[Alex Jebb graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a BS in Biomedical Engineering and Duke University with a Masters of Engineering Management. He is an engineer by day, and the Combined Events coach for Johns Hopkins in the evenings. He is USATF Level I certified and is currently an Athletic Development Intern at Athletic Lab.]
As my colleague Greg Gustin recently wrote, extensive tempo runs are a fantastic way to develop the aerobic system. To recap: extensive tempo is composed of repeated runs typically in the range of 65-75% of the athlete’s maximal speed, and total anywhere from 1000m to 3000m in volume. These runs are usually done on soft surfaces and are done to develop aerobic capacity, aerobic power, or enhance recovery. What do you do if you don’t have access to a nice, even grass field, or the weather won’t allow for an outdoor workout though? Even if you don’t have those problems, what are equivalent or better alternatives? How do you address the drawbacks of tempo running?
To make sure we implement analogous methods, I’d first like to recap and expand upon the benefits of extensive tempo that Greg already mentioned to ensure my alternatives check off the right boxes. Anecdotally, I’ve always been told that extensive tempo has a myriad of benefits: increased aerobic capacity, tendon/ligament strengthening, postural work, practice running relaxed at somewhat high speeds, injury prevention, and central nervous system recovery. The summation of all of these benefits will allow speed and power athletes to get more speed and power work done, in terms of both quantity of quality reps in a session and frequency of sessions. But what do the scientists and heavy hitters of the field say? Well, they tend to support these notions. Famed sprints coach Clyde Hart notes that he likes tempo endurance workouts because they increase oxygen uptake (thus shortening recovery time), allow his athletes to accomplish more and longer workouts, learn rhythm, and increase production of phosphate1. Coach Derek Hansen further points out that extensive tempo running helps reset muscle tone, improve circulatory mechanisms, and reduce high tension, co-contraction forces around joints following heavy resistance training.
With all of these benefits, why would anybody need to do anything else on general or recovery days? First, there are the logistical problems. Not everyone has a nice, flat, natural grass field, or reliable access to this field due to other teams needing to use the field for practice. Running on a hard surface can negate much of the associated recovery benefit of running on a soft surface, and running on a poorly maintained field increases the likelihood of rolled ankles and other injuries (although there is something to be said for running on uneven surfaces). A contingency plan is also needed for inclement weather, when space is limited, or when injuries arise. Secondly, there are inherent disadvantages to tempo running. Too much tempo running can kill the same qualities that make a speed and power athlete successful, so an athlete’s volume must be carefully monitored. In his article linked above, Derek Hansen also makes nice suggestions of volume depending on the sporting requirements of the athlete.
Luckily, there are countless methods to supplement or replace tempo running. These include circuit training and non-contact alternatives. Under the umbrella or circuit training, I’d highlight medicine ball routines, bodyweight or “General Strength” circuits, weightlifting circuits, and Tabata workouts as particularly useful. For non-contact workouts, I think that a spin bike (which is better than a stationary bike) and pool workouts are great options. While none of these include running in a normal prescription, they are all great for various reasons.
- These types of workouts allow for more biomotor qualities to be developed. For example, a medicine ball series will require an athlete to develop his or her coordination, strength, and possibly even mobility, all while working through various planes of motion. Similarly, a bodyweight circuit can develop some combination of an athlete’s coordination, mobility, and strength endurance or general strength, depending on the selection of exercises and rest.
- These can also be used for injury prevention purposes. Coach Nick Newman recommends that general strength routines for jumpers should focus on the rotation exercises, multi-planar movements, and exercises with high stability requirements.
- Newman also prefers general strength circuits to extensive tempo because of the globalized hormonal response these circuits elicit. Whereas tempo running is simply a different version of the running that occurs on speed days, general strength circuits utilize the total body of an athlete. Thus, the athlete experiences a greater anabolic response to these circuits than he or she does to tempo running because a greater percentage of muscle tissue is exercised, and muscle fibers not used on high stress speed/power days are recruited.
