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This morning I tried the Tabata protocol for the first time. Until today it was one of those workouts that I had told others how to do without ever having experienced it myself. I decided to give it a go this morning on my CycleOps 300PT indoor trainer because I am trying desperately to hold onto the fitness I built for the Boston Marathon despite not being able to run lately due to injury, and because I am looking ahead to my training for Ironman Arizona and wanting to establish a foundation of cycling fitness as quickly as possible, and the Tabata protocol is perfectly designed to meet both of these needs. It packs a massive aerobic and anaerobic training stimulus into a very small session, and this quality makes it well suited both to maintaining fitness during periods of reduced training volume and to developing fitness quickly in modalities in which one is relative untrained and cannot yet handle more traditional hard workouts.

 

 

The Tabata protocol is applicable to a variety of modalities, but it works best on a stationary bike. I recently bought a truly awesome indoor trainerthe aforementioned CycleOps 300 PTfor my Ironman training and store it in the second bedroom of my new apartment, so it's especially convenient for me to do this sort of workout in this particular modality.

 

 

The Tabata protocol, named after Japanese exercise physiologist Izumi Tabata, consists of 8 x 20-second intervals at maximum intensity with 10-secondthat's right, 10-secondpassive recoveries between intervals. That's two minutes and 40 seconds of all-out sprinting in a period of four minutes. There is pretty much no modification to this format that you could possibly make to increase the combined aerobic/anaerobic challenge that it imposes. Those 10-second rests are just long enough to allow one to sustain an intensity level through the 2:40 of total work that is substantially higher than one could sustain in a 2:40 maximum effort without breaks, but not long enough to make the aerobic demand any lower than it would be in a 2:40 time trial.

 

 

The coaches and trainers I have interviewed about Tabata intervals have told me that it is just about the most immiserating exercise experience you could imagine--an unmitigated sufferfest. So I was prepared to hurt. I had also been told that it takes a couple of tries to get the hang of the workout. You have to fumble through it a couple of times before you find the resistance level that allows you to perform the maximum total amount of work in the eight intervals. So I was prepared to have to make adjustments as I went.

 

 

I started with a 10-minute warm-up, then cranked up the resistance and sprinted. Or so I thought. But about three-quarters of the way through that first interval I realized that I was pacing myself and increased my power output substantially in the last 5 seconds.

 

 

The first 10-second rest brought me more relief than I had expected and left me reay to go truly all-out from the beginning of the second interval. But early in the third interval I realized I had miscalculated the appropriate resistance level. I bonked horribly, finding myself able to turn the pedals only two-thirds as fast as I had in the second interval yet hurting even more. So I reduced the resistance level during my third rest period and achieved an all-out effort in the remaining intervals by turning the cranks at a furious cadence.

 

 

I found a groove in those last five intervals. In fact, the workout turned out to be not quite as hard as I had expected it to be. Don't get me wrong--it was hard; but I had expected it to be harder than the interval workouts I am accustomed to doing, and it was not. In retrospect I'm not surpised. Tabata intervals are practiced and prescribed mostly by gym exercisers who know nothing of the suffering that occurs in your typical track workout. So for them, Tabata is like being fileted alive. For endurance athletes it's just another workout.

 

 

Except not quite. Few endurance athletes ever combine all-out sprint intervals with very short rest periods. After completing my first Tabata session this morning I felt as hollow-legged, oxygen-starved, and light-headed, and was sweating as profusely, as I do after the most brutal track session, but the whole **** workout had lasted only 15 minutes!

 

 

In the study that made the workout that bears his name famous, Izumi Tabata found that six weeks of the protocol increased the VO2max of trained subjects by 14 percent and increased their anaerobic capacity by 28 percent. I hope that it works half as well for me, but I'm not exactly sure how I will be able to judge how well it is working. Perhaps, if I still run sub-2:40 in Boston despite running fewer than 50 miles in the last 25 days preceding it, I will be able to credit Tabata!

 

 

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