I don’t know that cartwheels are a great sprinting technique but major props for style!
Celebrities, weight loss gurus, the Biggest Loser trainers, the elderly folks at my gym (true story and good golly do I love them for it!) – it seems like everyone is talking about the magic of Tabata training these days. But what’s the big deal about this and why is it different than any other workout fad? Well, it’s as close to a fitness miracle as you can get short of an appearance from the Ghost of Granted New Year’s Resolutions. The only trick – there’s always a trick, right? – is that to get all the benefits you have to be willing to push yourself to the I-might-vomit-in-front-of-the-cute-guy-at-the-gym stage. I totally just sold you on it, didn’t I? I’m awesome.
I like to tell people that over the past 5 years I’ve thrown up, bled, peed myself, got a stress fracture and fainted at the gym. That fainting? Courtesy of my first brush with Tabata training. It has also made me see stars, get tunnel vision (yes there was a light at the end!) and temporarily lose my hearing (which I found out later is a precursor to fainting). I know, this just keeps getting better!
Let me back up and tell you why Tabata Training is worth this kind of torture.
What is the Tabata Method?
It all started with a small study done in 1996 by a Japanese researcher – Tabata, as fate would have it – examining the effects of different training methods on elite athletes. What they discovered is a unique protocol of 20 seconds of ultra-high-intensity work followed by a rest of 10 seconds that seemed to maximize athletic improvement. Using the Tabata Method generally refers to doing 8 cycles (4 minutes) of these 20/10 intervals.
What does “ultra high intensity” mean?
Tabata defined it as exercising at 170% of your VO2 max. In layman’s terms in means 100-percent maximal intensity. By the end of the 4 minutes you should feel like you’re going to die. Truly. It hurts bad. When the Gym Buddies and I finish a round we’re sucking wind so hard our lungs ache, our legs are wobbly and sometimes we even need to sit down until the stars clear.
Are you insane? Why why WHY would anyone want to do this?
Yes. We covered that yesterday. And because the benefits, as explained by the original research and dozens of follow-up studies, are immense. Doing as little as 4 minutes (or one “Tabata”) can increase your aerobic capacity, anaerobic capacity, VO2 max, resting metabolic rate, increase insulin sensitivity, skyrocket the production of human growth hormone and can help you burn more fat than a traditional 60-minute aerobic workout. That’s right—4 minutes of Tabata can get you better fitness gains than an entire hour of running on the treadmill. Now before someone challenges me on that last assertion saying that while sprinting has long known to be beneficial, longer slower runs are the best way to increase endurance, I will say that using VO2 max and aerobic capacity as measures of endurance the research shows greater gains in the Tabata trainees than those doing traditional runs. Of course no study is perfect but I’d say the evidence makes a very compelling case for at least adding in a Tabata workout or two to your training routine.
Plus, your workout is done in 4 minutes! If that right there doesn’t convince you to try it then I don’t know what will.
Fine, how do I do it?
A few tips to get you started: First, while you can do a Tabata interval with just about any exercise, start with one in which you’re very comfortable. Most people choose sprinting on a treadmill. Second, get a good timer because no matter how good you think you are at 1-mississippi-ing, you cannot estimate when 20 seconds and 10 seconds have passed when your brain is that fuzzy. Third, get a good mantra that you can repeat in time with your footfalls for each 20-second burst. It sounds silly, but it really helps focus you on what you’re doing and not on your excruciating pain. (And no I won’t tell you mine. It’s incredibly immature and it doesn’t even rhyme correctly.)
Also, if you are doing these on a treadmill just set the speed for whatever level you want to sprint at and leave it there. Run your heart out and then jump off the sides of the belt for the 10 second rest. Don’t try raising and lowering the speed during the drill – totally doesn’t work.
I detest running. Do I have other options?
I’m so glad you asked! While running is the most common – the treadmill forces you to keep your intensity up (or turn into a human skidmark) – there are other ways that can work just as well, as long as you make sure you’re not slacking. I just wrote an article for Shape.com on 10 variations on the running Tabata to try and there’s something on there for every skill level! Pick one exercise – biking and jump roping are probably the next most-loved – and perform that one for the entire set of intervals.
Some people like to change the timing of the intervals and/or set up a circuit type workout to add more variety. While this is no longer considered a Tabata workout it is still a really great HIIT (high intensity interval training) workout with lots of benefits.
Does it really work? Really, really?
You’re asking the human fitness guinea pig, remember? It does work. This is one program that lives up to its hype. I personally lost about 7% body fat by adding twice weekly Tabata workouts. All the Gym Buddies have seen similarly great results. The secret to making them work for you is all about the motivation. I’m not going to lie: convincing yourself to do these is hard. Even knowing what we know about them, the Gym Buddies and I have talked ourselves out of doing it on many an occasion. And then you have to motivate yourself to keep pushing as hard as you can during the 20 second “on” interval. But if you can do it – it’s only 4 minutes! – it’s totally worth it.
Of course. You should be in good health – free of injury, illness and a low tolerance of embarrassment – to do these. If you have any questions, talk to your doctor first. And there’s no shame in working up to 100% maximal intensity. Even if you are just running at, say, 80% of what you are capable of, you’re still reaping benefits. Always remember that not only am I not a medical professional of any sort, I have proven myself to be a moron on more than one fitness occasion.
Did I convince you to try this or just convince you that I drank the Kool-Aid? Any questions I didn’t answer? Any big things I forgot? Anyone else have a silly running mantra they use?