Coach Will: Tempo Runs Part One - Aerobic Threshold

Tempo Runs Part One: ​Aerobic Threshold

As runners we all hear these buzz words that are thrown around by our running companions. Things like tempo runs, lactate threshold, fartlek, max vO2, the list goes on and on. It can be a bit intimidating early on as you’re learning meanings of the numerous running jargon.  In this blog post, I hope to give you the upper hand when you are sitting around the coffee table with friends and everyone is throwing around their “I’m an expert” running card.

To quote the Princess Bride, “You keep using that word.. I do not think it means what you think it means.” What a great movie and a great quote that can be applied to the catch phrase “tempo run”.  A tempo is simply a run at a certain percentage of your max heart rate that is faster than easy pace. There are actually three different types of tempo runs. Over the course of the next three blog posts, I will delve into the details and training benefits of each type. There are certain types of tempo runs that can and should be applied to your training at the right times. In this post, we will discuss the aerobic threshold tempo and why this is the foundation for the other two types of tempo runs.

In order to understand the aerobic threshold tempo, we need to understand what the word aerobic means. Aerobic conditioning is the improvement of the body’s ability to transport and absorb oxygen. Oxygen is present at the time of exercise during the aerobic threshold. During this process, the body is able to use oxygen and burn primarily fats, carbohydrates and some proteins. There is a range in the pH levels in our blood that can alter or change during different intensities of exercise. Anaerobic for example, means there is a lack of oxygen present and the blood actually becomes more acidic therefore, the pH levels change. We will save the discussion of anaerobic training for another blog post. When you run aerobically, your body is able to use all of the oxygen that you take into your lungs and you exhale out what is not used. This is a happy equilibrium of a sustainable oxygen balance during your workout. As it relates to heart rate (abbreviated HR going forward) the typical zone at which the aerobic threshold falls into is between 65-80% of max HR. Max HR meaning, the highest number of beats per minute your heart can cycle through. It is important to note that through proper training, you can actually increase your aerobic threshold (percentage of max HR) and here’s how.

Typically aerobic threshold workouts are more geared and focused towards the longer tempo run (6-14 miles). After all, we’re attempting to run at a faster pace than easy runs, for long durations of time. By sub maximally pushing your body in that 65-80% of max HR zone, you actually increase your body’s efficiency to burn fats and carbs, the primary fuel source of aerobic running. THIS IS THE FOUNDATIONAL BLOCK FOR ALL ANAEROBIC EXERCISE. Why is that? If you’re able to increase your aerobic threshold from 70% of max HR to 80% of max HR, you decrease the time spent anaerobically. As I said earlier, we will get into anaerobic exercise in another post, but anaerobic exercise in a nutshell cannot be sustained and eventually the body fails (due to lack of O2) and cannot operate at the same running pace. For the trained athlete this means that they stay aerobic at a higher heart rate level or faster running pace for longer periods of time than the untrained athlete. By staying aerobic and burning fats and carbs, this athlete is able to perform at a higher level and run faster for longer durations of time.  

running bridge

Well that’s great, how do I apply that to my own training? I’m so glad you asked! Remember the all caps sentence above that said “THIS IS THE FOUNDATIONAL BLOCK FOR ALL ANAEROBIC EXERCISE”. Yes that sentence. No different than the old saying, you have to crawl before you walk, walk before you run, you must focus on building up and strengthening the aerobic system first before pouring on anaerobic training. The aerobic system is the catalyst for the speed work that follows. At the cellular level we have mitochondria that populate our cells. During aerobic exercise our bodies are able to replicate and increase the size of the mitochondria, which are also known as the “power houses” of our cells. In the mitochondria, ATP is created. ATP stands for Adenosine Triphosphate, which captures energy from broken down food nutrients. Through more medical jargon than you probably care to read about, this allows for the release of energy from the cells that power our heart, lungs and working muscles. The more aerobic training, or in this case, aerobic threshold training we do, the more efficient our body is at clearing lactate. This creates a stronger buffer that allows us to train in a higher aerobic zone before going anaerobic. No different than the construction of a house, the foundation of the house allows for a sturdy and sound foundation. This foundation allows for quicker recovery times between anaerobic sessions such as intervals, lactate threshold runs etc. This is where it’s absolutely vital to focus on the aerobic threshold during the early phases of your training block or season.

The following are examples of aerobic threshold workouts for in this example, a 3:30:00 marathoner. For easier translation on paces prescribed; 3:30 is about 8:00 mi/pace for reference. Here’s a snapshot of what 4 weeks in the early season might look like for a 3:30 marathoner.

Week 1: 5mi @ 7:50-8:00

Week 2: 2x 3mi @ 7:40-7:50 w/ 2min rest between sets

Week: 3: 5x 1mi @ 7:25-7:35 w/ 60s rest between each

Week 4: 8mi @ 7:55-8:05

That’s great Coach Will, but I’m not a marathoner. Okay, another example of this for say a high school runner who trains for 5ks would be the following. Let’s assume this high school runner is in approximately 19:00 shape for 5k (6:07 mi/pace).

 Week 1: 3mi @ 6:45-6:55

Week 2: 2x 2mi tempo @ 6:40-6:50 w/ 2min rest between sets

Week 3: 3x 1mi @ 6:30-6:40 w/ 60s rest between each

Week 4: 4mi @ 6:50-7:00

 It’s important to understand that this is solely focusing on the aerobic threshold component. There are several moving parts to every training program throughout the different phases of training. I merely list these single workouts as example of a progression one might have given their respective fitness times outlined in the example. Things such as speed maintenance and long runs all play a roll in the early season cycle when aerobic threshold tempos are used.

 You are now officially an expert on aerobic threshold tempo runs! Over the next couple of blog posts I will dive into the differences between anaerobic threshold tempo runs and lactate threshold tempo runs. If you are unsure on how to place aerobic thresholds into your training routine, feel free to shoot me an email!

 -Coach Will

 If you enjoyed this read or have questions for Coach Will, let him know by sending him an email at

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  1. Michael's avatar
    | Permalink
    Great post.<br /> Thanks for sharing the information.<br /> I see too many runners who have no idea what a 'tempo run' is supposed to be. All too often I see them trying to run as fast as they can, just like in speed work. Or the opposite, running speed work at what should be a tempo run pace.<br /> <br /> Thanks again for the information.<br /> <br /> Michael
  2. Will Rodgers's avatar
    Will Rodgers
    | Permalink
    Thanks Michael! Best of luck with your training.<br /> <br /> -Coach Will
  3. Michael Helms's avatar
    Michael Helms
    | Permalink
    Great article! I am trying to increase my aerobic threshold. I am heart rate training for the first time. I am in the base building stage and have seen my MAF pace go down significantly, from 10:15 (this summer) to about 8:15. Not sure if my body is ready, but I really need to push my aerobic threshold up a little, to be able to sustain exercise at a slightly higher heart rate than 155, ideally. MAF HR for me is 140-5

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Brandon York

When I finished my collegiate cross-country and track career, I felt burned out and unmotivated to continue running. As a result, I quit running for over 2 years and, as expected, lost a lot of conditioning during that time. I was out of shape. Eventually, when I decided to start running again, I needed a coach and motivation. Enter the guys from My coach Will lit the fire in me to get fast again! In a little over 2 years time, he took me from a high school level fitness to beating my college PRs in the 5k and 10k and even running well in longer races like 15k and 10 miles. With his guidance, I now have a realistic chance of qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials!

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