigue compared to the small improvement in aerobic fitness. Threshold runs can also increase risk of injury when completed too often due to their fatiguing nature.

Despite the issues with threshold and tempo runs, they can be beneficial physiologically and psychological when completed in the right way and at the right time.

Tempo Run / Threshold Run

To complete a tempo run, you must first know your lactate threshold. The lactate threshold when running is the point where build up of lactate in your blood is in equilibrium with the removal of lactate. Lactate is a bio-marker of fatigue. So when your body cannot clear lactate quick enough, fatigue increases and your body will force you to slow down. (Technically it is the bi-products of lactate including hydrogen (H+) that lead to fatigue, not lactate itself. Lactate is just a product we can easily measure which correlates with other markers of fatigue. Fun Fact: Lactate can also act as a fuel source created by your body).

Now, to know your exact lactate threshold you need to do a complicated lactate blood test whilst running. This can be done at most exercise physiology labs, however, this is unnecessary for most everyday runners.

How to estimate your lactate threshold pace

There are 2 easy methods to estimate your lactate threshold pace without needing a blood test:

  1. Your 10km race pace is considered a good estimate of your lactate threshold pace.
  2. Complete a run for 3 minutes at an all out speed, do not pace yourself. The average pace/speed of your final minute is a good estimate of your lactate threshold pace.

How to create a tempo run workout

A tempo running workout can be completed in a variety of ways. Some more productive than others.

10km Race: If you are training for your A-race, a 10km B-race is a great tempo/threshold style run. It is the perfect way to get used to the race environment and push yourself further than you usually would. However, these should only be completed once per month maximum as you will likely bypass your lactate threshold during the race which builds excessive fatigue and requires increased recovery time.

Tempo Intervals: A tempo interval session is the best method of improving your lactate threshold. This is because you can spend more time around threshold pace than you otherwise could if completing a single effort tempo run. Tempo intervals also add less cumulative fatigue than a single effort tempo run due to the rest intervals.

We recommend this type of tempo workout is only down once every 2 weeks due to it’s fatiguing nature. Alternate a tempo interval session one week with a hill repetition session the next. Check out our article on the 80:20 method of training to understand why tempo and threshold runs should not be done more than once a week for most runners.

Tempo run sessions

Below is an example of a Tempo Interval Session:

  • 5 x minute warm up at slower than marathon pace or a “conversational pace”
  • 10 x 3 minutes at slightly faster than threshold pace with 2-3 minute jogging breaks at marathon pace between intervals.
  • 5 x minute cool down at slower than marathon “conversational pace”

Another style of Tempo Interval Session:

  • 5 x minute warm up at slower than marathon pace or a “conversational pace”
  • 4 X 1.5-2km at slightly slower than your 5km race pace with 2-3 minute rest intervals at marathon pace.
  • 5 x minute cool down at slower than marathon “conversational pace”

Summary

  • Tempo runs / Threshold runs are essentially running workouts for improving measures of physiological fatigue.
  • Tempo runs are best completed in an interval session style.
  • Running workouts completed at lactate threshold pace are highly fatiguing and should be completed no more than 1-2 X per fortnight.

References

Hoff, J., Støren, Ø., Finstad, A., Wang, E., & Helgerud, J. (2016). Increased blood lactate level deteriorates running economy in world class endurance athletes. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research30(5), 1373-1378.

Forsyth, J., Burt, D., Ridley, F., & Mann, C. (2017). Using lactate threshold to predict 5-km treadmill running performance in veteran athletes. Biology of sport34(3), 233.

Scheer, V., Janssen, T. I., Vieluf, S., & Heitkamp, H. C. (2019). Predicting trail-running performance with laboratory exercise tests and field-based results. International journal of sports physiology and performance14(1), 130-133.

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