Walk up to a college or even high school track coach and ask, “Do you think 8 x 160-meter near-maximal sprints with only 10 seconds rest is a good workout?”
They will laugh you right off the track. They will think you are nuts.
Welcome to the Tabata workout protocol. The destination workout for all of those who took some exercise science classes, and lost connection with the reality of actual interval training.
Tabata workouts were originally developed in the 1990s as 7-8 x 20 seconds at 170% Vo2max with only 10 seconds recovery. They were deemed the magic workout, the one that gives you an aerobic and anaerobic boost. They’ve since been translated to doing just about anything for 20 seconds with short recovery, but that’s beside the point.
Hard, exhausting work can benefit performance. This isn’t rocket science.
But that’s the wrong question to ask. Lots of athletes have done lots of exhausting work and gotten better. Jim Ryun ran 3:51 for the mile off of a staple of running 400m repeats for like 3 hours after school… No one does that anymore and for good reason.
The actual question is: are Tabata workouts special or particularly effective, or better than other hard workouts?
To those questions, I’d answer a resounding no. In fact, they are likely worse, over the long haul.
Why Tabata workouts work?
Simple: It’s really freaking hard.
You are going near all out for 20 seconds and then only taking 10 seconds of recovery. What do you think happens? You accumulate a lot of fatigue by-products in the first rep or two. The short rest makes it where anaerobically you can’t recover, so you become increasingly reliant on aerobic energy to make do. So you get this nice mixed workout that is high intensity to start, but then you’re just trying to survive as your aerobic system maxes out to try and cover the holes in the leaking lifeboat.
Thanks to all of this, you slow down dramatically. You also get a decent training stimulus in a few different directions.
Some high neural drive to recruit muscle fibers in the first 1-2 reps when you are actually going fast? Check.
Rapid onset of fatigue by-products? Check
Drop in pH, flooding of muscles with by-products that make it hard to function? Check
Aerobic system maxed out for a bit? Check
Oxygen debt that needs to be repaid? Check.
There is no doubt that all of these things stimulate adaptation. Then, what’s the problem?
Doing any exercise to utter exhaustion will give you similar adaptations. The problem is: this is about the most painful and inefficient way you could accomplish these goals. And one that quite frankly isn’t sustainable.
It’s the ‘high school football coach attempting to coach track for the first time who has no idea what he is doing’ method to improving fitness.
Let’s find out why.
The Downfall of Tabata Intervals
1. We are ingraining falling apart/holding on for dear life.
The original Tabata protocol tried to keep intensity constant at 170% VO2max. They tried to correct for fatigue by saying they were exhausted once the pedalling frequency fell below 85 rpm. But this is arbitrary.
A far better indicator would be how the power output ebbed and flowed during the exercise.
Secondly, for those at home, calculating what 170% VO2Max means is impossible unless you go do an actual VO2max test. It’s not as simple as taking 100% VO2max and multiplying by 1.7…
You first need a speed vs. VO2 graph. You plot a line establishing your paces vs. VO2 for a variety of speed. Then multiply your VO2max by 1.7 (i.e. if you reached VO2max at 70, multiply by 1.7 to get 119.) Then go find 119 on that graph/line, and look over to where your speed would be if that line kept extending outwards.
What a mess…. Fortunately, I took an old steady-state and VO2max test on myself and did the math for you.
For in shape (and younger) Steve, 170% VO2max would equate to running at…. 22 miles per hour.
Wait…what in the actual… okay, so I’d be sprinting. And you want me to try to do that eight times with 10 seconds rest….dear lord. Shoot me.
Okay, so maybe, hopefully, their little equation doesn’t apply to running and only to cycling.
The point is: You are going to end up training falling apart. 170% Vo2max no matter how you slice it is incredibly intense. It’s not even like 800m pace intense. It’s near max intense.
There is no way you aren’t practicing slowing down, losing speed, falling apart in this workout. And I’m not against falling apart in a workout, but the time to do so is exceedingly rare. You ingrain poor mechanics and poor habits. It’s so rare that we have a name for it: a “see God” workout.
The times you need to See God are very few and far between. Don’t agree with me, just listen to the best endurance athlete on the planet, Eliud Kipchoge
2. Research studies using Interval training = Sharpening and Peaking
One of the common mistakes in researching training in the lab is that they are almost always short-term studies. They take moderately trained people who have usually been jogging or lifting or cycling 3-5x per week at a relatively moderate intensity, then they put them through 4 to 6 weeks of interval training.
(In fact, in the original Tabata study, they took college students who were mostly members of the university’s baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming, and table tennis teams. In other words…people who were all with a baseline of working out.)
What happens when you take fit individuals and put them through 6 weeks of intense training?
