Monday, December 20, 2010

Tempo "runs" in the pool.

When I broke my foot, I knew that I'd be limited to pool running for quite some time to come. My original plan was to do intervals 6 days a week a la Pfitzinger; but when I reached out to my newly-retained coach, he advised that I recreate my training schedule in the pool -- one interval workout, one tempo workout, and one long run each week, with easy "running" for the balance.

OK then.  I had the interval workout down, and the long run seemed pretty easier to execute (just stay in the pool longer).  But how to do the tempo?

To explain the dilemma, I first need to explain my understanding of what tempo is.  In my book, a "tempo" is a run of 20+ minutes at a "comfortably hard pace" -- the classic definition is 20 minutes running at the pace you could hold for about 60 minutes in a race. It's also possible to do longer tempo runs at a slower pace.  My general rule of thumb for tempos has been to run at race pace for a third of the race time.  For example, I know that I race a half-marathon in a bit over 90 minutes, so I would do a tempo at half-marathon pace for about 30-35 minutes.

The whole point to a tempo is to hold a certain, "comfortably hard" pace for a decent amount of time.  Run it too fast, and you're straining the wrong systems and burning yourself out for no good reason; run it too slow, and you're not giving your system enough of a training stimulus.  In addition to the physical results of a good tempo, it's also a solid mental training exercise -- you learn how to dial into an effort and sustain it.

All very good, but how the heck do you do that in the pool?  The thing about the pool is, there's really only three gears that come naturally -
  1. a very slow easy motion that really serves mainly to move your legs around; 
  2. "easy" effort -- you keep your body active and moving forward; and 
  3. All out excruciating effort -- send it to 11, Nigel.
There's a no mans land between b and c when you're in the pool.  On land, you can maintain that medium, comfortably hard effort because of the constant feedback you receive, be it the sense of going somewhere if you're on the roads or track, or the treadmill's constant belt.  In the pool, you have none of that, and so it's perilously easy to lose focus, zone out, and drop off.  Then you wake up, and do a frantic surge, with the end result being much closer to an interval workout.

Thus, the conventional wisdom is that when confined to pool running one should do intervals nearly every day.  The reasoning is that it's simply too hard to keep your hard rate elevated for a lengthy period of time, so instead you blast out an interval of 30 seconds to 3 minutes at top effort, take a short break to reassure the lifeguard that you're not actually drowning, and then wash, rinse, repeat.

And yet, I was under instructions to do a tempo each week. My first attempt was three intervals of 10 minutes each, with a minute rest, shooting for that comfortably hard effort. OK, I could do this.

Reported back to the coach, and was corrected. Intervals of 10 minutes at that effort are a "cruise intervals" workout, not a tempo (which I knew, I had just been fudging, since I had no idea where I was going to find the mental strength to do a regular tempo in the water).

Fair enough.  So, a tempo it was.  But how to do it?

I ended up figuring it out the old fashioned way, by donning first my big girl panties and then my aqua-belt, and giving it a shot.  And after a few weeks, I can say now that I am capable of doing a 40 minute tempo "run" in the pool.  The tricks to doing this really boil down to two categories: 1) accurately gauging the effort level, and 2) toughing it out for the full length of time.  In turn:

Effort level tricks:
  • I like to start the tempo off at interval effort, and then let myself settle slightly after about a minute - for some reason, it's easier to "fall" into tempo effort than it is to "push" into it.
  • Breathing really seems to be key here.  I've found that about 5 minutes into the tempo, my breathing should hit about one inhale/exhale cycle every three "steps".  So, *inhale* (three steps); *exhale* (three steps).  This is really a remarkably good way to assess your effort level over time -- a quick breath check can highlight the fact that you're slacking (or perhaps pushing too hard).
  • Visualization does help - imagine that you're running a tempo on land, and envision each land mark that you pass, and each mile marker.  Yes, you'll get a weird glazed look on your face, but nobody's going to notice.
  • When you're running a tempo on land, about 2/3rds of the way through, there's a point where you really start wanting to be done.  You're not in pain, you're just physically tired and mentally a bit sick of the whole thing.  Getting that feeling during a pool run tempo, about 2/3rds of the way through, is a very good sign.
  • Music can help -- program a mix of uptempo stuff, fast paced stuff, and then run to the music. Personally, I find that progressive house, psytrance, or futurepop works well, but we're each unique in what music motivates us.
Mental endurance:
  • Take it minute by minute.  You're not doing a 40 minute pool run at tempo effort; you're doing forty intervals of 60 seconds each at tempo effort, with no recovery.  This simple change in perspective really does help.
  • Believe it or not, pool shape is key here.  I've found it helpful to get in a lane, and then do laps of the lane, viewing it as a track of sorts.  I normally do my tempos in a ~20 meter lane (it gets too shallow towards one end to do the full 25 meters), and so I know it takes me about 2:30 to do a "lap".  Therefore, my 40 minute tempo is actually a 16 lap tempo.  I take splits after each lap, and use certain points along the lane as prompts to check my effort level and form.  Heck, you can even reverse direction every 5 laps or so.
  • Using the pool running tempo as an opportunity to focus on form is also very helpful.  For myself, I have a tendency to hunch my shoulders and arch my back when I get tired -- focusing on maintaining the tempo effort while correcting these gives me something to focus on besides the clock.
Are these pool running tempos working?  Damned if I know.  I do know that I am every bit as tired after one of these as I would be after a land tempo run.  Additionally, I get that runner's high and precious "damn, I'm a bad ass" feeling after one of these, which is sufficient to keep doing them.   I will confess that I alternate each week between a) a 40 minute continuous tempo, and b) a tempo of 2x20 minutes with 1 minute recovery.  The 40 minute continuous is still a mentally exhausting effort, and not something I can call up every week -- alternating with a 2x20 seems to be a good compromise.


  1. Interesting post, Cris. I liked your definitions of tempo runs. I define my tempo pace by HR. Do you have a HR you try to target during a tempo run? Are you still wearing your HRM in the water? Anyway, it sounds like these are really solid efforts and that you are getting plenty training stimulus!

  2. Nope -- the Garmin HR strap doesn't transmit in the pool; the only HR monitor that does work is a Polar.

    The thing with the pool is, it also depresses your heart rate substantially due to the increased pressure and the cool water. I've heard figures of 20-25 BPM or lower in the pool. So, I'm not sure the the HR monitor would be all that helpful.

    Plus, as you know, I really rely on HR mainly to keep a lid on my easy runs. It's helpful to know what HR I'm hitting during workouts as an extra piece of information, but I'm not sold on training BY it. But we all have different things that work for us.

  3. Thank you for this post - and for not using HR. I much prefer to use PE during all of my training efforts on land and have relied on this in the water as well (plus, ok, my HR monitors are all dead and I can't bring myself to get them fixed) but have really struggled on the tempo effort and basically just ditched it. I look forward to reintroducing tempo to my water running next week. Thanks so much - your blog is terrific and I really appreciate the amount you've written on pool running as I'm not certain what to expect when I return to land.