There has been a lot of commotion lately about Tabata training. Everyone in the fitness industry is using it. It’s based on the research of Izumi Tabata and his colleagues at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Japan. The protocol they used, which was based on the training that Japanese speed skaters were doing on the ice, included 7 to 8 x 20-second sprints on a stationary bicycle (about 170% of VO2max) with just 10 seconds recovery 5 days per week for 6 weeks. That’s a tough 6 weeks! Dr. Tabata found that, while aerobic training improves only aerobic fitness (duh!), high-intensity, repeated anaerobic efforts improve both anaerobic and aerobic fitness. Here’s why: although the energy for muscle contraction during maximal exercise lasting less than 20 seconds is primarily derived from anaerobic metabolism (i.e., phosphagen system and glycolysis), the contribution of aerobic metabolism increases when short sprints are repeated. In other words, when you sprint all-out one time, it’s anaerobic. But when you sprint all-out multiple times separated by brief recovery intervals, you introduce an aerobic backbone to the workout. But here’s the catch: the researchers hammered their subjects to induce molecular changes. So unless you do the workout the way it was done in their research, you can’t assume you’ll achieve the same results. It’s easy to generalize a study’s findings, but that’s one of the big NO-NOs of scientific research. The research is specific to the protocol and the subjects. If you want to bake a chocolate cake, you have to use the ingredients and follow the directions in the recipe. You can’t use different ingredients and make up your own recipe and expect to get the same cake. And that’s what’s happening in the fitness industry. I see it every time I go to a fitness conference.
Nearly all personal trainers and group fitness instructors have wrongly taken the Tabata research and tweak it to make it fit into what they want to do, rather than stay true to the research. Now anything and everything done for 20 seconds with 10 seconds recovery is considered a Tabata workout. They make exaggerated claims about their workouts, with no research to back it up, and act like there’s something “revolutionary” about their workouts, when their workouts are nothing more than circuit training. Doing push-ups, jumping jacks, burpees, squat jumps, and other callisthenic-type and resistance-type exercises for 20 seconds, while challenging, are not the same thing as sprinting all-out for 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds recovery, and repeating that 7 to 8 times, then repeating that whole workout 5 times per week for 6 weeks. If you want the results Tabata found in his study, you need to follow the protocol that his subjects did. And that’s not recommended nor practical for most people.
If you want to try a real Tabata workout, bring your A game to the gym and warm up for 10-15 minutes with easy cycling, followed by 2 or 3 faster efforts (but not all-out) of 20 seconds with full recovery between each to rev your engine and get ready for the intensity of the workout. Then, when you feel you’re fully warmed up and have awakened your fast-twitch muscle fibers, cycle all-out for 20 seconds, take 10 seconds recovery, and repeat that 6 or 7 more times. Finish the workout with a 10-minute cool-down.
Speaking of interval training, it’s time for a contest: Send your best interval training story (100 words or less) to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll pick a winner who’ll receive a FREE 20-week Run-Fit training program for the event of your choice: 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or marathon!