Tempos vs Intervals

Two quick things to share:

First, my good friend, Kristin (who is also running the LA Marathon – yay!) is running 37 miles on a treadmill on Friday for charity. She is also hosting a virtual race in conjunction with her run (you can win some awesome prizes!). You can read all about it (and how to donate!) here.

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Second, Zulily picked their 10 Favorite Health and Fitness Bloggers and I’m thrilled that I made the list along with some of my friends: Christine, Kristin, Madeline and Katie!

 Fitness Blog


I’ll be the first to admit that until a couple of years ago, I wasn’t completely sure of the difference between tempo and interval workouts. I knew that intervals should be faster than tempos, but I didn’t understand the purpose of either nor did I know what distance/time/pace I should be running them at.

Today, I have a better understanding of their importance as well as how to incorporate them into my training plan (I am constantly learning and improving on this and am NOT an expert by any means!).  I typically aim for two workouts each week during marathon training – often one tempo and interval.


The first word that comes to mind when I think of intervals is the track since that is where they are frequently run. Common distances are 200, 400, 800, and 1600m so doing them on a track provides a flat, traffic-free route while eliminating the need to continually check for pace or distance.

Intervals consist of repeated short segments of fast running separated by slow jogging or complete rest. The intervals allow you to run much faster than you usually do, adapting your body to higher demands and your leg muscles to faster turnover. Over time, you become more physiologically efficient -> Intervals increase your overall speed.

Distance/Time: There are three types of interval workouts and each focus on improving a different aspect of your ability: Short (100-400), Middle Distance (600-1200) and Long (1600-3000). You can read about each of them, what they target, and examples of each type of workout here. The number of repetitions is dependent on the ability of the runner and the length of the interval (among other variables).

Example: 6×400 with 2 minutes of recovery. This means you run 400m at a designated pace followed immediately by 2 minutes of easy running (or complete rest).  Repeat 6 times.

Variations: Interval workouts do not have to be one specific distance. You can mix up some of the distances so it’s a ladder workout (ex: 400, 800, 1600, 800, 400).


According to Jack Daniels, Ph.D, author of Daniel’s Running Formula, a tempo run is “…nothing more than 20 minutes of steady running at threshold pace.  Also known as an anaerobic threshold (AT) run or lactate-threshold run, a tempo run should feel hard – but not too hard – and could be maintained for up to an hour in a race. Tempo or threshold runs serve to increase the speed you can sustain for a prolonged period of time and to increase the time you can sustain that relatively fast pace.

Distance/Time: The duration and pace of a tempo run is dependent on what you are training for, your ability and the coaching method you are following . (Some coaches believe tempos should only last 20-30 minutes while others feel that tempos can last upwards of 60 minutes.) Generally, as your training plan progresses, you want to work on gradually increasing the pace of the tempo run.

Example: In the fall, my marathon training cycle started with tempo runs of 5 miles and built up to 8 miles (not including warmup or cooldown), while  gradually picking up the pace by ~10 seconds.

Variations: The most basic form of a tempo is a continuous run of anywhere from 20-60 min (or sometimes a bit longer). However, you can change it up and do tempo intervals (ex: 2×3 mile or 4×2 mile) or a progression tempo (starting on the slower end of tempo range and picking up pace with each mile)

And you can always get crazy and do a (shorter) tempo with a couple of intervals. I did a workout last training cycle that was one of the most fun workouts I’ve ever done – after a warmup, I did 2×400 (with a 1 minute recovery after everything) followed immediately by a 6 mile tempo and then another 2×400 set. The 4 total 400s are significantly less than a normal 400 workout for me (and the paces were a touch slower) so the focus and intensity was on the tempo portion.

Determining Pace

There are calculators available (for free) that will help determine what your pace should be for interval or tempo workouts. My two favorites are: McMillan Calculator and Maximum Performance Running(*Note: there could be a whole post dedicated to using pace calculators and figuring out paces for these workouts as well as how many reps and how much rest to factor in, but for the purpose of this post, I am just going to list the calculators I like to use.)

