Tempo Intervals

from 8 weeks out

In the last couple of months I’ve been heavily experimenting with the use of “tempo intervals” in the training programs of various athletes. Popularized by the late Charlie Francis, these relatively low intensity intervals have proven effective in various regards in my experience so far, so I’d like to share how I’ve been using them and the benefits they appear to offer.

What Are Tempo Intervals?

Probably the easiest way to think of tempo intervals is as some mix between LSD and HIIT – they aren’t high intensity like most interval these days, but they aren’t done continuously or always at slow speeds either. Francis originally used them in the training of his sprints as a form of active recovery and to build aerobic fitness.

It’s interesting to note that so long ago you had a high level shorts sprints coach advocating the use of lower intensity aerobic training methods in the training of such explosive power dominant athletes. This was generally before everybody jumped on the “anti-aerobic” bandwagon though, so maybe that’s why tempo runs caught on quite a bit in the track world – or maybe it’s just that they are effective.

In either case, I started experimenting with this form of interval a few months ago and used them heavily in Tim Boetsch’s training camp. As I’m able to use HRV and the Omegawave to measure specific changes in autonomic function and energy systems, I was curious to see what the effects would be.

I heard Charlie speak many years ago at a seminar in Vancouver and although his lecture was completely all over the map and revolved far too much around Ben Johnson, it was obvious that the guy knew speed development and training for it as well as anyone out there. I had used tempo runs a bit before with football, but for whatever reason I had just never really incorporated them into MMA so I decided to give them a shot and see what happened.

The Tempo Interval Method

At first, I mostly just had the guys start doing tempo runs, just as Francis popularized. This generally consisted of a 12-15 second run at about 70-75% speed and about 60s rest in between reps. I mostly used the Woodway Force for these as you can measure speed/distance/load easily on it and the weather in Seattle has been terrible the last few months so we needed to stay indoors.

I quickly found these intervals to be a good form of active recovery and HRV measures would be noticeably improved on days following tempo runs compared to rest days where nothing at all was done. A lot of this simply has to do with activation of the body’s aerobic and adaptive mechanisms combined with a minimum of residual fatigue from the loading.

This is really what active recovery does in general, it activates the body’s adaptive biological systems and “jump starts” them if you will, while keeping fatigue to a minimum. The result is improved recovery and when performed at low to moderate volumes, tempo runs are an effective form of this.

Aerobic Fitness

Next, I began having fighters performing tempo intervals in higher volumes to see how they would impact aerobic fitness and I also began having them use the intervals with more specific MMA type drills like bag and pad work, shadowboxing, etc. I incorporated the tempo method 1-3 times a week with most fighters and typically had them do them on off days or at the end of other training sessions.

When I used higher volumes, somewhere between 20-30 minutes of the intervals per session, began to see noticeable improvements in aerobic fitness as well as increased work capacity. Aerobic fitness increases were measured with both direct and indirect measurements and I would venture that they likely stimulate some increased vascularization along with possibly some mitochondrial increases as well. For this purpose, I also think it’s better to keep moving during the “rest” interval rather than doing nothing, the pace is just slowed dramatically.


It’s still a bit early in my use of this form of interval to give definitive recommendations as for their most effective use in combat sports, but if you’re looking for a good form of active recovery and to build some work capacity – I’ll be doing an article soon on what work capacity is exactly – then try using tempo intervals at a low to moderate volume on your off days. Something like 15-20 minutes generally seems to be about right and for this purpose, I think more generalized training like running can be used.

If you’re working on improving aeobic fitness, try increasing the volume to 20-30 minutes and get in at least two sessions per week. In this case, it’s generally better that at least one of these is done using some combat specific drill like bag and pad work. It’s not very easy to do this type of interval using grappling drills unfortunately.

Also, for this purpose I suggest keeping moving during the rest interval. A good example would be to hit the bag or some pads at about a 70% intensity for 12-15 seconds and then shadow boxing or jumping rope for 60s or so. You can then simply repeat this for however long you want.

One of the keys to doing tempo intervals is using the right training intensity. You shouldn’t feel exhausted or worn out when you’re done with this type of work. You should feel like you worked, but not anything like after a heavy sparring or grappling session. This type of training should be around a 5 or 6 on a 1-10 scale of overall intensity.

Give them a shot and feel free to post your comments to let me know how they work.


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