Updated: October 21st, 2015
Advanced GPS Training- Using GPS to Master the Tempo Run

This article will start a series of training pieces regarding the use of GPS units for competitive runners. See this article for a great overview on GPS units and their basic uses for distance runners.

This week’s installment will focus on a key component to distance running performance- the all-important tempo run! Your GPS will help you on these workouts by allowing you to monitor pace, distance, duration, and also by freeing you to run in virtually any training environment.

Tempo Runs (and not Only)

Virtually all runners have employed a “tempo” run at some point in their training for a key race, and there is no one easy answer to what constitutes this particular workout. You may often hear someone say, “Oh, I ran that race as a tempo last week”, or “Wanna join me for a tempo run on Sunday?”. The truth is, tempo runs are perhaps the most ambiguous training sessions one can execute, and for many they are the most difficult workouts to run well.

Most physiologists agree that a “tempo run” should be a steady 20-40min run done at one’s lactate threshold pace, or the pace one could maintain for an hour in a race situation. My issue with this is that virtually no one knows their exact pace at lactate threshold, and the fact that the lactate threshold is largely erroneous unless you are training for a race lasting exactly sixty minutes.

Therefore, we can branch out from the traditional tempo run and include more workouts in our repertoire that better simulate racing rather than certain hard-to-define physiological barriers.

Let us look at a few possible tempo run variations that can be done using your GPS unit. These sessions require practice to nail, but having a reliable GPS unit on your wrist can help hit your target paces and effort ranges. Running these workouts too fast or too slow isn’t the end of the world, but the more accurate you can be with those variables, the better it will be for your long term progression.

First Workout

Extended run at your aerobic threshold (AT). This workout is specific to the marathon, and will serve as key aerobic support for the half-marathon. 5K-10K runners can use this session during their base phase before attempting more specific workouts.

The Set-Up: For this run, you will need a relatively flat stretch of road and decent weather conditions. Set your GPS unit to ‘miles’, and get ready to hit a steady groove for an extended period.

The Execution: After a good warm-up of easy running and some light drills, go into a steady run at roughly your marathon race pace. This range should coincide with your aerobic threshold, which is very specific to the marathon itself. Start with five miles, and build to ten miles steady within this pace range. Use your GPS to track distance, and try to keep things constant.

Second Workout

Variable strength endurance. Use this run as you near a 10K to Half-Marathon race, or as speed support for the marathon. This runs trains the cell’s lactate shuttle mechanism which will help you better utilize blood lactate as a fuel source in longer races. The idea is to spike lactate slightly on the fast segments, and then force the body to efficiently clear the cell on the slower segments.

The Set-Up: Set your GPS to kilometers so the individual segments aren’t too long, and run this work-out on a flat road or bike path. You can use half-miles in the same way if training for shorter races.

The Execution: After your standard warm-up, run continuous kilometers alternating a pace which coincides with half-marathon pace on the fast segments, and a pace that is 5% slower on the off segments. The slower segments aren’t really for “recovery”, but as separate intervals where the workout’s true effect is gained. See below for a solid progression of this workout towards a goal race.

  1. 6x 1K @ Half-Marathon Pace/1K @ 95% of HMP (roughly 15-25sec per K slower than HMP) for 12K Total
  2. 8x 1K @ HMP/1K @ 95% of HMP for 16K Total
  3. 10x 1K @ HMP/1K @ 95% of HMP for 20K Total

Third Workout

Tempo Intervals. Often called “cruise intervals”, this run will allow you to spend a significant time right around your estimated lactate threshold. The benefit of this run in comparison to a steady tempo is less muscle break-down, lower levels of cortisol in the bloodstream, and the mental preparedness that comes with running a slightly uneven pace (as in a hilly or competitive race). The brief recoveries keep these runs aerobic. You are going too hard if you “redline” during this session after the first few reps.

The Set-Up: Set your GPS to either miles or kilometers, whichever you feel comfortable with using. The idea is to run continuously while varying your speed intermittently in the form of longer repetitions. You may use rolling hills, a grass field if training for a cross country or trails race, or a flat road to keep things on pace. Try to stay within 5% of your target pace on these, which should be about 15-30sec per mile faster than half-marathon pace for most runners.

The Execution: Warm-up thoroughly, and then run a set of kilometers, miles, or even 3K-5K segments with brief recoveries lasting no more than ¼ of the time spent running fast. This can even be done as a fartlek run using your GPS as a pace monitor. See below for examples.

  1. 6x1600m @ LT Pace w/ 60-90sec Recovery Jogs
  2. 6-8x 5:00 @ LT Pace w/ 60-90sec Recovery Jogs
  3. 5K @ HM Pace, 3:00 Recovery Jog, 3K @ 15K Pace, 2:00 Recovery Jog, 2K @ 10K Pace, 90sec Recovery Jog, 1K @ 8K Pace
  4. 10:00 @ LT Effort, 2:00 Recovery Jog, 5:00 @ LT Effort, 2:00 Recovery Jog, 10:00 @ LT Effort

Why can a GPS help ?

Your GPS unit will liberate you from the confines of a track on these sessions while still enabling you to log a measured, highly effective workout. Using the natural roll and turns on the road will help you prepare for your next race, as it is always prudent to train on similar terrain to that in which you will be racing. Charge your GPS tonight, and take charge of your next workout with confidence tomorrow!

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