I dicovered it last year, and recently a couple of people have been asking what it entails.
Wikipedia describes Tabata training as "A popular regimen based on a 1996 study which uses 20 seconds of ultra-intense exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated continuously for 4 minutes (8 cycles)."
In Tabata's original study, two groups trained on a stationary bike. One group did traditional steady state exercise for 60mins per day, five days per week, for six weeks. At the end of that period, having done 30 hours of training, their mean VO2max had increased from 53ml/kg to 58ml/kg but anaerobic capacity was largely unchanged.
The second group performed the high-intensity intervals as described above. Again, this group performed the exercise five days per week for six weeks, albeit, they were only doing four minutes work per day. Having done a total of two hours exercise in six weeks, it was found that the high intensity group had increased their VO2max by an average of 7ml/kg (compared to 5ml/kg in the steady state group) and their anaerobic capacity had gone up by 28 per cent.
Those are some incredible results.
What drew me to Tabata intervals is that they are quick. The graph above shows how I perform the session on my turbo trainier and I'm done after 30mins. As anyone who has trained on a stationary trainer will tell you, the sooner you can get off the better.
Secondly, cyclocross is all about VO2max, lactate threshold and being able to get a big gear rolling, quickly, and that's what Tabata does. I do these on my CX bike, in 46x12 and in that 10secs in between intervals your revs drop to 50 or 60rpm, meaning you need to accelerate hard in the saddle to get going again.
If you look at the graph above you can see how I structure the session. I normally ride home from work then get straight on the turbo. I then spend seven minutes in the little ring spinning easily, before doing an incremental warm-up to get my heart rate up. I start at the top of the cassette (19 or 21 sprocket) and knock it down one gear every minute, maintaining the revs all the way through. The first five minutes feel pretty easy, but the last three get really quite hard. This is also the warm-up I use before a CX race, when I can be bothered to take the turbo along.
At 15minutes in I drop it back into the small ring and spin for five minutes. I have a drink, crank the fan up to 11 and mentally prepare myself for what lies ahead.
At 20 minutes in I start the Tabata session. I drop it down to 46x12 and accelerate in the saddle as hard as I can. Each interval has to be as hard as you can do it, like you're sprinting for the World Championships. While I tend to stay in the same gear all the way through, the actual work done decreases with each interval — at first I can average 135rpm, whilst by the end I'm struggling to touch 100.
As you can see, heart rate increases all the way through the session, the 10 second recoveries being massively insufficient for any real recuperation to take place.
After the last interval I'm usually so spent I have to collapse off the bike and put myself in the recovery position. Even that hurts though — you will (should) be so exhausted at the end of a Tabata session that even lying on the floor hurts.
As soon as I feel I can, I get back on the bike and cool down till the clock strikes 30 mins.
If you have a Garmin you can set up an advanced interval session to tell you exactly when to start and finish your intervals. It makes life way easier and means you don't look at the clock the whole time — you can just concentrate on turning yourself inside out.
So how often? Well, I tend to race most Sundays, so I take Mondays and Fridays as recovery days, meaning I do my "training" between Tuesday and Thursday. I find that I'm normally fresh enough to do these intervals twice per week, on Tuesday and Thursday. Trying to do them every day as they did in the original study would be a recipe for disaster — or lactate poisoning!
Tabata hurts, but at this time of year when motivation is still high, it's something I find it quite easy to motivate myself for. It hurts, but only for four minutes. Anyone can cope with that, right? Give it a go and see how you get on, and don't stop after one session — it will take two or three to get your eye in. Also, don't feel the need to do more than one set of intervals. If you warm up properly you should be able to get everything out in one set — that's Tabata's plan and the method's greatest strength. One set, as hard as you can go. Just do it — BOOM!