Running Breakthroughs:

Which is More Effective: Tempo or Intervals?

Which will have a bigger impact on your performances?

FinishTo examine the relative value of interval and tempo training, Peter Snell and his colleagues at the University of Texas Southwestern Human Performance Center asked some well-conditioned runners to focus on either tempo running or interval training for a period of 10 weeks. If the name Peter Snell rings a bell, the researcher from Texas Southwestern is the same Peter Snell who won a total of three gold medals at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics and also captured two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in 1962.  Snell's world-record performance of 1.44.3 for 800 meters, which he ran in February, 1962, is still the New-Zealand national record.  After his running career ended, Snell earned a Ph. D. in exercise physiology and has been a researcher at Texas Southwestern since 1981.  His study "High-Intensity Training Programs for Well-Conditioned Runners," published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 21 (2), #448, 1989 showed that tempo running had little benefit for 800M performance.

However, a Danish running study showed that tempo runs provide a significant benefit for max V02 and better improvement in steady run performance than interval workouts.  Their results are documented in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 30(8), pp. 1250-1256, 1998.

So what is the answer and why different results?

Like that famous runner Forest Gump once said when faced with free will or determinism, "Maybe it's both".

The answer is that we have to take each study in context.  The first study by Peter Snell focused on 800 meter racing.  The second study focused on performance at tempo pace, max V02, and efficiency.  Both are right.

Training is specific to the race you want to run.  An 800M race has little to do with efficiency or capability at a moderate pace.  The 800M is a mostly anaerobic race (without oxygen).  It has little to do with how efficiently you can run slowly.  Improving efficiency at running aerobically has little effect on your performance over such a short distance.

On the other hand, if you are training for a marathon, your ability to run at an aerobic but challenging pace is a key factor.  Tempo runs will be a key aspect in your training if you want to run your best.


Most of our training needs to be at an easy pace, regardless of our race pace.  (See Training Basics, which discusses hard/easy patterns).  However, specificity is a key ingredient in training.  The Danish study described above showed that tempo training provided a significant improvement in both capability and efficiency at tempo pace.  However, tempo runs did little to improve efficiency at faster paces, such as 5K race pace (or 800M pace).

On the other hand, interval training was shown to improve both max V02 and efficiency at 5K race pace.

This demonstrates the principal of specificity.  You can't train (only) at 8 minute pace and race at 6 minute pace.  You have to mix in a little bit of faster training.

As was proposed originally by Dr. Jack Daniels, intervals tend to improve max V02 and tempo runs tend to push the threshold where running can remain aerobic.  Both have affects on the other and provide multiple benefits.  However, efficiency at a specific pace is achieved by running at that pace or slightly faster.

Your training needs to include some running at race pace or slightly faster in order to make you more efficient.  This improves your biomechanics and your body's ability to provide oxygen efficiently at that pace.

The Danish study showed that 6 weeks of training utilizing intervals or tempo runs improved efficiency at that pace by about 3% while improving aerobic capability by about 6%, leading to an overall improvement of about 9% to 10%.

Would you like to improve your 5K time by 10%?  (Wouldn't we all!)

So what is the answer?

Focus Your Training on How You Will Race

If you are a marathoner, intervals, especially long intervals, can help with your running.  They will improve your body's maximum capabilities.  However, tempo runs (and marathon pace runs) should probably be a more significant ingredient in your training.  Tempo runs are a little faster than you will run in the marathon.  Marathon pace runs are at race pace.  Both bring efficiency and aerobic performance.  Intervals should not be excluded, but you really don't need a lot of short intervals or high speed running.

If you are running the 800M, tempo runs should play very little role in your training.  You will be racing much faster than this and much of your racing is anaerobic.  You will want to include both long intervals (for max V02) and short interval race pace running (for efficiency).

If, like most runners, you are running races somewhere in between, both long intervals (3 to 5 minutes) and tempo runs should be an important part of your training.  The long intervals provide a boost in your max V02 and efficiency at 5K kind of race paces.  The tempo runs provide a boost in your efficiency at slower paces (15K, half marathon) and push the aerobic threshold downward, making races at all speeds a little easier.  All of these effects will improve your performance at any distance from the mile to the marathon, but your primary focus should be on running your specific pace during training.  For details of how to incorporate these elements, see any of our articles on running.


1) Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 21 (2), #448, 1989

2) Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 30(8), pp. 1250-1256, 1998

Copyright 2009 by Florida East Coast Runners and Frank Norris.  Reproduction or reprinting without written permission is illegal.

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