Tuesday, April 24, 2007

My Training / Tabata Intervals

Quite some time ago this blog began as a training diary; a couple of people have been mildly interested in my training these days -- which I'll also touch on in a tip that's coming up -- but the bottom line is that I'm training for another season of triathlons. My first will be either June 9th or June 24th. Don't know whether I'm doing the one on the 9th yet, but now that I've written it I suppose I might have to. And I MAY just do one this weekend as well in Loma Linda, though that one's looking less likely as we may have a child care conflict.

So my training consists on a lot of swimming, biking, and running, in all kinds of fiendish combinations: fast bike/slow run one day; long bike up the hills/fast swim intervals; long run followed by sprint combinations... I mix it up. Good for a guy with the limited attention span I have.

My problem as a triathlete has always been that I don't have the patience to do a lot of really long, slow endurance work, so it makes me happy that this type of training has been taking a beating in fitness circles of late anyway. I've always felt a little on the inadequate side as a triathlete because I've never done, nor really aspired to do, an Ironman (2+ miles of swimming, 112 miles biking, 26+ miles running), primarily because, well, it's ALL long, slow distance work... for about 15 hours. Just doesn't interest me; I like speed; I like feeling the muscles working away, I like holding onto a modicum of the muscle mass I try to build in the off-season, so I much prefer the sprint distance: all out for an hour or so, much like a hard gym workout. Get it done, get out, go home.

A few weeks back, while on one of my seven-hour internet searches for new fitness information and techniques (long, slow internet hunting doesn't seem to be a problem for me), I discovered a technique (which was actually formulated and named about 11 years ago) called "Tabata" intervals, which are truly brutal but very effective. Those in the know will already be familiar with Izumi Tabata, Ph.D, a Japanese coach who came up with the 20 seconds on / 10 seconds off interval that sears body fat and raises the VO2 max to new and impossible heights. It's so brutal that the protocol calls for just four minutes of intense work: eight 30-second work/rest intervals in all. As long as you really push your limits during those 20 second intervals, four minutes (following a warmup and preceding a cooldown) is PLENTY. As Tabata himself notes -- with charming detachment -- in his report on the effects of this training protocol, "The subjects lay down on the floor afterwards." Yup, it's hard.

Hardcore gym rats do Tabata intervals with weight training, by choosing a full-body movement, selecting a medium-easy weight for themselves, and doing four minutes of 20 seconds on / 10 seconds off intervals. Front squats and "thrusters" -- a kind of front-squat/barbell-jerk combo -- are popular options. I confess I haven't tried this type of workout in the weight room yet, possibly out of blind fear of the stomach-churning consequences, but it sounds tough as hell. Instead, in the interest of developing greater speed and power for racing, I've been doing them on my bike, at the end of my harder running workouts, and in the pool -- the latter by doing all-out 25 yard sprints, resting 10 seconds at the edge of the pool, and repeating for a 200-yard interval workout at the end of my longer-distance work. As long as you stick to the time and intensity constraints, it seems to work. My swimming has indeed gotten faster and easier -- surprisingly so -- and I find myself able to bike and run at a higher intensity for longer periods as well. As the research suggests, Tabata seems to raise your ceiling a bit, making everything below top intensity a little easier.

The initial studies on Tabata indicated that subjects who performed this type of hardcore interval training experienced fat loss at a rate NINE TIMES faster than that of subjects performing a more traditional steady-state cardio workout. That's a pretty remarkable difference, and a little while ago some marketing genius attempted to capitalize on this little datum. Basically a few blokes built a piece of gym equipment that looked like a space-age exercise bike, claimed that four minutes a day on the machine would get you nine times the fat loss, and -- with a straight face, mind you -- slapped a $12,000.00 price tag on the contraption. This for a single piece of equipment intended for home use. Now I've never used one of these things, so it's possible that working out on it does indeed feel better than winning the lottery and nabbing an Academy Award while having sex with your dream lover, in which case it may well be worth the price tag. But short of that, it seems like you could substitute four minutes of Tabata-style bodyweight squats and save yourself the floor space, as well as a pretty hefty chunk of scratch.

I've been starting to recommend the Tabata interval to my fitter clients of late to see what kind of results they get out of it (Tabata is decidedly not for beginners). It's really a variation on the kind of sprinting work I've recommended in the past, but this particular interval seems to hit a metabolic sweet spot that keeps the body in EPOC mode (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption, the acronym du jour for us fitness freaks) for an especially long time. And that's a good thing.


leslie said...

Thanks for the Tabata overview. I did Tabata first through a CrossFit class, and have used it since in my own training, as well as trying it with some of my fitter clients as well -- although we've just tried half Tabatas of bodyweight squats.

I'm running the Nike Women's 1/2 Marathon in October, and will be incorporating Tabata sprints into my training. Hope the intervals keep going well for you!

Anonymous said...

Are you training for the 2007 Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Triathlon on September 9 using Tabata? Seems like the Kaiser theme of "Thrive" is right up your alley.