How to run at race pace: The science and benefits behind intervals and tempo runs

Your race pace is the speed you plan to run throughout the duration of a race. Without a proper strategy in place you run the risk of going too slow and not running at your full potential. Or running too hard and burning out halfway through. Obviously this pace will vary depending on the distance of the event. Your 5/10km pace will be a lot faster than your half/full marathon pace. One of the biggest issues on race day is knowing what pace you should hold for the duration of the event. This pace can be estimated for specific distances by your training performance. 

How to calculate race pace

There are different methods you can utilise to calculate your race pace. Even if you think you already know your own race pace, it’s worth trying these methods. You might be able to run faster than you think!

Find a baseline

First of all, you want to find a baseline running pace. This will provide you with a measurement of your current ability. It also allows you to assess and track your performance. 

The easiest way of finding this pace is by completing a 5km and tracking the average pace or the pace of your last kilometre. If completing a 5km is your goal, run one mile and use this as your baseline performance. 

Use online calculators

Once you have a baseline pace you can predict your race pace using online calculators. The online calculators will give you a very broad range of times to meet. Alternatively, to find your 10km pace you should add 20-30s onto your 5km pace. And add 20-30s onto your 10km pace to find your half-marathon pace. 

Group running intervals
Image by Nike

These methods have no real scientific backing. They are used to give you a ballpark figure on what pace may be best, based on your current performance. It can then be a bit of trial and error to find a pace that feels challenging but sustainable. Incorporating tempo sessions into your training will paint a clearer picture of what pace is going to be most beneficial for your ability.

Energy availability: the physiological aspect of your race pace

I think it is important to highlight some key physiological terms alongside providing some key information on energy processes within the body before we get into the bulk of the article.

  • Aerobic capacity: Your body’s ability to consume, transport and utilise oxygen to fuel exercise. 
  • Lactate threshold: The exercise intensity where your blood concentration of lactic acid/lactate is produced faster than it can be utilised. 

Being able to utilise and buffer lactate more efficiently will have huge benefits on your race pace.

The key sources of energy

Your body will utilise energy through oxidative metabolism (aerobic pathways) during easy exercise intensity, predominantly utilising fats as a fuel. As the intensity increases, the aerobic pathways alone cannot keep up with the energy demand. Your body will additionally fuel the exercise through carbohydrates and anaerobic pathways, called anaerobic glycolysis. 

This is where the body’s energy molecule (adenosine triphosphate or ATP) is produced in the absence of oxygen. 

During glycolysis, the body will also produce a substance called pyruvate and hydrogen ions. Due to the influx of hydrogen ions the muscles become increasingly acidic. This is the burning sensation we feel during intense exercise. Without oxygen, pyruvate binds to the leftover hydrogen ions creating a substance called lactate. The lactate is then either oxidised to provide energy or removed from the muscle to reduce the acidity of the cells. This allows us to exercise for longer. Once we hit an intensity where we cannot remove enough lactate from the muscles, we will need to reduce the intensity to be able to continue exercising. 

The impact of lactate on your speed

It is important to highlight the role of lactate here. The build-up of lactate is not the cause for pain when exercising. It is essentially used as a buffering tool to stop the muscles becoming too acidic so we can exercise at greater intensities for longer. Even when the lactate is successfully removed from the muscles, it is then transported to muscles which have oxygen available so it can be broken down by the aerobic pathways and used as energy again. Being able to utilise and buffer lactate more efficiently will have huge benefits on your race pace. I realise this section is quite heavy on physiology, but it will allow you to paint a clearer picture when we go into exercise intensities. 

Tempo vs. Interval Training

Ultimately, all the training you do is to improve your ‘race pace’. 

There are several different training methods you can utilise to promote specific physiological adaptations which can improve your speed endurance, aerobic capacity, lactate threshold, and mental capacity. Interval training and tempo sessions have proven to progress your ‘race pace’ most efficiently. To understand the different benefits of these sessions, we need to highlight the physiological adaptations brought about by working at these intensities. 

Interval Training

Interval sessions are when you repetitively produce intense, hard efforts followed by periods of easy recovery. These sessions stress both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, as you deplete your muscle glycogen stores during the short bursts, with the aerobic energy system refuelling the muscles by converting stored carbohydrate back into energy using oxygen. The intervals will be at intensities greater than your anaerobic threshold and last for <10s up to 4-5 minutes. Your recovery time between sets will also vary based on the goals of your training sessions. Interval workouts have shown to enhance your maximal aerobic capacity, increase your stroke volume and improve your mitochondria capacity and function. 

Interval workouts have shown to enhance your maximal aerobic capacity

These sessions will also help increase your stride length and cadence, resulting in a more efficient leg turnover and movement efficiency. Although these sessions initially feel very taxing and can take a few days to recover from, the more you do them the more your body will get used to the stress and be able to recover more effectively.

Interval sessions should always be completed above your desired race pace. The key to interval sessions is finding that faster pace you can maintain throughout the set and not fade on the last couple of efforts. The more interval sessions you complete, the better you will be at assessing what pace you can maintain.

