Learning to Tempo

Tempo runs have notoriously been my kryptonite. Sure I claim long runs my arch nemesis, but tempos always seem to have a way of breaking me and totally blinding me to any of the promising aspects of my training. I’ve come in slumped shoulders and head hanging in (painful) defeat more often than not, and for a workout that seems the most directly translatable to races, it’s not a great feeling.

I can balls out interval, grunt up hills, and progression fast finish run like a champ (most times), but ask me to run at a moderate-hard steady state for an extended period of time and I crumble.

Like most things, I’m sure the problem is 99% in my head. I go in completely fearing the workout, envisioning myself in the 8th layer of pain train hell where incessant Garmin beeps tell me I’m not good enough while I dry heave in the bushes.

How’s that for imagery?

(wanted to MS paint a pic of that for you but too tired, sorry)

So it’s no wonder I put off this week’s tempo until the last possible minute, finally heading out at 9pm simply because I didn’t want to admit to y’all I skipped it in favor of a nap and lazy night on the couch.


here’s a pic of my holey sock and Morton’s Toe, not entirely unrelated to the story since I did wear them on the run, but pretty pointless other than to break up this otherwise photo-less post.

The moonlight and sporadic street lights weren’t quite enough for a clear read on my Garmin screen, so I decided to throw out the pace plan (slightly faster than half marathon pace) and try to run based on effort. Tempo effort = “this hurts, but I can hang here a while longer”

  • p.s. I feel like “run on effort” is totally the hippie runner equivalent of “finding your om” or aligning your chakras or something

Mile one I focused on finding a rhythm, where a slight burn proved my legs were working and my breath quickened but was controlled. I thought about my form – head up, shoulders down, hands hips to nips, knees up, kick your heel – and just tried to settle in.

When Garmin beeped I resisted the urge to check the split, knowing the number would either stress me into speeding up or scare me into slowing down.

For a three mile tempo, obviously similar to a 5k, this next stretch is really what sucks. You’re starting to hurt, are less than halfway done, and aren’t too committed to not consider bagging it. It seems impossible to hang on like this for 10+ more minutes.

When I turned at halfway the slight headwind became a tail and it was all the boost I needed. I refocused on form and trying to maintain that level of uncomfortable-but-manageable effort. No numbers telling me too fast or too slow, just my own conscience voting whether I was working hard enough.

At the 2 mile beep I found myself instinctively picking up the pace. I knew I shouldn’t – constant even-paced miles were the goal here, but I worried that without the data cluing me in that maybe I was slowing down? What felt like 80% effort at the start surely would feel harder by the finish.

That last mile was hard, but I just kept repeating “don’t give in now. don’t give in now.” Just like gutting out those last repeats at the track, I didn’t want to look back on this moment of the run with regret.

7:30, 7:29, 7:13

I jogged through a few mile cool down, writing this post in my head (no attempt at siri dictation this time) as a means of processing the workout. Conclusion? The times I’ve been posting haven’t been significantly better or worse than previous training cycles, but I feel like I’m making huge strides in my mental game this go round. And knowing that’s one of the big, fat, gaping holes in my marathon game? More encouraging than anything Garmin can tell me.

Sarah OUaL


15 thoughts on “Learning to Tempo

  1. My mind always psyches me out when I glance at my Garmin. So much so that I am considering wearing it on my ankle to prevent me from checking it every 30 seconds.


  2. My last training session I really worked on “training my brain” as I called it. I went through a lot of the same stuff. Though – after reading this I’m thinking that I might not do tempos right – I usually run somewhere quicker than Half marathon Race Pace but not somewhere as hard as you (effort wise)…. ? Ack – guess that means I need to push harder…?


    • No, I think you’ve got it right. Shouldn’t feel like a hard, totally cashed finish, I just got carried away (slight downfall of not looking at watch?) I would have ideally stuck to the same pace (sightly faster than half mar) for mile 3. Something to aim for next time and as the workout lengthens, I guess.


  3. My tempo last night turned out well for 3 mi, and involved a meltdown/cooldown/quit running up the last mi long hill. I struggle with tempos too… for all the same reasons. And my poor coach AND sister got an earful of my meltdown over my mental wimpiness. I’ll just chalk it up to tempoing in 90+ heat on a hilly course. But those are the hardest ones for me to handle too…and I have a LOT of work to do to get my head on the same page as the rest of me. Can I move to cali and train with you??


  4. Are you doing a warm up at all for these? I find them necessary for my mental sanity. And for my body to be able to get into a groove. You mentioned the cool down but not a warm up so I just wondered. Might help to start with a nice, easy, slow mile before the tempo!


  5. I know it seems hippie-ish but I do a lot of my runs based on effort… I use the “paces” as guidelines… so if I am supposed to do a tempo run at X pace, I rate how hard or easy X pace is. I get really worked up about not hitting splits so I need to run like this! I also feel like it is good because if you feel good, you don’t worry about holding yourself back and can get in a great run. I don’t know…maybe I really am a hippie :)


  6. You are so speedy! I did a tempo run the other day and even though they are tough they are a great workout! I hope to become as fast as you though!


  7. Hahah I didn’t know many other people knew about “Morton’s Toe.” I used to refer to my second toe on my left foot as E.J. (or extra joint) until I learned the correct term. My last two living spaces have been nicknamed “Morton’s Lair” and “Morton’s Penthouse” after sharing a roof with my second toe.


  8. Whenever I use my garmin, I opt out of setting the pace limits because a) my garmin is ancient and takes a while to give an accurate current pace, b) gives me major anxiety and c) I always over correct. I just check my garmin for a guideline (and to make sure it’s working haha) and try to make a mental note of how it feels to run at that pace.


  9. ahhh tempo runs are my enemy! I almost can’t do them. It’s like running “fast” is not in my genes. I know I’d get so much faster if I’d commit though. All worth it on race day :) — Ericka @ The Sweet Life (sweetlifeericka.com)


  10. I’m using a time-based training program for my marathon this year, and I find that it is really helping my mental game. I tend to leave the Garmin at home more often than not these days, since I can use any ol’ primitive time-keeping device to make sure I run for 45-60 minutes, or whatever the day happens to call for. It’s also really helping me for long runs – I used to have huge mental anxiety over running 16, 18, 20 miles … but somehow saying I’m going to run for 2h30m tricks my brain into being ok with it.

    Speedwork is the last place where I still can’t kick the Garmin dependency. But I’m working on it. I think more often than not, it’s our brains telling us we can’t do something based on dumb digital feedback rather than our bodies. And vice-versa – I don’t need to read my pace off of a screen to tell me I’m going easy. Hippie running! I’m going to start a movement.



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