All You Need to Know About Threshold & Tempo Runs

Are you looking to improve your race times for your next marathon or half marathon? Threshold running and tempo running are two closely related techniques for improving your endurance, speed and stamina. Threshold and tempo runs are about increasing the threshold at which your body clears lactate (lactic acid) from your bloodstream. They should definitely be part of any marathon training plan.

So, what is a running threshold, and what do threshold and tempo running involve?

What is a running threshold?

When you go running, your body produces lactic acid which builds up in your bloodstream. If there is too much lactate in your blood, this causes lots of pain and will likely bring your run to a grinding halt.

Now, if you are reasonably fit, your body is able to clear most lactate whilst you are running steadily and you will not pass your lactate threshold. It is only when you sprint or go particularly fast that you start to go past this running threshold.

The good news is that you can increase the threshold at which lactate builds up with threshold and tempo runs. That means you can go faster for longer, without getting worn out.

To increase your running threshold, you first need to know how to calculate it.

How to calculate your running threshold

There are several ways you can figure out what your threshold running pace is. Some are technical and highly accurate, others are fairly rudimentary, but still effective:

  • Get your lactate threshold scientifically studied: If you want to know your precise running threshold, you can visit a sports science laboratory where you will run on a treadmill and have your blood tested. This data will give you the most accurate information on your lactate threshold. However, it's an expensive process that's only really necessary for professional runners.
  • Use a running watch: Generally speaking, your body will reach its running threshold when it is at about 85-90% of maximum heart rate. Certain kinds of running watches are able to monitor your heart rate and give you a good idea of what your threshold is.
  • Calculate against your race time:Threshold running pace is often considered to be just a little faster than your average pace at a half marathon. If you have experience of doing several races, you can use your running time to figure out your mile or kilometre speed. A threshold run is simply a little bit faster than your race speed.

If, for example, you run a mile at half marathon pace in 10 minutes, your threshold running pace would be around 9:45.

  • How it feels: This is perhaps the least scientific way of establishing your threshold running pace, yet for many runners it still gives a pretty good gauge. A threshold run is simply one that feels comfortably hard - you should not be completely out of breath as if you were taking part in a 5K race, but it should certainly be tougher than a casual jog. The point is that you should be able to continue running many miles at this speed without needing to stop.

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Tempo running and threshold running

Tempo runs and threshold runs are two kinds of training which are designed to increase your running threshold. They are very similar, but there is a slight difference.

Threshold running involves running at - or just below - your current threshold level. Your body will become more efficient at clearing lactate at this pace and therefore allow you to gradually build your pace.

  • Threshold run example: If your running threshold is 10 minutes per mile, you would do a gradual warm up for two miles, then run at around 9:55 per mile for four miles, then drop back to a slower pace for the final two miles.

Tempo running involves running slightly slower than your threshold level, but for a longer distance than a threshold run. The aim is to get into a comfortable rhythm that you can sustain for a long distance. This will get your body used to running at a sustained pace for a long time – which is vital for marathon training.

  • Tempo run example: If your running threshold is 8 minutes per mile, you would do a gradual warm up for two miles, then run at around 8:15 per mile for eight miles, then drop back to a slower pace for the final two miles.

Benefits of tempo runs and threshold runs

Building tempo running and threshold running into your marathon training plan provides multiple benefits. These include:

  • Boosting your overall endurance
  • Allowing you to run faster for longer
  • Making your body more efficient at clearing lactate
  • Increasing your maximum heart rate
  • Increase your VO2 max
  • Helping you to cut fatigue
  • Improving your marathon time

Other tips for tempo or threshold running

Running at your threshold is certainly challenging. Here are some tips to make threshold and tempo runs easier:

  • Listen to music: Choosing a playlist of songs at a higher beat per minute can get you into the mood for running at pace.
  • Run with a friend: Running with other people can get you into a rhythm and motivate you to go further.
  • Run on track or treadmill: Running on a track or a treadmill for tempo runs and threshold runs allows you to very accurately monitor your speed and distance.
  • Avoid running in adverse conditions: Doing tempo or threshold running in wind and rain makes doing these exercises harder. It is preferable to do them during calm weather.
  • Try other exercises: Check out our guides to other running training methods such as Fartlek training or interval training.

Go further with tempo and threshold running

If you are building up to a marathon or another long-distance race, choosing to do threshold and tempo runs will certainly help to improve your overall time, speed and endurance. And with the right running gear and training plan, you should start to see an improvement in no time.