What’s the Difference: Tempo Runs, Intervals, and Fartleks
The more you train, the more you gain, someone pithily said to me as they stood over my broken body sprawled on the hot sidewalk. I appreciated them taking the time to stand there and deliver pearls of wisdom because their head was blocking out the sun.
At the time, it seemed to me the more you trained, the more you were in pain. This running until your lungs burst thing wasn’t anything like the chatty, Sunday morning social jogs I thought I was signing up for. I expected to feel renewed after my runs, instead I was feeling like someone chucked a spear into my side somewhere on my last loop around the block.
Looking back, I was fortunate to have someone around who knew a thing or two about improving my runs. She helped me grow from a bouncing, plodding jogger who finished 5k fun runs just in front of the jogging strollers and chihuahuas in costumes into a sleek racing machine (at least in my head). Every time I snag an age group top finisher medal, I know I owe it all to her, even though I felt like killing her every time she yelled, “now sprint!”
I figure, the best way to pass along what I learned is to tell you about techniques like intervals, fartleks, and tempo runs then let you decide how you wish to torture yourself. Consider it “50 Shades of Safety Orange.”
Before I get into telling you about these three training workouts, I’ll answer the question that’s likely splatted across the front of your brain like a swatted mosquito. Why? Why do any of these workouts? Let’s be honest with each other, if you have no interest in improving your running abilities, then go read this other article. Bye! For everyone else, these workouts will massively increase your speed and endurance while improving your mental toughness. They are often grouped together and they may seem the same at first glance, but they each focus on a different aspect of fitness. This article is to help familiarize you with the differences. It’s not a how-to. Check the Secrets of Running Tips & Tricks page for those.
Torturing Tempo Runs
Tempo runs, or threshold runs, are great for distance runners and those who want to try running or racing at distances greater than 10k. The aim of tempo runs is to improve your body’s lactate threshold, which is thought to be the point at which the body starts to accumulate more lactic acid than it can effectively clear (although the relationship between lactic acid and muscle performance is still being studied). Tempo runs are long, sustained runs at 80 to 90% of your maximum ability. Imagine yourself sprinting because you thought you were being chased by a bear, but realized it was only a shaggy dog with a slobbery tennis ball in its mouth so you slightly let off the gas. Often this level of effort is described as running fast enough to feel like you are pushing yourself, but you can still carry on a conversation. My problem with this description is that I can’t carry on a conversation while running at any speed. A tempo run pace is really one of those “you’ll know it when you get there” kind of things.
What do tempo runs help with?
Lactate acid threshold: Tempo runs help your body deal with lactic acid more efficiently so that you can run at a faster pace for a longer period of time.
Aerobic capacity: Sustained running at the 80–90% intensity level strengthens your cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
Mental toughness: Finding the inner strength to maintain such a challenging pace over a longer period enhances your mental resilience which might be just what you need to reach the finish line.
Are tempo runs right for you?
If your running goals or target races match any of the categories below then you should either focus on tempo runs or add them to your existing training regimen.
Distance: You are a serious runner building endurance for longer distances.
Pace: You want to improve both the level and consistency of your pace during runs and races over 10k.
Toughness: You need to build mental toughness and discipline as a strong base for future achievements.
Intimidating Interval Training (aka Intervals)
Interval training, as the name suggests, involves alternating between high-intensity bursts and low-intensity recovery periods. The high-intensity periods are performed at or near your maximum effort level and then immediately followed by a welcome recovery period, allowing your heart rate to drop significantly. The torture is repeated several times until you basically want to curl up in a whimpering ball on the side of the road. As much as I complain about interval training, it tends to be my go-to strategy for seeing inspiring improvement. It’s also a good workout if you are short on free time and can help improve your running regardless of distance and performance level.
What does interval training help with?
Increased top speed: Interval training pushes your body to increase its maximum effort level, improving your overall speed and extending how long you can maintain your bursts of all-out effort.
Improved VO2 max: Intervals increase your ability to utilize oxygen during your highest-intensity efforts.
Is interval training right for you?
If your training goals or race distances match any of the categories below embrace interval training or find a way to work in interval training sessions into your existing training regimen.
Speed junkies: You are a track athlete or middle-distance runner who wants to enhance your overall and, especially, top-end speed.
VO2 max maniacs: You have discovered the VO2 max metric and want to quickly see improvements.
You have a job and family: You don’t have a lot of free time to work out, but you want to improve your running at all levels as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Fartlek (and about a dozen variations that have entertained high school track and cross country kids for decades) is a Swedish word that is usually translated to “speed play.” It combines the training methods of intervals and tempo runs but throws in a glob of laid back Swedish attitude. The fartlek workout calls for variations in pace like the others but without the structure. The runners themselves or some sadistic coach with a whistle selects when to start and stop the periods of increased speed and intensity.
What do you get from fartleks (other than the giggles)?
Improved speed and adaptability: Fartleks allow you to vary your pace to suit your goals and experiment.
Flexibility: Need longer between sprints to get your breath back? No problem. Want to try stepping up the intensity of your sprints that doesn’t fit into the structure of tempo runs or intervals? Go fartleking.
Are fartleks right for you?
Do you hate structure? Are you an anarchist? Do you want to look like you know what you’re doing when you really have no clue? Do you have a gaggle of high school track and field students that are getting too chatty? If yes, then I see a fartlek future.
Beginning runners: Fartleks are ideal for runners of all levels and experience, especially those who may not be able to maintain the bursts of energy required to follow the more rigid methods.
People who like to say the word fartlek: Fartlek!
Tempo Fartlek Interval Runs
Just about every runner can find some benefit from each of these training methods. Which you choose to focus on is a matter of your training goals and where you are in your personal running journey. I haven’t gone into the specifics of each method, but you can easily find guides to each of them on the internet and in running books. As you read through the different plans, keep in mind that every runner is different. Don’t be afraid to experiment and adapt even the most rigid plan to your needs. Listen to your body, but also know that you can do a lot more than you think you can.