Short, fast interval training

If you are aiming to build upon your 5-10km times then shorter, faster intervals are going to be most effective. You want to train your body to deal with the stress at these maximal intensities, improving your ability to tolerate and clear the accumulation of lactate. Example sessions include: 

  • 10 x 200m; 30 seconds recovery 
  • 10 x 800m; 60 seconds recovery 
  • 6 x 1km, 90 seconds recovery 

Longer distance interval training

If your goal is to improve longer distance running, you will get the most benefit out of longer duration intervals, where you are aiming to really push that anaerobic endurance. Example sessions include: 

  • 6 x 1km; 3-minutes rest 
  • 6 x 3-minutes; 2-minutes rest 
  • 5 x 5-minutes, 3-minutes rest

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Tempo Training

Tempo sessions, otherwise referred to as lactate threshold runs, are to be completed at a comfortably hard effort where you are working just above your comfort zone but not maximally exerting yourself. Ideally, you want to work at an intensity where you are at your lactate/anaerobic threshold, when you are maximally producing and removing lactate in perfect harmony. This pace should not feel like a race effort; you should not be able to hold a conversation but be able to say a few words. This intensity broadly speaking sits at around 75% of your maximal aerobic capacity or at 85% of your maximal heart rate. Additionally, the maximal pace you can hold for about 60-minutes of running, with sessions usually lasting between 20-40 minutes.

There are several different training methods you can utilise to promote specific physiological adaptations which can improve your speed endurance, aerobic capacity, lactate threshold, and mental capacity.

Tempo sessions have some great benefits to your performance as they train your body to deal with running at greater intensities for a longer duration. This happens through several physiological adaptations. First off, tempo running is the most effective method to enhance your lactate threshold. It allows your body to become more efficient at buffering lactate, meaning you can maintain greater efforts for a longer duration. Tempo running also develops a mental toughness as you are required to train outside of your comfort zone, which will have great benefits on race day. It has the greatest specificity to racing as you are required to run at greater intensities without a rest, and these workouts also provide a large quantity of your training load.

For tempo sessions, your pace will vary slightly based on the duration of the session. Generally the rule of thumb with tempo running is to maintain a speed that you could hold for 1-hour. This is usually somewhere between 20-40s slower than your 5km pace. 

Tempo sessions for shorter distances

During your tempo session it is also beneficial to add in a recovery section where you drop the intensity by about 10% to let your body recover for 500m or so. This not only allows you to maintain the intensity of the session but allows you to mentally break up the session a little bit more. Similarly to interval sessions, if you are training for shorter distances then shorter tempo efforts are going to be more effective at impacting your performance. A typical session would include anything from 3-10km of tempo effort. For example: 

  • 4/5 x 1km tempo effort; 0.5km recovery between sets 
  • 4/5 x 1mile tempo effort; 0.5km recovery between sets

And for longer distances

If you are building for longer distances, then longer tempo efforts are recommended. A typical session would include anything from 10-20/30km. Examples include: 

  • 6 x 3km tempo effort; 0.5km recovery between sets 
  • 2 x 10/15km, 0.5km recovery between sets

The benefits of adding tempo sessions to your long runs

What benefits?

Including tempo efforts during long runs is a very time-efficient method of applying these sessions into your training. As previously mentioned, tempo sessions allow you to train with more specificity to racing, but it also accumulates for a large quantity of your training load. Including tempo efforts will also place a greater stress on your aerobic and anaerobic energy systems simultaneously. 

What does it look like?

These sessions generally look like 10km running at a slow pace, followed by 20/30-minutes at tempo effort and then 5/10km back at a slow pace. You will start your tempo effort with more miles in the legs, causing a greater fatigue that you are more likely to experience on race day. Similarly, following the tempo effort you will experience a greater fatigue. This will build on your mental resilience for when you feel this in the last few kilometres of a race. It not only has great physiological advantages but improves the overall quality of your training and really helps to develop your race pace.

Tempo sessions have some great benefits to your performance as they train your body to deal with running at greater intensities for a longer duration.

It is important to note the difference between tempo intensity and your race pace. During tempo efforts you maintain an intensity which is sustainable and of relative intensity between your max effort and easy effort session. Your ‘race pace’ needs to be calculated based on the duration of the run and your abilities. Tempo sessions will allow you to paint a picture on what intensities you can sustain for a variety of durations. During races you want to be working at your maximum for that duration, so you need to plan ahead and get the intensity correct. For 5/10km this pace will be greater than your tempo effort, and for half/full marathon this may fall just behind. 

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How regularly do I need to do these types of sessions?

The most beneficial method of training for professional, semi-professional and recreational athletes is by following a ‘polarised’ training program. This is where up to about 75-80% of all your training is completed at a relatively easy intensity. And the rest is completed at moderately or high intensity. Both tempo and interval sessions would fall into the moderately to high intensity exercise category. Based on your training volume and period of the season, regularity of these sessions will vary. Ideally you start with one tempo session a week. Build on this as you get closer to racing season to really impact your race pace. You want to ensure you slowly build up your tempo efforts, and do not fall into progressing too quickly.

Achieve maximal results with polarised training. This is where up to about 75-80% of all your training is completed at a relatively easy intensity, and the rest is completed at moderately or high intensity.

Regarding interval sessions, once or twice per week is usually optimal to see improvements. However this will depend on the intensity and duration of the workouts. You need to ensure that you allow your body to fully recover from sessions of maximal intensity. If not you will not fully benefit from the workout and risk overtraining or burning out. I would recommend at least 72h between interval sessions and tempo efforts to allow for full recovery. Listen to your body and very gradually increase your workload and/or intensity to reduce the likelihood of injury and to get the best performance gains out of each session.

Ultimately, your lactate threshold is going to have the greatest impact on your endurance performance and therefore your race pace. Incorporating tempo and interval sessions into your programs is going to have a huge benefit on your ability to sustain greater intensities during your performance. Including tempo efforts in your long run is time efficient and not only enhances your physical racing abilities, but also provides a greater mental enhancement. 

Practise, practise, practise

Finding your race pace can take a bit of practise based on the race distance. Incorporating tempo sessions is going to give you a great idea of what intensity will optimise your racing performance. Thus allowing you to run at your full potential. Hopefully this article gives you a good idea on how to find and assess your race pace. And gives you some insight into the benefit of incorporating tempo efforts into your longer distance sessions.