Off Tempo

Why are tempo runs so difficult?

The Hansons Half Marathon Method plan defines tempo runs as race-pace runs at a shorter distance than the race. They are touted as a proving ground for learning control, pacing, and pace maintenance. I don’t get what makes them so mentally/physically difficult for me. A five mile run at your half-marathon race pace doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. I’ve been focusing on the purported benefits recently to try to get more mentally into it:

The benefits of tempo work include:

// helps you to internalize half-marathon goal pace

// teaches you to control and maintain pace

// chance to experiment with nutrition, hydration, gear

// improved running economy at goal pace

// improved endurance

Hansons Half Marathon Method, Ch. 3, “Training Program Components”

It makes sense that practicing longer and longer runs at race pace is a good way to get used to what you will put yourself through on race Day. That’s why it’s pretty disappointing that I’ve been struggling with this part of the program more than any other. Even the slog of running six days a week has been easier to achieve than hitting my goal tempo paces; I don’t think I’ve hit my goal pace since very early in the program on the first 3-mile tempo run.

Photo by Pixabay fromĀ Pexels

It’s been an awful and history rainy season in the Seattle area. This Thursday, I woke up at 6AM hoping I’d knock my 5-mile tempo run out early. It was cold, dark, and raining unusually hard. I just couldn’t bring myself to leave the house, and I committed to running just after work. But running after work wasn’t great either. It was still raining, and the park I chose to run at was muddy and soft. I was tired and hungry; I felt out of gas 1 mile into the run, and basically gave up 2 miles into the workout. I cashed out early and moped through the rest of the day.

On a more positive note, I made up for it the next day, slipping a full 5-mile tempo run into what was supposed to be 6 easy miles. Yet the pace was still at least 20-30 seconds slower than my goal.

So what’s going on here?

  • The obvious culprit is that I set a bad goal — If I had chosen an appropriate goal, I’d be able to hit the paces consistently, right? I don’t want to believe this one even though rationally I know it’s the most likely explanation. There’s still a part of me that reflects on my running life and sees that I always run faster on race day than my training paces would indicate. But that feels like a copy out.
  • I’ve had a history of dogging practice in a variety of aspects of my life. From faking slide trombone practice logs as a fourth grader to cramming for exams at the last minute through college and grad school, self-discipline with practice rituals has never been my strong suit.
  • Maybe I haven’t fully adjusted to cumulative fatigue?
  • Maybe I don’t rest, hydrate, or eat well enough to support my increased running load?
  • I did just come off of twelve days of being sick. Maybe I’m still expecting too much too soon?

I’m not sure, but for now I guess the best first step is to scale back and reset expectations again.

How do you think of tempo runs as a part of your training? What’s your secret to hitting your goal for this style of workout?

Published by Jordan Atlas

Sharing my thoughts about running as an almost real adult.

4 thoughts on “Off Tempo

  1. I’ve always found tempo runs to be unusually hard, as well. Even on Monday night runs, I find it difficult to run 8 minute miles for 4-5 miles, but somehow I can pull off half marathons at that pace (adrenaline?). Definitely feeling a bit apprehensive about starting the Hanson tempo runs in a few weeks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think adrenaline has a lot to do with it. I’m (slowly) coming around to the idea that training is just about making the practice as close as is reasonable to the real race without burning yourself out. It will never be exactly the same, but hopefully if it’s incrementally closer the race will feel easier.

      For now, on tempos I’m just giving myself permission to be where I am… Hoping that if I keep hitting good times on the track workouts eventually the tempos will fall in line.


  2. As I’ve mentioned to you, I used Hansons to train for my first two marathons and plan to use it again this year. Objectively, the speed work was the hardest for me. I often simply failed to meet the goal pace for the longer (1200+) intervals. Having done more and better track work since, I’m curious as to whether I’ll find it easier to hit the marks this time.

    But mentally the tempo runs were the hardest, although I usually met or came close to my goal pace. I think that’s partly because I consider those to be the most important workouts, so I don’t cut myself as much slack. And yes, it is discouraging to have so much difficulty running race pace for, say, one-third of the race distance during training. It makes it hard to believe you can complete the race. Especially the first time through a training plan, you need to have a lot of faith in the coach. Since I had very good results with Hansons, it’s easy for me to maintain that faith.

    On thing that I think can help is to schedule two or three races during the training. Yes, they upset the training schedule a bit, but they can be big confidence boosters. I’ve found that my tempo runs improved after races. In fact, and certainly contrary to Hansons orthodoxy, I actually ran races of 15 and 20 miles (in the Ft. Steilacoom Resolution Run series). While the physiological benefit of those is debatable, the psychological benefit was great, since I’d never races that far before and was aiming to race farther. But even shorter races–I ran an 8K, not very competitively, a month before the marathon–can help remind you how to run hard for the sort of distance demanded of the tempo runs.


    1. Thanks David for the comment and apologies that it took me a bit to notice that this was in the “approval” queue.

      I like the idea of scheduling races during the training as a way to build confidence. I used to think it possible to “race into shape”, and that’s probably more a mental thing than a physiological effect.

      There’s also something about the race-day itself that I can’t ever really capture in my tempo runs: There’s more energy/adrenaline, and I also probably take more time to set myself up for success (adequate sleep and nutrition, mental prep with proper time for warming up, etc.).

      It’s strange to consider that when you wrote this comment, we basically lived in a different world.


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