To tempo or not to tempo, that is the question

Written on May 12th, 2013 by , Category Marlene Farrell Blog, Training

Doing some tempo runs with the Peshastin Striders at practice.


By Marlene Farrell

Do you ever peruse old mouse-nibbled books left behind in travelers’ havens? Hostels, rental houses and the like. I pulled just such a book off a stack of old National Geographics at the cabin where my family vacationed for three-and-a-half days. We were at the edge of the Olympic National Forest, on the peninsula, and at our doorstep were trails through big trees and bigger stumps, leading to waterfalls.

With small print and yellowing pages, this book could have been written anytime in the Running Boom (and it was, originally published in 1983 with the latest edition in 1999). It was The Competitve Runner’s Handbook, by Bob Glover and Shellylynn Florence Glover.

Marlene Farrell

When I picked it up, I felt only the mildest interest. Chapters had titles like “The First Time Marathoner,” “Race Strategy,” “Fuel and Nutrition for Running.” I had read much of that stuff before. And I didn’t want to look at pace charts of where I’ve been and where I likely am now.

But I found myself randomly flipping through the book and landing on the “Tempo Run” chapter, which dealt with the LT (lactate threshold) workout. The authors wrote, “most competitive runners manage to get in a reasonable amount of aerobic endurance runs and perhaps weekly track intervals or hill repeats, yet neglect specific LT training.”

Bingo! That was the picture of me when I was at the cabin that day. I can think back to times when I’ve done tempo runs regularly. Trisha Steidl, my friend and coach, would prescribe them for me.

So why was I not doing them now? The Glovers stated, “(Tempo runs are) less stressful than intervals, both physically and mentally.” But later they wrote, “You should run in some discomfort, but not the kind of pain that causes you to abruptly end the workout.” They are being blasé. Should we thrill to deliver discomfort to ourselves, but manage the level to avoid vomiting or falling over in agony? We runners read such words and shrug, thinking, “OK … I guess I’m ready for the masochism.”

However, I can attest to the fact that there are good reasons to perform tempo runs. Thanks to the long tempo runs I used to do (building up to 8 to 12 miles, sandwiched between 2 to 3 miles of warm up and cool down), I PR’d in the half marathon and marathon in 2010. The biggest benefits are that I learned the feel of a certain speedy pace and I could relax into the groove of it. It would feel like work, but smoother and more efficient from the practice. And I would end a successful tempo run with a huge confidence boost that is so helpful on race day.

Since that stay on the Olympic Peninsula I’ve put down a few tempo runs. They’ve been sporadic, when my muscles are warm and elongated, and the road or trail stretches out, tempting me to reel it in with long strides. The next step is to jot some down on the calendar, to make tempos a regular ingredient of my training recipe. For the trail races that I’m doing this season, running at pace over varied terrain is the best simulation for the races themselves.

My one planned tempo run was for “fun.” To add spice to the after-school running club I do at Peshastin-Dryden Elementary, I decided to dress up as one of two Super Striders, to speed alongside the kids while they run fast intervals. This “fun” tempo run tested my discomfort threshold by a temperature pushing an unseasonable 90 degrees, a track that could have melted the soles of my shoes, a black costume, cape, ski gloves, and a face mask that limited breathing and vision. At least I wasn’t alone. My fellow superhero and the hordes of kids in the Striders running club were there at my side, running laps, listening to the best of today’s pop music (with Eye of the Tiger thrown in) blaring from the stadium. High-fiving the Striders, the fast beat of the music, and the stares of the high schoolers all helped me dismiss the feeling of running in quicksand. When it was over, 10 laps later, I was certainly jubilant, back in my coaching clothes.

And the next tempo run or race will be that much easier. When the effort gets tough, I’ll recall the smiles of the kids who burst in front of me, to beat the Super Strider to the line. I’ll keep chasing them in my imagination, and be thankful I’m not wearing a mask this time.

Marlene Farrell is a Leavenworth writer and long-distance runner who has qualified twice for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. She also helps coach the Peshastin-Dryden Striders kids running club.

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