Go for Broke with Tabata Intervals

What can you possibly accomplish in just four minutes on the bike? A lot, actually. All you have to do is ride as hard as you can. Better yet, instead of riding as hard as you can for four straight minutes, ride at your true maximum power-output level in several short bursts, resting just long enough between bursts to avoid a precipitous decline in power output from one burst to the next.

What will this hellishly challenging four-minute session accomplish? It will boost your aerobic and anaerobic capacity simultaneously, increase your fatigue tolerance and lead directly to improved cycling performance in triathlons.

The session I just described is known as the Tabata protocol. It is named after Izumi Tabata, Ph.D., a former researcher at Japan's National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya, who learned about the workout from the coach of the Japanese national speed-skating team.

Specifically, the session consists of six to eight maximum-intensity sprints lasting 20 seconds apiece, with mere 10-second passive recovery periods between them. The session is so challenging and painful that most of the world-class speed skaters who were lucky enough to be the first to try it were totally exhausted after seven intervals. Only a handful could do eight.

Intensity vs. Duration

Tabata's primary research interest was the effects of exercise intensity on fitness. Through his work he came to believe that exercise intensity was at least as important as, if not more important than, exercise duration. So when he heard about a workout that packed two minutes and 40 seconds of maximum-intensity work into a four-minute period (and that's for those who could do eight intervals), he was intrigued.

To test the effects of this workout, Tabata first transferred it from speed skating to stationary bikes. Then he recruited subjects and had them perform the protocol five times a week for six weeks. At the beginning and again at the end of the study period, Tabata and his team measured the subjects' VO2 max and their anaerobic capacity. To provide a basis for comparison, Tabata conducted a second experiment in which subjects pedaled stationary bikes for one hour at a moderate intensity (70 percent of VO2 max) five days a week for six weeks. Their VO2 max and anaerobic capacity were also measured before and after the intervention.

The results were staggering. Subjects in the moderate-intensity exercise trial improved their VO2 max by a healthy 9.5 percent, while their anaerobic capacity did not change at all. Subjects in the maximum-intensity intervals trial—despite exercising for only 20 minutes per week, compared to five hours per week for the other group—improved their VO2 max by 14 percent and their anaerobic capacity by a whopping 28 percent.

Needless to say, this study got a lot of attention when it was published back in 1996, and coaches and athletes began to adapt the protocol to sports ranging from swimming to boxing. Virtually everyone who tried the Tabata protocol made the same report: It was excruciatingly painful, but it was effective.

I learned about Tabata intervals from Brian MacKenzie, owner of Genetic Potential, a fitness facility in Newport Beach, California. MacKenzie trains a number of triathletes and incorporates stationary-bike and treadmill Tabata sessions into the program of all who are willing to endure the suffering these workouts entail. An ultra-runner himself, MacKenzie credits his own twice-weekly Tabata sessions with enabling him to improve his performance on a training schedule averaging only 6.5 hours per week, and he says his triathlete clients have reported similar benefits.

The Setup

If you think you have what it takes to survive the Tabata protocol, set up your indoor trainer and warm up with a few minutes of easy spinning followed by a few short (10- to 20-second) efforts at 90 percent of maximum intensity at increasing tension levels. Reset your computer to zero so you can record the total distance covered in the following 20-second intervals alone. You will try to increase this total each time you repeat the workout.

To perform your first interval, simply churn out the highest wattage total or perceived effort you possibly can for 20 seconds. You can stay in the saddle or get out of the saddle and use whatever combination of gear ratio and cadence that works best. After 20 seconds have elapsed, stop pedaling for 10 seconds—and 10 seconds only. Now do your second interval. Do not expect to be able to do more than six intervals in your first attempt. Cool down with just a few minutes of easy spinning.

If you're like a lot of triathletes, you will be tempted to incorporate this session into a longer workout. Don't. If you do more than a warm-up beforehand, you will fall apart completely after just a few intervals, and while you will still be giving a maximum effort, you will not be working at your true maximum output level, and that's what counts. And you simply won't be able to even think about doing anything more than a short cool-down after completing your Tabata intervals.

There are two approaches you can take to incorporating the Tabata protocol into your regular training. One option is to do the session regularly—from once every 10 days to as often as twice a week—during the base-building period of training to quickly and efficiently boost your aerobic and anaerobic fitness. Continue to do the session regularly until your performance (i.e. your maximum total distance covered) within the session stops increasing and levels off, and then turn your focus to more race-specific types of high-intensity workouts. Henceforth just do the session whenever you feel the need for a good blast.

A second option is to use the Tabata protocol primarily as a time-saver. Whenever you're pressed for time but you still want to get the fitness benefits of a solid workout, toss in a Tabata and have it both ways.

Find and register for a fitness class near you.


Active Expert Matt Fitzgerald is the author of several books on triathlon and running, including Brain Training for Runners and Runner's World Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2005).

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