I have a confession to make. A confession that may well shock and disgust you*.
Although running (and writing about running) for well over two years now, I’ve never quite worked out what a tempo run is. I’ve read countless articles about them but for some reason they’ve always continued to perplex me, even after I’d got my head round other, less well- known, running mysteries. Mysteries such as the Grated Nipple Coefficient** and the Abominable Horned Jogger of Bury St Edmunds.
I can’t explain why, but there’s something about the tempo run that instantly fills my head with cotton wool. To misquote William Gibson, “my mind goes the colour of a television screen, tuned to a dead channel”. Incidentally, it’s not just tempo runs. The same thing happens if I think too hard about knitting, time travel or cup-a-soup.
The thing that I still don’t understand is how a tempo run differs from a general bog-standard run, and I can’t discount the possibility that I’ve been doing them all along without even realising it. Two weeks ago I managed to nab an unexpected 5k personal best, and a couple of days later decided to enter it into the McMillan training calculator and have a play around with the newly-discovered “workout pace” function. According to Mr McMillan, my tempo runs should be paced between 8:04 and 8:21 minutes/mile. On the very same day, I read an article in Runners World that said a tempo session should last for 20-30 minutes and at a pace around 30 seconds per mile slower than 5k race pace. Based on the aforementioned PB (which works out at 7:49/mile) my tempo pace should be 8:19/mile, so ties in neatly with McMillan.
So, there it was, in terms simple enough to be understood by a man who once spent 45 minutes and two boxes of matches trying to light an electric oven. True story.
I went out that night and ran for 25 minutes at a pace that stayed firmly within the 8:04-8:21 goalposts. It felt comfortably hard, just as the article had predicted, and I was able to talk in short staccato sentences (when I was sure nobody was close enough to hear).
So, problem solved then. I now finally understand the tempo run. End of blog post.
Well… not exactly. Because although I know how to do a tempo run, I’m still no closer to understanding why I’d want to. Allow me to explain my confusion…
From my 5k PB, I know I can run for 25 minutes at a pace of 7:49/mile without incurring injury or having my ears turn into marzipan, or anything equally nasty befalling me. So then, what’s so great about running for the same amount of time (or less) at a slower pace? I totally get the whole “train slow to run fast” thing, but that’s what long slow runs are for. I’d also understand if tempo runs were at a slightly slower pace than 5k but sustained over a longer duration, but that’s not the case so I’m still none the wiser.
So anyway, friendly running types, I’m throwing it out to you. Many have tried explaining this to me in the past, and none have really succeeded in putting it in a way that made the penny drop. Just imagine you’re trying to explain dark matter theory to a toddler who’s distracted by a previously unseen 3D episode of Spongebob and who is also really desperate for a wee. I’ll send a shiny “Born to Plod” badge or something to whoever comes up with the most effective and imaginative explanation. Two badges if it’s done through the medium of interpretative dance or sock puppets.
What are you waiting for? Get thee to the comments section!
* No, not that thing that happened in Lanzarote. In my defence, I’d like to point out that the hippopotamus and I were both incredibly drunk. And anyway, we paid the pedalo owner a substantial clean-up fee. ** Upon which the central plot of the Da Vinci Code was originally based.