A Conversation on Tabatas, Intensity, and Pacing

I was talking training with my friend Alec recently, and thought the conversation was worth sharing. He asked about tweaking the Tabata interval (20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest, 8 times in a row) for sprints because, if you TRULY run them all out, you'll be totally spent after two or three. Anyway, here's the ensuing conversation:

Jim writes:

It's hard to say. The Tabata study is actually pretty narrow, even if the results are compelling. Give this a read:

Tabata Intervals by Ross Enamait

That said, Ross doesn't treat the 20/10 ratio as sacrosanct. In reply to one of his forum threads:

My response is not specific to you, but your general statement has become a common trend in terms of the recent "Tabata" madness that hit the web a few years ago.

First, everyone came out with Tabata workouts. As time passed, it then became the in thing to criticize these Tabata variants, making statements such as "it isn't Tabata if it isn't ____."

Here is a news flash however there was ONE study performed with ONE piece of equipment. If you are not using the exact piece of equipment per the specifics of the initial experiment, it isn't Tabata.

But guess what, who cares? The initial Tabata study showed that short, intense workouts were effective. Take this simple lesson and apply it however you want. You don't need to follow a precise experiment.

The original Tabata protocol popularized a convenient timing system (20 seconds on, 10 seconds off). It is much more convenient to use 20/10, as opposed to 17.2 seconds on, followed by 8.4 seconds of rest. I'm sure the initial results would have been similar with a 17.2/8.4 second study, but you wouldn't have seen anyone using it.

20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest is a convenient way to track time when training. You can quickly glance over to a clock to keep track of time. When someone uses Tabata to describe these workouts, we will immediately know the work to rest ratios being used. Whether it is an exact copy of the initial study is irrelevant. Once again, who cares?

I personally use many "Tabata Hybrids" with 20/10 work to rest ratios. It may not be "true Tabata" but everyone quickly knows the work to rest ratios so I honestly don't care.

I've also seen Ross talk about 30/10 and 30/20, as long as it's intense. I remember reading that the original Tabata subjects were Olympic athletes (speedskaters, maybe), and they went at it hard enough (on exercise bikes) that they only made it through 6 or 7 and had to lie down afterwards. Safe to say, while I have on occasion gone at my Tabatas that hard, oftentimes I leave more in the tank than I should. It's hard to make myself that miserable.

So, sprints, and the general trickiness of Tabata "pacing." I think you really aren't supposed to pace yourself. It's all out, every time. But an all-out 20-second effort is INSANE. For example, I think I told you this, a couple years ago I paced off a 200 meter straightaway. Michael Johnson went that far in barely under 20 seconds, so I knew I had plenty of room. My timer went off, and I hauled like I was in a race. Humbling, how far away the 200m finish line was after 20 seconds. But I stopped, gasped, 10 seconds went by in an instant, and I sprinted back the other way. Came nowhere close to getting back to the start. After three I was all but dead, four was barely a jog, and I called it quits.

I've also done them where I go like 80-90% and make it through all 8, and feel like dying at the end. And I've tweaked the rest as you suggest so I can go all out and make it through a few more rounds. No idea what's best, but I bet it's all good. As long as it hurts. If you're only going to exercise for four minutes, it's gotta be painful.

Alec writes:

I had the same experience, back at Union, when you first broke the word on tabatas. Ran 20/10 on the track. 200s are a famously brutal distance, for normal people - even one. Like you, I can max it out pretty good in a 100, even 110. And you ride that for a bit. But then you still have 60 yards to go!

Trying to run two or, particularly, 3 more or less in a row, forget 4, without even fully catching your breath, is really impossible. I think in hindsight it probably turned me off on tabatas. I was pushing and feeling bad and feeling good, etc., on the 3rd one, but what I was doing had nothing to do with "sprinting," more of desperate lurching jog, and I just couldn't believe it was making me any better at the 20-yard sprints for goals.

Jim writes:

I've lately been thinking I'd like to incorporate running that better models what you do in a game. Maybe set up four cones in a square, 20 yards each side. Figure the running portion of a point lasts for what, three minutes? So set the timer for three minutes, and alternate running and jogging the sides randomly. So sprint a side, jog a side, sprint two sides taking the corner hard, reverse, jog two sides, sprint a side, etc. Keep moving for the whole three minutes, rest, repeat as much as you see fit. You can vary your rest, 60-90 seconds to simulate staying in the game and playing another point, 2-5 minutes to simulate taking a point off. You could also put a cone in the middle to do "inner corner" cuts rather than the "outer corner" cuts you get when you stay on the perimeter.

Alec writes:

I like this idea. I actually think its best contribution is that it would strengthen the groin muscles, which straight-ahead sprints don't do.

One change, though. If you watch our final at Nationals, you'll see that at least at the Masters level, even great players in big games routinely WALK for some portion of most points. So if you're going for verisimilitude, might want to incorporate a walked-length?

Jim writes:

Good point. I think it might depend on your goals for the session. If you want to emphasize speed and intensity, you might walk a bit more so you can go harder when you go. If you want to emphasize endurance, you'd eliminate the walking. Perhaps you could even vary between rounds. Like if you did five 3-minute rounds, you could jog/sprint in 1/3/5, and walk/sprint in 2/4.

I also think verisimilitude should only be taken so far. Ideally, the workout should be harder than a real point, so a real point feels like cake.

The other thing I want to get back to on days when I feel like working speed is that NFL combine 3-cone drill. I think I sent you this last year, but it's probably worth revisiting:

More on Turning, NFL Combine, The 40, 3-Cone Drill

For us, I'm thinking the bread-and-butter attributes are, in order:

  1. Acceleration, deceleration, change of direction
  2. 20-30 yard dash (heavily depends on acceleration)

The box I describe above and the 3-cone drill cover these nicely. Not to mention playing. Not to the exclusion of distances like the 200, of course. Lots of physiological benefits of that distance. Somewhat related, I liked this post:

Connections by Vern Gambetta

In particular:

It is IMPOSSIBLE to isolate one energy system or for that matter one system of the body whether it is neural, cardio vascular, muscular, or endocrine hormonal. Recognize that there is always a spillover effect, for example 3 x 150 meter sprints at 95% with full recovery will maximally tax all systems of the body. You will be working at greater than VO2 max during a portion of that sprint. Understanding this has great implications, as a coach it took me too long to figure this out.