- Due to the lack of running, these workouts should significantly reduce the joint stress on the athlete. This may be specifically helpful for heavier athletes or long distance runners trying to avoid any additional stress.
- The circuit workouts will not sacrifice Type II fibers transitioning to Type I to the same extent that extended tempo running will. I think that, much like tempo running has been used to replace distance runs to develop aerobic capacity without sacrificing fiber composition2, you can think of circuits as taking this one step further (at least to some extent).
- Having an athlete do a pool workout has the added bonus of hydrotherapy for recovery purposes. Pool workouts are also a fun way to break up the monotony of normal practice for the athletes:
Of course, these routines also have their own disadvantages. The athlete will not get the benefit of the added ground contacts of tempo running, nor will he or she get to practice running relaxed at submaximal speeds through these workouts. Additionally, it’s hard to translate any postural work to high speed movements without also reinforcing this through things like tempo running. It’s also hard to ensure that you’re working at the right effort level to develop aerobic qualities to the same reliability you can with tempo running. While you can easily prescribe paces and heart rate targets for a bike workout, you can’t convert 120% VO2 Max into a pace to do bodyweight squats as easily as you can for repeated 100m sprints (you could, but that’s probably not practical in most set ups). Even though you can’t reliably correlate many movements to aerobic thresholds in the middle of practice, research shows that you don’t have to worry about that for something like a Tabata workout (20 seconds of all-out effort of an exercise followed by 10 seconds passive rest, and continuing on this manner for 4-minutes). Athletes performing this type of 4-minute workout produced greater changes in aerobic and anaerobic power than those performing long slow distance runs of 60-minutes at 70% of their Max Aerobic Speed3. My intuition tells me that we can reasonably expect a similar result from bodyweight circuits if they are programmed appropriately. However, this leads to another drawback of circuit training: it can easily become too hard of a workout.
Consequently, these alternative workouts need to be planned in the same manner traditional running workouts are planned. Since the main goal on an active recovery day is recovery, you wouldn’t have the athlete complete a speed workout- or even an extensive tempo workout that’s geared to build aerobic capacity. You would have them perform an extensive tempo workout designed for recovery. This could be doing 10x100m @ 70% with a walk back rest (recovery), as opposed to 6x300m 65% with 2min rest (aerobic capacity). In terms of programming, the right circuit or accessory work must be chosen for the goals of the day. If it’s a recovery day, performing light medicine ball work and a bodybuilding weight circuit with a 1:1 work:rest (ie 20sec on/20sec off for each auxiliary exercise for 12 exercises) would work well. If the session objective is to develop aerobic power, you could perhaps do a few rounds of a continuous, 8-exercise, total-body circuit where each exercise is performed for 30 seconds and there is a 1 minute rest in between sets (ie 3 rounds of this 4 minute circuit with 1 minute in between).
I think it’s important to clarify that I am suggesting these workouts as alternatives or supplements, not to replace tempo running. I truly believe in tempo running, and I think that these alternative workouts offer a great way to build on the benefits of tempo running. It can be implemented to varying degrees based on the needs and goals of the athlete. Furthermore, I think that aptly combining these workouts in a single session can be better than doing either. For example, performing an extensive tempo running workout followed by a med ball routine will fulfill all the individual goals of tempo running and the med ball circuit individually and maybe even more so. Performing the med ball throws after the running workout might require the additional recruitment of muscle fibers without leaving any holes in the workout. The fact that the athlete is doing both types of workouts will definitely increase his or her work capacity more than if only one type of workout was done, and the appropriate pairing of routines will not lead to any interference effects.
I hope this helps with any questions you might have about substituting or complementing traditional tempo work and let me know what you think in the comments below!
- Hart, Clyde. “400 meter training.” Track and Field Quarterly Review 93.1 (1993): 23-28.
- Hoppeler H, Howald H, Conley K, Lindstedt SL, Claassen H, Vock P, Weibel ER (1985) Endurance training in humans: aerobic capacity and structure of skeletal muscle. J Appl Physiol 59:320–327
- Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, Hirai Y, Ogita F, Miyachi M, Yamamoto K. Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996;28:1327–1330