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Is my workout a threshold or tempo run?
Is my workout a threshold or tempo run?

A threshold and a tempo run are two different types of running sessions. Here we explain they key differences.

Steph avatar
Written by Steph
Updated over a week ago

The optimal running plan consists of a variety of sessions. Each run will vary in volume and intensity, some will consist of intervals with hard efforts and static rests whilst others will have a jog recovery. Then, we also have long sessions, which are tough but more sustainable.

By incorporating a variety of sessions into your running routine, you're getting your body used to running at different intensities for different durations, which helps you build your overall fitness.

The science behind thresholds

'Threshold' is a scientific term that refers to your ability to tolerate the build up of lactate during exercise. When you run, your body produces lactic acid, and it tries to clear this out whilst you're on the move. A build-up of lactic acid causes discomfort and will eventually slow your run down.

If you're well trained, your body is able to create and clear out the lactate at the same rate whilst you're running steadily. During these runs, you will not reach your lactate threshold. However, if you up the pace and start to run fast, you will get closer to this threshold and eventually above it.

In a nutshell, the faster you run, the closer or more likely you are to hit your lactate threshold. Thresholds are individual; it's specific to you and your current level of fitness. Like running fitness, you can improve your lactate threshold, so we are able to run faster for longer. You do this using threshold and tempo sessions.

How to calculate your lactate threshold

The most accurate way to calculate your threshold is by doing a laboratory test, however this is not a convenient or practical option for most people. Other options include:

  1. One-hour time trial: This is the second most accurate way to find out your running threshold... but also the hardest! Choose a flat and uninterrupted route and run your hardest for one hour. Your average pace will be your threshold pace. The best way to do this is to tie in a local race that would be as close to 1 hour as possible. Or if your 10k or half marathon time is closer to 1hour, this would be a good place to start.

  2. Go on feel: Threshold effort is one that feels comfortably hard but that you can sustain for up to an hour. It won't leave you gasping for breath, like a 5k race or a sprint.

  3. Heart rate: Your running threshold is around 90% of your maximum heart rate. By using heart rate, you can track how your threshold pace changes as you get fitter. You can learn more about heart rate here:


Threshold vs tempo runs: What's the difference?

So, let's now see how threshold and tempo runs compare, and what each one involves.

Threshold runs​ (a.k.a. interval sessions)

Threshold training involves training at or just under your current threshold level. This helps train your body to become more efficient at clearing lactate.

Threshold sessions will usually include shorter intervals with periods of recovery. This allows us to run at a harder effort (faster pace) with short breaks to help stop the build up of lactate.

Tempo runs

A tempo pace is close to your threshold pace, and this is where the confusion between tempo and threshold arises. It's the more sustainable pace that we mentioned above. It targets your aerobic base, therefore helping you improve your endurance. Tempo sessions involve longer reps.

This is more common if you are training for a half marathon or longer, but tempo runs still have an important role to play for all distances.

Threshold (interval) vs tempo runs in your Runna plan

To keep things clear, we've included two types of sessions in your Runna plan:

  • Intervals, with short bouts of effort above your lactate threshold; we could call these threshold runs

  • Tempo runs, at your actual threshold pace, which you can sustain for longer

Here's how the two compare:

Intervals

During these sessions you will spend time above your 'sustainable' pace (i.e. your lactate threshold). It forces your body to adapt and become more comfortable running at these higher speeds.

Tempo runs

During these sessions you will spend longer periods of time running at a more sustainable but still a challenging pace. These workouts are key to condition the body to become faster over longer distances.

The effort will typically be between half marathon and 10k pace, but like any run, your pace might vary day to day! Your pace will also vary depending on the length of the rep.

For example, you are going to run faster doing 3x 2k reps than you would over 1x 6k effort. The key note is that for both of these workouts, you shouldn't be going flat out but keeping it to 70-80% effort. If you go too quick, you will be closer to your lactate threshold (save that for your intervals!).

Get a tailored training plan to become a better runner

With Runna, you'll get different types of workouts that are adapted to your own performance, goals, and schedule, including interval sessions, tempo runs, long runs, and easy runs. This way, your body will adapt to different paces and distances enabling you to become a better and faster runner with time

Join Runna and get your first week free.

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