By Laurel-Lea Shannon
Have you ever planned a workout only to find that your day fills up in unexpected ways, leaving you with 20 minutes for exercise rather than the hour you were counting on? Next time that happens, don’t skip your workout. Consider doing Tabata intervals instead.
What Are Tabata Intervals?
After warming up for at least 10 minutes, cycle as hard as you can in a higher gear for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat seven times for a total of eight sets or four minutes. (You may need to gear down to complete the last few sets.) Sound easy? It’s not. But on the plus side, the pain is short-lived.
Tabata intervals were developed by Dr. Izumi Tabata and a team of researchers in Japan, who conducted a study to compare the effect of moderate-intensity endurance exercise and high-intensity interval training on aerobic* and anaerobic capacity**.
Two groups of subjects were tested using a mechanically braked ergometer—a stationary bike that maintains a specific cycling rate to keep the exercise rate constant. The first group exercised at 70% V02max for 60 minutes, five days a week for six weeks. The second group did seven to eight sets of 20-second intervals at 170% V02max with 10-second rests between bouts, five days a week for six weeks.
The results? The two groups had comparable increases in aerobic power* (V02max), but the moderate-intensity endurance athletes didn’t increase their anaerobic capacity significantly. The four-minute workout group, however, showed an increase of 28% in anaerobic capacity.
The conclusion? Moderate-intensity endurance workouts increase V02max but Tabata intervals improve both aerobic power and anaerobic capacity.
Does this mean that you should replace your two or three-hour weekend rides with an 18-minute workout (10 minutes warm up + four minutes of intervals + four minutes cool down)? No, but Tabata intervals can be a useful part of a broader workout schedule. They temporarily send your heart rate into the stratosphere, so check with your doctor before doing them.
*Aerobic means “with oxygen”. Also referred to as V02max, it measures the highest amount of oxygen consumed during an intense exercise that uses the large muscle groups in the legs, such as cycling.
**Anaerobic means “without oxygen”. Anaerobic capacity is the power produced without oxygen. For example, sprinting at the end of a race is an anaerobic activity. This level of activity can only be maintained from four to twenty seconds. The latter is the upper level for well-trained athletes.
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