What are the benefits of training at tempo?

Do you suffer from a fuzzy gray middle? No, I’m not talking about some unwanted middle-aged hair growth, or the color of your torso after a long UK winter – but rather the training zone that many athletes migrate to across all three of the triathlon disciplines.

Tempo is a bit ‘six-out-of-ten’, a work rate that feels satisfyingly hard, while also being sustainable for a decent enough duration that endurance-minded sportsters can feel they have racked up a volume large enough to prepare for race day.

Time after time, across more than a decade, I have observed individual athletes and group training sessions across all three sports drift towards this mid-pace work. I suspect this is because it feels the best ‘bang-for-your-buck’! But is it?

Is tempo work the best bang for your buck?

Thanks to the power meter and the controllability of variables on an indoor bike, scientists have been able to clearly define cycle-specific training zones and what physiological changes occur at a given work-rate. This is key as we can then use this understanding to tailor training to the individual but also optimize time by avoiding zones that are less effective at helping us to progress.

So, what is the judgment of the zone defined as ‘tempo’? Defined by Hunter and Coggan as 76-88% of your best hour power (FTP) or 84-92% of the highest heart rate you can sustain for 60mins, tempo can be viewed in two ways.

1) It develops many aspects of fitness such as endurance and threshold quite well, or 2) Other zones develop better performance by more effectively targeting certain aspects of physiology (endurance, threshold etc).

Therefore, the question is you looking to keep fit, burn calories and feel you have worked quite hard? Or are you looking to optimize and improve performance?

Why tempo training doesn’t work on the bike

Tempo is too hard to produce optimal aerobic gains on the bike, which occur through training at around 56-76% of FTP (or 69-83% of FTHR), so if you are targeting any event that requires you to develop your endurance engine then much of your training should be spent here.

In contrast, tempo isn’t hard enough to develop your threshold – which limits pace/power as it’s an intensity of work at which blood lactate levels rise faster than the body can process it. Aero work builds a bigger room, threshold work raises the ceiling – by doing both, you increase your capacity; and tempo doesn’t do either quite as well.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bother with work in this zone. Obviously, aerobic development isn’t compromised as soon as you work harder than 77% as there is a crossover between neighborhood zones. However, the development of a particular physiological system decreases as your work moves further away from the zone specific to that aspect of physiology.

How to find the sweetspot in training

In general, it seems that ‘sweetspot’ work above tempo and just under threshold is so named as it’s the most effective addition to longer slower aerobic work in training.

However, tempo work may also be a good tool in the off-season to prepare you for harder sweetsport efforts, while in the season, it might be your ‘race pace’, so following a base and threshold development phase it might be a great idea to perform some sessions at tempo to prepare you for your event. But what about swimming and running?

The benefits of tempo work when run training

(Credit: Michael Steele/Getty Images for British Olympic Association)

Running is a more stressful and higher impact sport than cycling, so it’s logical that similar benefits seem to occur at lower intensities than when on a bike.

A 2020 joint research project involving Leeds Beckett University that observed Spanish vs Kenyan marathon runners reported that the amount of tempo training (around half-marathon race pace) was potentially an important factor in outright performance.

Kenyan marathon training was noted to contain far more training at tempo pace than European averages with as much as 25% of total running around that pace in reps of between 45-70mins.

These were elite-level marathon runners and so it would be unwise to apply this directly to triathletes or more novice athletes. However, it might suggest that the including reps of specific tempo work into a run programme, might yield some benefits.

The benefits of tempo work when swim training

Swimming is a sport without the impact of running and the high force production on localized muscles seen in cycling. Therefore, as the lowest stress of the three, higher training intensities can be tolerated without fatigue or injury. Indeed these higher intensities might be necessary to develop similar fitness gains.

It’s been well noted over the last decade or so that that CSS or threshold training (that is training at or just faster than your best 1,500m pace) is key to developing performance, with sets of 10-15 x 100m off short turnarounds a standard for many triathletes.

Similarly, lauded triathlon swim guru’s Swim Smooth have developed the idea of ​​’Red Mist’ sessions, which also use high intensity and short recovery to develop performance. While many coaches also recommend the inclusion of regular maximal swimming over reps totalling 2-6mins in length to develop high level aerobic VO2 capacity. So, what does all this mean?

How to split your training for triathlon

A high volume of easy training with spikes of very short fast work is key for all three disciplines of tri across most, if not all, of the year. However, in swimming, the third important element might be threshold; in cycling, sweetspot; and in running, tempo. The following table might be helpful:

Sport Heart Rate* Term RPE Effort % of training
Swim 140 Threshold 8-9 Best 15-20min pace 20-25%
Bike 140 Sweetspot 7-8 Best 1:00-1:15hr pace 20-25%
Run 140 Tempo 6-7 Best 1:45-2:00hr pace 20-25%

*example HR that will be unique to each individual.

You will see that while the physical effort as measured by HR is consistent, the rate of perceived exertion (RPE)and term used to describe that effort is not.

We started the article by looking at whether tempo training is effective in cycling training, concluding that the higher sweetspot zone seems to be more key for fitness gains. The suggestion here is that when adding or taking away impact from this anchor point (ie in running or swimming), we need to work less or more hard for similar gains.

So, why train at tempo? Well, because it might really help your running – just not your biking and swimming as much! If this theory makes sense to you, how will you apply this to your training across the season and all three disciplines going forward?

Top image: Michael Steele/Getty Images for British Olympic Association

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