At first glance, tempo runs and interval runs might appear as mere variations in speed, but, that’s far from the truth. They actually serve different purposes.

In this article, we’ll delve deep into what tempo and interval runs are, what benefits they offer, and which will work best for you in your running training plan.

What are Tempo Runs?

A tempo run (or threshold run) is a continuous, moderate- to high-intensity run completed at a steady pace just below your lactate threshold (the point at which lactic acid accumulates in the bloodstream faster than the body can remove it). 

Often called “comfortably hard,” this run conditions your body to increase its lactate threshold, which in turn allows you to maintain a faster pace for longer durations without fatiguing as quickly. Tempo runs typically last 15-30 minutes, depending on your fitness level and race distance.

What are Interval Runs?

Interval runs are structured workouts that involve alternating periods of high-intensity running with recovery periods, which can be either low-intensity jogging or complete rest. The primary goal of these workouts is to improve speed and cardiovascular fitness. 

By pushing the body to run at higher speeds during the high-intensity segments, you challenge your aerobic and anaerobic systems in ways that differ from sustained, steady-state running.

Similarities between Tempo and Interval Runs

Runners cheering up

Here are some key similarities between tempo and interval runs:

Key Differences between Tempo and Interval Runs

Here are some of the significant differences between tempo vs. interval runs:

1. Pace and Intensity Variations

Tempo runs are characterized by a “comfortably hard” pace, which is sustainable for longer races like a 10K. The intensity is moderate to high, typically around 80-90% of maximum effort. This pace is faster than an easy run but not as intense as interval sprints.

Interval runs, on the other hand, have a varied pace. During the “work” intervals, the pace is very fast, often reaching 90-100% of maximum effort. This is followed by “rest” intervals, where the pace is much slower, sometimes even dropping to a walk.

2. Training Objectives and Benefits

The primary objective of tempo run training is to improve the lactate threshold, which helps increase endurance and the ability to run faster for longer distances without fatigue.

Conversely, Interval Runs aim to improve speed, power, and running economy. The benefits include increased VO2 max, enhanced calorie burn, and a boost in metabolism.

3. Targeted Energy Systems

Tempo runs predominantly target the aerobic energy system, teaching the body to use oxygen more efficiently for energy production.

However, interval runs primarily focus on the anaerobic energy system. It trains the body to produce energy without relying solely on oxygen, which is crucial for improving sprinting and short-burst power.

4. Sample Workout Structures

A typical tempo run workout involves a warm-up, followed by running at a steady, “comfortably hard” pace for a set distance or time (e.g., 20-30 minutes), and concludes with a cool-down.

On the other hand, an interval run workout starts with a warm-up and then alternates between high-intensity running and low-intensity recovery periods. This cycle is repeated multiple times before ending with a cool-down.

Advantages of Tempo Runs

Here are some of the advantages of tempo run: 

1. Improved endurance and lactate threshold

The lactate threshold is the point when the body starts accumulating lactic acid in the muscles faster than it can be cleared away. 

Tempo runs push runners to operate just below this threshold. So, by consistently training at this pace, runners can increase their ability to run longer distances at faster paces without getting tired quickly. 

2. Enhanced Mental Toughness 

Maintaining lactate threshold pace challenges the mind to stay focused when the body is uncomfortable. Tempo runs teach mental endurance and poise when racing gets tough. This mental stamina transfers directly to race day.

3. Suitability for Specific Race Goals

The sustained pace of a tempo run is similar to the pace runners aim for in longer races. It offers perfect practice ground for those targeting events like 10Ks or half-marathons. Tempo run can simulate race conditions, helping runners fine-tune their pacing and strategy for the actual race day.

Advantages of Interval Runs 

Here are some of the advantages of interval training: 

1. Speed Development 

Interval runs consist of short, high-intensity bursts of speed followed by rest or low-intensity periods. These short bursts activate and train the fast-twitch muscle fibers responsible for quick movements. Over time, this leads to improved sprinting speeds, which benefits races or finishing kicks.

2. Enhanced Anaerobic Capacity

During the high-intensity portions of interval runs, the body taps into the anaerobic system, which produces energy without using oxygen. 

Regular interval training increases the body’s anaerobic capacity, allowing runners to maintain high speeds for longer before fatigue sets in. This is especially useful for middle-distance races where speed endurance is crucial.

