The Trick to Tabata Workouts [Bring a Barf Bag]

by Charlotte on September 27, 2010 · 10 comments

This is one way to ensure you are running at maximal ability. Not that I recommend it.

20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest. That’s one Tabata interval or “Tabata” if you’re in the gym and want to sound like all the cool kids. Sounds simple, right? This little gem, a staple of most of the hardest workouts around, revolutionized – some say even began – the fitness frenzy surrounding high intensity interval training or “HIIT.” (To prove you’re both hip and culturally relevant, feel free to tell your workout partner to “HIIT me baby, one more time!” Bonus points if you do the hair-flippy move. Extra bonus points if your partner replies, “Ok, Bit-Bit!”(Double parenthetical: Have you seen that video lately? She was such an earnest little singer! And, also, there’s no way she hasn’t had a boob job.))

Why Tabatas?
So how could something so simple be so revolutionary? According to the research, first started by Tabata himself on elite Japanese athletes, doing as little as four minutes (or 8 Tabatas) can increase your aerobic capacity, anaerobic capacity, VO2 max, resting metabolic rate, burn more fat (and make you look 200% crazier) not only as good as, but better than, a traditional 60 minute aerobic workout. That’s right – 4 minutes of Tabatas can get you better fitness gains than a whole hour of running on the treadmill.

How To Do Tabatas
So why isn’t everyone doing them? Well I said it was simple but I never said it was easy. In fact, if it is easy then you’re doing it wrong. Those 20 seconds of rest are balls-to-the-wall* all out 100% effort. You should see stars. Your heart should be trying to claw a hole in your chest cavity to get out. You should be able to play Rorshach in the ginormous puddle of sweat surrounding your machine. You might even see a light and a long tunnel (don’t worry, you’re not dying it’s just the flashlight thingy the medics are shining in your eyes to check for a concussion after you passed out and hit your head on the treadmill handlebars.) You know those RPE (rate of perceived exertion) charts on the wall of every gym? During Tabatas, you should be a 10+. Barftastic!

Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be a runner to do Tabatas. Any aerobic activity – biking, swimming, jump roping, boxing, squatting, Matrix-style building jumping – can be adapted to a Tabata interval. Although for beginners, running is probably the simplest way to start. For myself, the best (read: hardest) Tabatas I’ve ever done were punching Sensei Don during Karate class. Yeah, yeah, he was holding pads up. (I split my knuckles wide open on ‘em and he still made me finish! I have never been so proud of workout wounds.) Incidentally, the very first Great Fitness Experiment I ever ran – over 3 years ago – was Tabata intervals for twenty horrible minutes on the stationary bike. To this day, the Gym Buddies and I do them about once a week.

To do a running Tabata, all you need is a track or a treadmill. If you are on the track, simply run at full speed for 20 seconds, stop and suck wind like you’re the only windmill keeping South Dakota on the grid for 10 insanely short seconds, and then repeat 7 more times. If you are on the tready, power that baby up until it sounds like a jet ready for takeoff. The Gym Buddies and I do max speed but just do whatever you think is the fastest you can run. It will look scary and too fast but you’ll be fine once you jump on, I promise. (Or you’ll fall off. I’ve done that too. You’ll still be fine, albeit a tad rug-burned.) Jump on and run for 20 seconds. Straddle the belt and hoover in some air for 10 seconds. Repeat 7 times.

The Trick
The trick to a good Tabata workout is this: a good timer. You cannot estimate when 20 seconds and 10 seconds have passed. I promise you. No matter how good you think you are 1-mississippi-ing, your brain will be so fuzzy that you will need help. If you are running on a treadmill you can use the clock on the display – just make sure you start on a 0 or you’ll have to do math and sprint at the same time which adds a level of difficulty not even Einstein would want.

If you’re not on a treadmill though, timing is hard. There is an iPhone app for it (if there’s a “Pocket Girlfriend” app, of course there’s a Tabata timer!) but who wants to hold their phone in their sweaty hand while they’re sprinting so hard that blackness is overtaking their vision thereby making it highly likely they will crash into something (a real girlfriend, maybe?)? You can download a “Tabata song” onto your iPod that just beeps repetitively for half an hour but then you can’t listen to your music while you do it. You can also program your watch to beep in intervals but if you can figure out how to do that then you’re smarter than me and my computer science degree put together. (Ok, not that that’s hard – I’m a ridiculously bad programmer.)

The easiest way I’ve found is to just get a simple gym timer. Gymboss sent me one of theirs to try out for free and I really liked it. Its only purpose in life is to be an interval timer. No worries about deleting your podcast or resetting your lap count or accidentally changing your ring tone to *beep* 20 seconds *beep* 10 seconds. You can set it to any interval you’d like and it also has a vibrate option if you prefer to be discreet with your Tabata-lovin’.

Any of you love (to hate) Tabatas like I do? How do you time yours? Are you the kind of person who prefers short super-intense workouts or would you rather run at a steady pace for 60 minutes than endure a HIIT? Anyone else ever fallen off the treadmill??

*All these years I’ve been saying this, I have thought it had something to do with running balls – as in basketballs, kickballs, whatever-balls – to the wall in some kind of mad speed drill. But having just typed that out I think it may perhaps have a cruder meaning? Although I can’t imagine what those balls would have to do with walls and running. Please don’t disillusion me. Update: Chelsey educated me in the comments, “I believe that “balls to the wall” is actually an aviation metaphor. That stick that they push forward to make the plane go faster has a ball on top of it and when it’s pushed “to the wall” you are going all out.” So both my innocent and dirty thoughts were wrong! Buwhahahah!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie February 7, 2013 at 4:48 pm

If I’m tabata beginner, today was my first try, is it more important to run full force even if I can only run 15 seconds or should I pull back a little so I can run 20 seconds? I was able to run 20 seconds the first run, the second was close, but after that I pulled up about 15 seconds.

Thanks Julie

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Audry January 28, 2014 at 12:24 am

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