“Tempo” might be the most worthless description for a training intensity but its wide-spread usage in cycling circles seems to mean we’re stuck with it. What does “tempo” mean exactly? Let’s jump in.

The best descriptor I’ve found is that “tempo” describes the “up-tempo” range of training that sits right above an easy pace of riding (or endurance pace) [1]. If you ask most experienced cyclists what “tempo” is, they’ll tell you it isn’t easy per say, but it’s also not that hard. 

It’s no surprise we have a difficult time describing the tempo range of intensity because it kind of sits in a no-mans land of training zones. It’s harder than the pace we would utilize on a long endurance ride, but easier than a pace that begins to challenge our ability to shuttle lactate.

Short on time? Check out our quick tips for Tempo workouts.
Context

It’s this “in-between” reality of the tempo zone that can often make it a dead zone for training. You’re not generally riding tempo long enough to reap the unique training benefit you might see from a longer endurance ride, and you’re not riding hard enough to benefit from the stimulus of riding near your lactate threshold. 

All this begs the question, why would anyone spend time riding near a tempo intensity anyways?

It’s a fair question and one that has a pretty strait forward answer. Tempo helps to thread the needle between a training stimulus brought on by riding hard, and a training stimulus brought on by riding long. 

Since riding long obviously takes a lot of time, and riding hard can generate significant physical and psychological (RPE) fatigue, riding near tempo can be an effective training compromise to enable a rider to ramp back up into shape, or maintain a serviceable level of fitness, without going into a fatigue debt. 


Zone 3 Rides

Tempo rides generally have longer/sustained portions of continuous riding separated by short rest periods (or none at all).


This “needle-threading” capacity is where the upper range of tempo gets it’s “sweet-spot” nick name. Riding in your zone 3 doesn’t generate too much fatigue, doesn’t generate too much RPE, but can still serve as an important place holder for your fitness.  

In simple terms, tempo can be a time efficient strategy to provide a significant training stimulus with minimal psychological expense. The challenge of course is that the very fact that tempo doesn’t feel all that hard, gives evidence to the fact that over reliance on this intensity can quickly lead to a performance plateau. 

If all of your riding devolves into a “kind of hard” intensity, you can count on soon arriving at a performance plateau. With this being said, riding near tempo is just like any other tool. You can use it strategically to accomplish specific tasks, but eventually wider variety in your riding will be necessary to see continued improvement.  

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Energy System Target

Tempo workouts generally target the oxidative energy system utilizing fat and carbohydrate as energy sources.

Nutritional Considerations

Tempo rides can be another good opportunity to turn the screws on caloric restriction if improving your body composition is a central goal of training. Since tempo workouts are rarely long or hard enough to exhaust your glycogen stores, you’ll find you can be lax on your carb fueling before rides and still nail the intended workout targets. If your tempo ride stretches over 1 1/2 hours, you’ll want to pay closer attention to your carb fueling in the hours before, and during your ride.


Longer tempo rides can benefit greatly from paying closer attention to your carb intake

Your fueling picture changes dramatically if you’re doing tempo sets toward the end of longer endurance rides, or if you’re using tempo intervals to “pre-fatigue” your body in preparation for later race-like workouts. In this case following our ride fueling guidelines will be essential for getting the most out of the workout and executing high quality effort late in the course of a ride. 

Pacing

If you’re just getting started with training you might need to use your power meter as a sort of limiter for how hard you’re riding in the tempo range. It’s important to remember that tempo should feel “sustainably hard”, not “this is going to end really soon” hard. 


Screen for Tempo rides

The point of tempo in a competitive environment is that it’s a sustainable intensity that generates meaningful speed. If you’re riding so hard you don’t think you can sustain your pace for about 1 1/2 hours, then you’re going too far into the threshold range, and likely generating more physical and mental fatigue than your workout is calling for.

With experience, and regular cross-calibration with your RPE, you’ll learn to feel out this intensity and be able to rely on your power meter less to maintain a steady effort. Like the rest of your training zones, the long-term goal is to develop an internal recognition of your different ride intensities, only using power to calibrate or pace effort when additional feedback is helpful. 

In other words, power should never replace our internal mechanism for gauging the intensity of effort, only help to calibrate our perception, or serve to push/limit us when helpful. 

Reducing RPE

I’ve found the easiest way to reduce RPE on tempo level rides is to listen to podcasts while riding. The tempo intensity is low enough to where I can still engage and think about what I’m hearing, while taking just enough sting out of the effort to make my ride generally feel easier.

Another strategy is to follow a specific segment or climb, shifting your focus to the terrain rather than feeling tethered to a timer. Remember that tempo rides should feel “comfortably” hard. Whatever you can do to increase the level of “comfort”, either through focusing on the scenery, listening to something engaging, or simply tuning in to the sensations in your body, is a better alternative than “watching the pot boil” by constantly looking at your cycling computer. 

References

  1. Allen, H.C.A.R.M.S., TRAINING AND RACING WITH A POWER METER. 2019, [Place of publication not identified]: VELOPRESS.