3. Effective Fat Burning 

The start-stop nature of interval runs boosts metabolism, creating an afterburn effect where the body continues to burn calories post-workout. This makes interval runs efficient for those looking to shed extra pounds or maintain weight. It’s a time-effective way to get both cardiovascular and fat-burning benefits.

Who Should Incorporate Tempo Runs and Why?

Tempo runs might be the best for your training sessions if you are among this set of people.

1. Distance Runners

Distance runners, especially those targeting events like 10Ks, half-marathons, and marathons, can greatly benefit from tempo runs. 

These runs help simulate race conditions, allowing runners to practice maintaining a challenging but sustainable pace over extended distances. By doing so, they can improve their race times and overall endurance.

2. Beginners Transitioning to Intermediate Level

Beginners who have built a base fitness level and are looking to take their training to the next level should consider tempo runs. These runs offer a structured way to introduce faster paces without the intensity of full-blown speed workouts, helping to bridge the gap between easy runs and more challenging workouts.

3. Triathletes

Triathletes need to transition from cycling to running efficiently during competitions. Tempo runs can help them develop the ability to run at a steady, challenging pace even when their legs are already fatigued from the bike segment.

4. Runners Looking to Improve Mental Toughness

The “comfortably hard” nature of tempo runs requires both physical and mental effort. Regularly running at this challenging pace can help athletes develop mental resilience, teaching them to stay focused and push through discomfort.

5. Athletes in Other Sports

Athletes in sports like soccer, basketball, or field hockey, where there’s a mix of steady-state running and bursts of speed, can benefit from the endurance and pacing skills developed during tempo runs. It helps them maintain a consistent performance throughout the game.

Who Should Incorporate Interval Runs and Why?

If you’re in any of these categories of people, you should incorporate interval running into your training schedule:

1. Sprinters and Middle-Distance Runners

Sprinters and middle-distance runners, such as those competing in the 400m, 800m, or 1500m events, require bursts of speed and power. Interval runs, with their high-intensity bursts followed by recovery periods, closely mimic the demands of these races, helping athletes improve their speed and anaerobic capacity.

2. Runners Looking to Break Plateaus

For those who’ve hit a performance plateau, interval runs can introduce a new challenge and stimulus to the body. The high-intensity nature of these runs can lead to physiological adaptations that can help runners break through stagnation and achieve new personal bests.

3. Athletes in Team Sports

Athletes in sports like soccer, basketball, and football often require short bursts of speed during gameplay. Interval training can help these athletes develop the speed and recovery skills necessary to perform optimally during games.

4. Fitness Enthusiasts Seeking Efficient Workouts

Interval runs are time-efficient. The high-intensity nature of the workout means that even a short session can lead to significant cardiovascular and metabolic benefits, making it ideal for those with tight schedules.

5. Individuals Targeting Weight Loss

The start-stop nature of interval runs boosts metabolism, creating an afterburn effect where the body continues to burn calories post-workout. This makes interval runs an effective tool for fat-burning and weight loss.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to choosing between tempo runs and interval runs, it’s essential to consider your specific running goals. Tempo runs are ideal for those aiming to enhance endurance, simulate race conditions, and develop mental toughness. They benefit distance runners, beginners transitioning to intermediate levels, triathletes, and athletes in various team sports.

On the other hand, interval runs are the go-to choice for individuals looking to boost speed, power, and anaerobic capacity. Sprinters, middle-distance runners, those seeking to overcome plateaus, athletes in team sports, and fitness enthusiasts with tight schedules can benefit from interval training.

Ultimately, the decision between tempo and interval runs should align with your unique training objectives and preferences. Both types of workouts offer valuable benefits, and incorporating a combination of both into your training plan can lead to well-rounded improvements in your running performance.

FAQs About Tempo Runs vs. Interval Runs

1. Are tempo runs better than intervals?

Neither is universally “better”; it depends on your goals. Tempo runs boost endurance, while intervals enhance speed and anaerobic capacity.

2. Is it better to run at a steady pace or intervals?

Steady pace (tempo) runs improve long-distance endurance, while intervals focus on short-distance speed. You should choose based on your objectives.

3. Which is better, tempo or fartlek training?

Tempo runs are structured for endurance, while fartlek (“speed play”) mixes varied paces. The best choice depends on personal preference and training goals.