Boom! Their performance improves. We get to proclaim this new training style as the best ever…
Or…you just put these athletes through a 4-6 week sharpening period like any junior high or high school track coach would do, and has been done a century. Every decent coach knows that you can cram fitness for a short period of time by doing a lot of high-intensity work. But… if you try to do that year-round, if you try to do that without having a high enough volume of easy to moderate exercise, you will inevitably see performance stagnate and more likely, crash and burn.
It’s rule #1 of high school cross-country coaching. Every coach knows of the program that comes out on fire early in the season only to fade late because they’ve been hammering intervals for too long.
It’s the amateur coach thing to do.
3. VO2max does NOT equal aerobic fitness
The reason this workout is alluring is that it sells the message that you can have your cake and eat it too. You can get both anaerobic and aerobic fitness in the same workout. This is a gross simplification.
In the original work, they saw an increase in VO2max. Often, VO2max gets confused for the great and only indicator of aerobic endurance performance. It’s not.
No, you aren’t getting the best bang for your buck. You’re simply adapting to an extreme stimulus. This will make you marginally better at some endurance performance. But it is NOT a substitute for running long and slow, if you actually care about your true endurance capacity.
Don’t take my word for it, listen to these researchers who concluded in a 2009 study, “Moreover, we demonstrate that VO2max and aerobic performance associate with distinct and separate physiological and biochemical endpoints, suggesting that proposed models for the determinants of endurance performance may need to be revisited ”
Let’s not belabor this point. If you want to nerd out on this one, go read my first book Science of Running.
4. There are workouts that are short and easier that accomplish the same thing. And are sustainable over the long haul.
Instead of Tabata, take the classic staple of middle-distance runners. Run 10-16x200m with a 200m jog at mile to 800m pace. It’s a bit slower, a bit more rest, and you still get a nice aerobic and anaerobic reward from it.
Or you can find workouts that improve the various adaptations better than Tabata:
If you want to work on anaerobic capacity, well you might have to hurt, but why not do something that is far more effective? Maybe 4x200m at 400m pace with 5-7 minutes rest.
Do you want to improve VO2max? How about doing an interval workout that targets it better? Maybe 6x2min at 3k pace with 2min jog. Oh, you don’t have much time? Do the classic 30/30 drill. 30 seconds at about 3k to mile pace with 30 seconds rest.
Want to improve your lactate threshold? Go do a nice tempo run. 20 or so minutes, comfortable hard.
Do you want to get fitter aerobically? Go on a nice 30-60min run with your friends talking the entire time. If you can’t talk, slow down.
The point being… there are so many workouts that maximize the components of a Tabata workout…and even those that give you about the same benefit overall… that are way less risky, way less painful, and way more sustainable.
Is doing a Tabata workout better than not doing any quality hard workouts? Yes.
But you literally have dozens upon dozens of better, more sustainable, more impactful workouts you could choose from that don’t have the downsides and drawbacks of going crazy on a bike or on the track.
Tabata workouts aren’t a magic cure-all. They are lazy coaching. They are the grasp at the ‘cure-all’, the Walmart of workouts, the one-stop-shop, do-everything gadget. There are much better options. Please, find one.
This isn’t complicated folks. If you want to be good at something, train for the demands of those events.
But the people using Tabata workouts aren’t those training for a mile or a marathon. They are often well-meaning people who are training for health and fitness. Here, the answer doesn’t lie in Tabata sprints, it’s quite simple. If you want to train for health, fitness, longevity, or whatever it is, follow these guidelines:
Mostly easy, occasionally hard, vary it, and very seldom, go see God.
Mostly Easy: Go on easy runs, walks, bike rides, or whatever you’d like. How easy? You should be able to have a full-on conversation. How much? Minimum 4 times a week, but do as often as you’d like. How long? 45-60minutes. Longer if you’d like.
Occasionally Hard, Vary it Up: Once a week, do something hard. About a 7 out of 10. There is no magic workout. Do short intervals that are faster, do medium intervals that are a touch slower and longer, do longer intervals or steady efforts that are moderate and more of a steady grind. Cycle through them.
Occasionally go fast, but not fatigued. Sprint up a short hill (8-10sec) and take full recovery. Do some fast strides down the street. Pedal hard for 15 seconds with 3-4 minutes recovery.
Seldom, Go See God: A few times a year, do a workout or race where you go to the well. Where you see what’s there. These are what I call perspective changers. Times that remind you what true discomfort is. Don’t go here too often.
Lift some weights: Whole-body movements, don’t get complicated. Push, pull, squat, carry, whatever you’d like. 1-2x per week.
That’s it. No magic recipe. Every workout gives you a slightly different stimulus. Get creative and have fun.