Training at tempo pace is, in a word, confusing. It’s that pace that’s just above your endurance zone—the conversational, go-all-day pace—while staying below your threshold—the hard pace that takes a fair amount of effort and concentration. Tempo is the zone we accidentally fall into when we’re going too hard on easy days, or when we’re lagging during intervals.
In short, when it comes to the cycling zones, we often dismiss tempo workouts as in a zone known as “no man’s land” and therefore, we should avoid it. It’s been referred to as “comfortably hard,” making it seem like an oxymoron worth avoiding. But as many coaches and experts will tell you, if you use it right, it can play a valuable role in your training.
Here, we chatted with the experts to figure out exactly what tempo on the bike is, how to harness its powers for good, and the best ways to use it in training.
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What exactly is a tempo workout for cyclists?
You know those rides where you’re supposed to be riding at endurance pace, but another cyclist whizzes past you and you notice that you’ve suddenly increased your pace to just a bit harder in order to keep up with them? That pretty much sums up tempo efforts.
“It’s the hardest steady state you can ride in while staying entirely aerobic,” says Lorri Lee Lown, founder of Velo Girls and longtime head coach at Savvy Bike. “It’s not the hardest effort you can hold for an hour, it’s more the ‘I can hold this for a good portion of the day’ effort.”
From a training zone perspective, whether you’re riding on Zwift or you’re looking at heart rate zones on a Garmin computer, your tempo zone is zone 3. Garmin sets your zones based on your maximum heart rate, while Zwift defines it as 76 to 90 percent of your Functional Threshold Power (FTP), which is the highest power you can sustain for 20 minutes. So, if a rider’s FTP is 200, riding between 152 and 180 watts is tempo pace.
Tempo is an important zone because it’s where you’re comfortably cruising, pretty quick, but not so quick that you’re out of breath or struggle to turn over the pedals—which is pretty much how you’ll feel on most harder group rides or in long races.
Why should you do tempo workouts or intervals?
Tempo is an extremely helpful zone to train if you’re often riding in packs or doing extremely long races. The ability to ride at tempo is good for rides with large groups—often, you’ll be in situations where you have to stay in that “just a bit harder than endurance” zone to keep up with a group, and being comfortable in that zone is helpful for those situations.
It can also be a gentle way to do interval training without feeling a lot of pressure. “I like to start people with tempo intervals, especially in the winter, and then we’ll gradually introduce more threshold and harder efforts,” Angie Ridgel of Stelleri Training tells Bicycling. “Tempo is a great way to get people’s heart rate up without wearing them out.”
Funny enough, you also should know your tempo zone simply to avoid accidentally falling into it.
Why shouldn’t you do tempo workouts?
Tempo workouts are often just a little too hard to be easy to recover from, but not so hard that you’re getting a solid interval session. In recent years, many coaches have begun to focus on a polarized style of training—going easy most of the time, then going extremely hard for a small amount of time. Tempo tends to be too moderate for the polarized set.
“Tempo gets a bit of a bad rap because it’s both incredibly good for you and not very useful at all,” says Herman Bonner, senior communication and marketing specialist at Firstbeat Analytics. “In terms of intensity, you’re talking a little bit harder than you would ride when you’re doing base or endurance [training]. But it’s slightly easier than the pace you’d ride in a three- or four-hour race.”
Because of this, tempo rides are good for muscular development and improving your ability to sustain higher intensity efforts for longer. However, too much time at tempo rather than dialing up your effort level to do harder intervals sometimes is a recipe for sub-optimal development, Bonner adds.
“The problem with excessive tempo rides is one of opportunity cost,” he explains. “The specificity principle of training reminds us that if you want to improve something you should target it directly. In the big picture, the wear and tear you are placing on your body during yet another tempo ride would have been better used to perform rides specifically designed to stimulate the development of other aspects of performance capacity, like FTP, VO2 max or anaerobic capacity. This is one good reason to avoid the infamous accidental tempo ride, where you let your intensity creep up over the course of a planned endurance base-building workout.” (We’ve all been there.)
It’s much harder to recover from a ride done at tempo pace than it is a ride done at endurance pace, which means if you tend to accidentally shift up into tempo on those base training rides, you need more recovery time—which leaves less time in your schedule for those harder interval sessions.
So, how much tempo training is too much?
It depends. For some cyclists, especially those new to training, tempo intervals might be the best way to ease into interval training versus going harder. In general, though, your entire ride shouldn’t be done in the tempo zone—if a group ride is holding you at that heart rate, you may need to drop down to an easier group for a few weeks to build more aerobic fitness.
It’s important to check yourself as you’re doing endurance rides: Tempo is good, unintentional tempo is not. This is why Garmin computers have daily suggested rides—to help cyclists avoid spending too much time in the “danger zone” of tempo (or any other zone, for that matter).
“When we looked at what most people were doing for training, we discovered that people were doing too much in the tempo zone without realizing it, rather than riding at endurance pace,” says Bonner. “The daily suggested workouts help make sure people are spreading their time effectively throughout the zones so that you’re actually developing both your aerobic and anaerobic systems. And when it comes to endurance, the truth is, for most of us, a true endurance pace will feel embarrassingly slow because we’re so used to riding at tempo and calling it endurance.”
