Tabata Intervals

( Note: here are my other Tabata Interval posts. )

In preparing for the 2005 Ultimate Frisbee season, I made the switch for the first time from predominantly long aerobic training to high intensity interval training (HIIT). Before I get into all the supporting documentation, let me repeat something: last season my workouts were hour-long moderate intensity aerobic sessions. This season my workouts were 20-minute HIIT sessions. When I finally stepped on the field in the spring this season, I was easily two months ahead of where I was the previous season, conditioning-wise. In other words, I cut my workout times by 66%, and was significantly, noticeably more fit as a result.

The workout I adopted was Taku's Interval Training. Taku underscores the point above (he's writing for combat athletes, but it really applies to all athletes except pure endurance athletes, like marathoners):

Hopefully it is starting to sink in that for combat sports, long slow distance training is ineffective. Jogging or running at a steady pace continually for 20-45-60 minutes at a time is really a massive waste of valuable training and conditioning time. To maximize your efficiency while training "Cardio" for combat sports build your routine around high intensity interval training.

You can skip down to "THE PROGRAM" if you don't want to read the science. What it boils down to though is this: once you've worked yourself up to the most intense form of the intervals, you do 15 minutes warm-up, followed by 5 minutes of intense training, followed by 5 minutes cool down. I know that looks impossible, but you are reading that right: the hard part of the workout is only five minutes long. This is exactly the routine I substituted for 60-minutes of lower-intensity aerobic work, with much better results.

I have since found many more articles detailing this form of HIIT. Phase 3 that Taku describes is a Tabata Interval, named after the study by Izumi Tabata that compared it to a different interval. I haven't found the study itself online, but Peak Performance has a compelling summary:

On a different day the subjects performed two different kinds of interval workout. The first session (I1) comprised bouts of 20 seconds with 10 seconds rest at an intensity equivalent to 170% of their VO2max. The subjects performed six or seven bouts each until reaching exhaustion, ie, they could no longer continue at the prescribed intensity. The second session (I2) comprised bouts of 30 seconds with two minutes rest at an intensity of 200% of their VO2max. The subjects managed four or five of these bouts. [snip]

The conclusion from these findings seems to be that the I1 workout, the 20-second bouts with 10 secs recovery at 170% VO2max, is a better training stimulus for aerobic and anaerobic systems than the I2 workout of 30-second bouts with two mins recovery at 200% VO2max. In support of this, Tabata et al found that a six-week regime of I1 resulted in a 13 per cent improvement in VO2max.

The results of this research by Tabata et al clearly show that two different intervals workouts have different demands and therefore training effects. I1, with 20-second bouts with 10 secs rest at 170% VO2max places the aerobic and anaerobic systems at peak stress. Therefore it would be a fine session for improving both aerobic and anaerobic capacity. Events where both aerobic and anaerobic demands are high are, for example, 400m, 800m and 1500m running, sprint cycling, canoeing, rowing and speed skating. This kind of workout would be great for these sports. Games players may also want to use the I1 workout as an intense training method for improving aerobic and anaerobic fitness.

The benefits described above are from just one Tabata set (20 seconds all-out work followed by 10 seconds rest, repeated 8-10 times). The gang at Crossfit string multiple Tabata sets together in a workout titled Tabata This. Ross Enamait, in his fantastic book The Underground Guide to Warrior Fitness also advocates stringing together Tabata sets. There are many exercises that lend themselves to the Tabata treatment: sprints, jump rope, squats, pushups, burpees (killer), chinnies, etc. There's no end to the ways you can torture yourself with Tabatas.

The one good thing about all that aerobic training was that it laid a pretty good foundation upon which I could build this more intense work. You would not want to undertake Tabatas or any other HIIT without a solid conditioning base. As is true for everything I write here—but particularly for stuff like this that might make your heart explode—consult a doctor before embarking on new fitness regimes.