I aim for the slower end (or even slower than what is listed on the calculators above) for the first few workouts to gauge how I feel. I would rather do the workout 5-10 seconds slower but get the whole workout in than start too fast and have to call it quits after a few miles or repetitions.

Do you incorporate tempo and interval workouts in your training plan?

How often do you do them?

Have you combined a tempo and interval before? 


I don’t post here every day, but I post all of my workouts (and other happenings) on Instagram on a daily basis {NYCRunningMama}.

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    21 thoughts on “Tempos vs Intervals

    1. I will immediately seize your rss feed as I can’t in finding
      your e-mail subscription hyperlink or newsletter service.
      Do you have any? Please allow me realize so that I could subscribe.
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    2. Pingback: Will I EVER like tempo runs!? | Endorphins Junkie

    3. I definitely incorporate both when I’m training, but I hateeee tempo runs. During NYC Marathon training I h ad to do them once a week, and it was actually ok towards the end. My issue is I am always afraid I won’t be able to maintain the pace, so I’d always be nervous before tempo runs. I love track workouts though!
      Patty @ Reach Your Peak recently posted..Runners And SuperstitionsMy Profile

    4. I’m much better about doing intervals than tempos, mainly for the reason that I am bad about backing off after tempo segments (i.e. cooling down). I do much more progression runs than tempos, but I am trying to be better about doing tempo runs for real. I love intervals, I think that stems from being a track athlete in high school and college. Track feels like home to me.
      Laura @losingrace recently posted..Boston Training: 2 Steps Back, 3 Steps FowardMy Profile

    5. I am not great about changing up my paces other than that if I’m running shorter I run faster. I will do fartleks or speed intervals some on the treadmill occasionally, but not a critical part of training.

      This cycle I’m using the Runner’s World Smart Coach and it includes both, as well as giving me paces for each run. I’m scared and excited about it.
      Cyanne (RunStretchGo) recently posted..How Different my Life Would BeMy Profile

    6. This is a really great explanation of the differences. I only recently started running a bit again; I really couldn’t blame the weight on our 4 year old and 2 year old anymore 😉
      Not really aiming for a marathon any time soon, but since I’m very unfit would you suggest focusing more on intervals than tempos? At the moment I still find it difficult to keep going for more than a couple of miles.



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    8. I have one tempo run and one speed workout (intervals) every week. I like the tempo run…do not like the speed. But both are important. Speed days, which was today, just make me feel quite so exhausted….
      Holly recently posted..Wednesday’s childMy Profile

    9. When I’m training I usually do both types of runs each week. I’ve never combined them though – great idea! When I’m not training I still try to do a weekly tempo run to keep some speed but without the stress of intervals.
      Andrea @ The Fit Scoop recently posted..10 minutesMy Profile

    10. I am a soccer player turned runner and I continue to play soccer throughout my training (I’m training for my first marathon right now), so I usually count my soccer games as intervals. I’ve been using the Galloway training method (run-walk-run), and I’ve seen great improvements in both my soccer games as well as my ability to run for long distances. I would definitely recommend intervals if you’re looking to increase your speed!

    11. I just started doing interval workouts on Tuesdays and tempo workouts on Thursdays. My training plan is based on the Hanson’s Marathon Method so tempo workouts to them mean “race pace.” I’m still trying to figure out what pace to do these speedier runs at!
      tara @ tara goes streaking recently posted..Day 62: 8.0 milesMy Profile

    12. I learned last training cycle to embrace these workouts, and typically did them each once a week. I always dread them in a good way. I love the sense of accomplishment after completing a tough workout. And tempo’s definitely help build confidence prior to race day.
      Gianna @ Run, Lift, Repeat recently posted..Being a “Fitness Snob”My Profile

    13. I do both, once a week. An interval run with 8-12 intervals at a speed that is very fast for me (My legs are pretty much toast by the last interval), and a tempo run of about 30 minutes, at a pace that is relatively fast but that I can maintain.