How do you set your tempo training zone?
First, an important reminder about all zones: They are highly individualized. Your riding partner’s heart rate zones may differ from yours depending on their max heart rate, and your power in a certain zone could be significantly higher or lower than another rider’s, because it varies based on both fitness and weight.
Now that that’s out of the way, there are three main ways to define your tempo zone: perceived exertion (RPE), heart rate, and power. Most cyclists will skip perceived exertion in favor of a more specific metric, but on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being your all-out sprint, tempo would fall between 4 and 6.
“Tempo feels like you could still briefly have a conversation with your friend, but not a very long conversation,” says Ridgel. “You’re not going to be breathing so hard that you’re out of breath, but it’s going to be challenging. You’re definitely concentrating.”
To find your tempo zone based on heart rate, you need to start with your maximum heart rate, which is typically 220 minus your age. Sure, there are fancier ways to check it, but Bonner says that equation is accurate enough for an easy reading. (If you use a cycling computer like the Garmin Edge 1040 Solar synced with a heart rate strap, it usually will alert you if you’ve set a new maximum heart rate. And it’ll set your other zones for you as well.)
Tempo will be roughly 90 percent of that max heart rate. So, if your max heart rate is 180 beats per minute, then tempo pace will be around 162 beats per minute—don’t stress if you’re plus or minus a couple of beats. However, you may find that your tempo heart rate on the bike (if you’re making sure it corresponds to perceived exertion and power) may be lower than it is when you’re running. This, Bonner explains, is because running causes you to use more of your muscles, which forces the heart to work harder despite the same output.
To base your tempo off power numbers, aim to be between 76 and 90 percent of your FTP. This range allows you to better sync up your power to your heart rate in the tempo zone, so you may find one day, you’re easily pedaling at 90 percent of your FTP, while another day, you struggle to maintain 76 percent of it at the same heart rate.
Pay attention to if heart rate and power start to disconnect: “If you’re dealing with overtraining syndrome or you’re sick, suddenly your body’s working much, much harder to produce that power, and the heart rate may be higher despite staying in the tempo power zone,” says Bonner. “In terms of guiding any tempo workout, what matters is your body’s response, so it’s a good idea to focus on heart rate. If you’re doing anaerobic, short, hard intervals, that’s the time to focus on power because it can take a while for heart rate to register as higher.”
Is it better to base your tempo effort on power or heart rate?
Ideally, your heart rate and power will line up when you’re in each training zone, but depending on factors like temperature or fatigue, your heart rate may decouple from your power. When this happens, should you try to stick to the tempo power numbers, or focus on heart rate? It depends on your goals, but generally, heart rate should be the primary indicator.
“Ideally, you would be looking at both of them together,” says Andrew Silver, lead cycling product manager at Garmin. “In sports science terms, you’re talking about a relationship between internal load—what’s happening inside your body, as shown by heart rate—and external load, the work that you’re doing out in the world, which is what you’re getting from your power meter. When those two inputs are combined, then you start to get insights into your fitness and how you’re developing as an athlete.”
The fitter you get, the higher your power at tempo pace will be, while your heart rate will stay fairly stable. A new cyclist may have a tempo heart rate of 160 and a tempo power zone between 114 and 135 watts, but after a year of training, the tempo heart rate will remain 160 but the power zone might have been raised to between 152 and 179 watts, for example.
If your heart rate is creeping higher to keep your power up, remember: Once you’re past that 90 percent of max heart rate, you’re no longer doing a tempo workout, you’re doing a threshold workout with very low power numbers. And that’s not going to get you very far. Ease off the effort and dial down the watts until you’re back to tempo heart rate—this may mean shifting down into an easier gear, or just dropping your cadence a bit.
What are the best tempo workouts?
You can perform tempo workouts as short or long pushes. The two below, from Ridgel, show a mix of the two. She recommends paying attention to your cadence during these workouts. Toward the end of interval sets, she notices people tend to slow their cadence, but she tries to get her clients to hold a steady 85 to 90 rpms.
Your Base Phase Tempo Workout
- Warm up with 10-15 min of easy spinning
- 5 minutes at tempo effort
- 3 minutes at endurance effort
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 for 5 total rounds
- Cool down with 10-15 min of easy spinning
The Traditional Tempo Workout
- Warm up with 10-15 min of easy spinning
- 20 minutes at tempo effort
- 5 minutes easy spinning
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 for 2 to 3 sets, depending on your fitness/experience level
- Cool down with 10-15 min of easy spinning
Zwift Tempo Workouts
There are quite a few pre-made (and fun!) tempo workouts that you can try on Zwift:
- Beep! Beep! Beep!
- Brisk Burn
- Cafe Ride
- Double Trouble
- Cameron Wurf: All-Arounder
Molly writes about cycling, nutrition and training, with an emphasis on women in sport. Her new middle-grade series, Shred Girls, debuts with Rodale Kids/Random House in 2019 with "Lindsay's Joyride." Her other books include "Mud, Snow and Cyclocross," "Saddle, Sore" and "Fuel Your Ride." Her work has been published in magazines like Bicycling, Outside and Nylon. She co-hosts The Consummate Athlete Podcast.