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How Fast is Fast?

If you think “tempo” refers to a workout done to the beat of a Taylor Swift revenge track, you’re not alone. Even that die-hard guy from your office who wears the your-pace-or-mine tee-shirt, runs hill repeats in a hailstorm, and tattoos marathon splits onto his forearm isn’t necessarily au courant with the almighty tempo run. In other words, this type of workout is like the scrapple of the running world -- we’ve all heard of it, some of us have even tried it, but most of us would be hard-pressed to explain what, exactly, is involved.

“People tend to blanket everything as speedwork,” said Rich Ryan, founder and head coach at Philadelphia’s Reinforced Running, and Trishmoves devotee. “But tempo running is a very specific thing, and so is the response that you’re looking to get from it.”

So what is this very specific thing? If you boil it down to its most basic definition, a tempo run is a sustained effort at a faster-than-normal pace, but not quite a race pace.  Think comfortably hard. If that sounds like an oxymoron – like “jumbo shrimp” or “flattering race photo” – consider this: During a tempo run, you should be able to speak, but not chitchat.

To estimate your tempo pace, the folks at Runner’s World offer a few methods, including tacking 30 to 40 seconds to your 5k pace, or 15 to 20 seconds to your 10k pace. Or, if you’re into wearable tech, your heartrate should be at 85 to 90 percent of your maximum – that is, an eight of ten on the exertion scale. For those without race experience, Rich recommends setting up a mock 5k in order to pin down baseline numbers. For a top marathoner, a tempo run could be 20 miles long. Newer runners should aim for 20 to 40 minutes.

This kind of running is also known as lactate-threshold running. Without going full Bill-Nye about it, when we run, we metabolize carbohydrates. As a byproduct, we get lactic acid, as well as every runner’s kryptonite -- hydrogen ions. The more these ions accumulate in the body, the greater the burn in a runner’s legs. But by incorporating tempo runs into a training schedule, you can train the body to deal with these ions in a more efficient way. The result? The ability to go faster, longer.

“This is for anyone who wants to improve endurance,” Rich told us. “It’s also a good way to dial into your pace and learn what’s comfortable and hard, but sustainable. But one of the biggest benefits is the mental aspect – this is a good way to practice mental toughness.”

This kind of energy expenditure requires the right pre-run fuel, which – shameless self-plug alert – can be found in a Trishmoves running wheel.

“It has the ideal amount of carbs and protein to ensure you can sustain a hard tempo effort,” Rich said.

And, hey, if you want to listen to Taylor Swift while you tackle that tempo effort, we won’t judge.

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