Zen Tempo Runs are a subset out of the bucket of 'tempo runs'. They aren't new and certainly not my 'concoction'. They are structured much like a Hal Higdon verson of the tempo run - but with a bit more emphasis on 'feel' and 'fluidity' and a bit slower. Danny Dreyer also comes pretty close to these concepts in his Chi Running books and materials. I'm also sure that the term 'Zen' has been attached to a variety of run types. Ahhh the weight of the overused term, 'Zen'
So can call this anything you want - maybe 'Touchy Feely / Not Too Fast / No Pain Tempo Run' - the definition is more important to me than the term. I was going to simply call it the "XXX Tempo Run" - but it immediately struck me that instead of interpreting the XXX as 'insert anything here', the name would create it's own impression (and missed expectations when Google searches landed on this article).
Honestly, I spent more time on the above paragraphs explaining the 'name' of this run than I spent coming up with the actual name of the run (which was about 3 seconds) So - onward.
The purpose of the "Zen Tempo Run" is very specific; to teach you to stay as loose and relaxed as possible at speed. It teaches you to be fluid. They are more 'technique oriented' than any other run. They are preparation for harder workouts where you have to really concentrate to stay relaxed through your stride. Many coaches will define 'tempo run' this way. I'm just adding a term to make it specific (and to keep it in the 'pain free' zone).
The proper pacing for a Zen Tempo run on any particular day is best achieved by 'feel' (which is why they take a while to really get right). Here's some general structural guidelines to get you going:
Run a very easy pace for 10-15 mins. Really focus on being relaxed and quickening your stride. In other words, speed up over that 10-15 mins by quickening your turn-over. To do this you'll need to focus on keeping your stride shorter. Throw in the following drills: Butt Kickers, Skipping and Fast Feet.
Meat of the Run:
Start slowly picking up the pace. Be careful of going to fast, too soon. The pace profile is one that ratchets up the pace over the first 1/3 of the run, maintains a steady pace over the next 1/3 and then evenly ramps the pace back down over the last 1/3. The maximum pace (hit during the middle 1/3) should be between Marathon and 10K pace, but it can be slower (rarely is it faster).
The BEST way to pace this run is by tuning into your body and searching for the the following indicators:
1. NO BURN - if you start to feel the burn, back off. Otherwise you are doing a Threshold Run.
2. RELAXED and FLUID - your limbs should be turning over like they are barely attached to your body. Think 'gazelle' as opposed to a charging rhino (which is how a lot of people run fast). Your feet should feel like they are barely touching the ground. If you start to tense up, then work through a process of relaxation while running again. If you can't shake the tension, then slow down a notch.
3. PEACEFUL MIND - The more you can 'let go' of your thoughts and focus on 'feeling' your body, the better you'll execute this run. Try to focus on how your feet are articulating when you land and push off. Focus on evening out your breathing. Focus on relaxing your shoulders (hunching can creep in when you are trying to run fast). Shake out your hands every few minutes. Think only pleasant thoughts - or think about nothing at all. But by all means, keep yourself in the moment. Don't zone out and let your mind wander (and your pace / form suffer).
By the end of the last 1/3 of the run, you should already be slowing down to your easy pace (which is usually a bit faster than your warm up pace was). Run 5 minutes or so at this pace, even slowing to a walk in the last few hundred meters. Stretch afterwards - especially hamstrings and calves.
That's it. If you've done it right you should feel worked, but energized. If you feel 'spent' then you went too hard or too far.
Total distance of the Zen Tempo run can be anywhere from 3mi to 10mi. It would be tough to do one shorter and get much out of it since you'd barely be warmed up. Some athletes run these farther. But I think you can get a lot out of a run somewhere in the above range.
Do this run once every other week - or whenever you need to shake out the cobwebs. You're harder runs will start to be more productive and you should start seeing your paces picking up in those faster sessions.