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I love to hate the tempo run. Once a week I face my fear and get out for a mid-distance, steady, hard run of seven or eight miles. On a tempo run, you don’t get the rest intervals of a speed workout, and you don’t get the easy pace of a long run. It’s the workout that in my mind best simulates the effort required in half marathon and marathon races.

The reward for facing my fear and taming the tempo run is the tremendous sense of accomplishment when I finish! Today’s run was no exception. By all accounts it shouldn’t have been that great a run. This was the first week I’d gone back to work after 13 years as a stay-at-home mom to three girls. I worked 21.5 hours at three schools with nine teachers and aides, and 45 children with special needs. I was supposed to do the tempo run Friday morning, but frankly I went to bed at 9:15 on Thursday night and needed all the sleep I could get to face six hours at the junior high and elementary school the next day. By the time my day working and shuttling my own kids ended at 8:30 p.m., there was no way I was getting on my treadmill for eight miles. So I pushed it to Saturday morning, set my alarm for 6 a.m., got my teenager to her prospective high school for honors math and English testing at 7:15 a.m., and hit the high school track by 7:30. I knocked out the eight-mile run in 63 minutes, keeping a solid tempo run pace under 8:00 per mile after a warm-up mile at 8:34:

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The splits from the MapMyRun iPhone app.

So what are the tricks to taming the tempo run?

  1. Consider taking a rest day or cross-training day before a tempo run. Okay, I know a lot of people run five or more days a week, which doesn’t leave a lot of slots for rest days. But if you want to hit your tempo run with confidence, it’s best to do it on fresh legs. I usually cross-train on Thursdays before the tempo run on Friday. This week I took a rest day on Friday (and felt lousy mentally for it — I get so much satisfaction from crossing the workouts off my schedule), but that allowed me to really hit the track hard on Saturday.
  2. Choose a course that doesn’t have many (if any) stops. I like to do a tempo run on the track (“Tracks! They’re not just for speed workouts!”) because I don’t have to worry about stopping at stoplights or dodging cars on the road. I put on a podcast or audiobook to entertain me on the loops around the track, I get into a “zen” zone of maintaining that steady pace, and my body practically goes on autopilot. But if I can’t hit the track, I choose a dedicated bike/running path or a straight out-and-back in a neighborhood without stoplights.
  3. The warm up is key. Don’t try to go out at tempo pace. Spend the first mile easing into that tempo run pace.
  4. Carry your water or sports drink with you. Again, it’s not truly a steady effort run if you stop and start at stoplights or for water breaks. The only exception to that in my opinion is if you want to practice stopping for water at the aid stations for a race. The track is a perfect place to do this. You can set up your own makeshift aid station on a bench or the bleachers next to the track and practice running four laps (a mile) and stopping to grab a cup of water. Then either walk while you drink or practice drinking on the run, whatever you plan to do during the race. It took me a while to get the hang of it. One tip I appreciated was to speed up just before you hit the aid station so you bank a few seconds ahead of time. Then you can walk through the aid station, get a drink without spilling all over yourself, and catch your breath before picking back up to race pace again. That’s easier in my mind than hitting the aid station at race pace, walking, and having to make up lost time by speeding up faster than race pace after you start running again.

Do you incorporate tempo runs into your training? What’s your best advice for taming a tempo run?

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