Tabata Cycling Workout Protocol and Background

The word ‘tabata’ has been used by coaches and athletes across cycling, running, crossfit, weight training, and aerobic exercise classes at your local YMCA. In truth, the word tabata comes from Izumi Tabata, a Japanese sports scientist who, in 1996, published fascinating results from a cycling specific routine. Tabata, as an exercise modality, has since taken the fitness world by storm.

This image shows the curves of a variation of tabata within the sport of cycling.
The power and heart rate curves of a tabata variation on an uphill slope. This variation includes a short break halfway through to ensure the athletes gets 10 intervals.

In 2019, Tabata published a follow up on his cycling protocol. In that report, he specifically noted that were was insufficient evidence to extrapolate his tabata workouts beyond cycling to “running [or] various body-weight bearing exercises (e.g., burpees and squat jumps).” While the jury may be out on tabata for other sports, the protocol for cycling is sound and effective.

The Tabata Protocol for Cycling

Training Response

Tabata’s 1996 paper noted VO2max increases of 7 ml/kg/min, some 10-15% increase in performance for moderately trained individuals. On top of that, he noted a 28% increase in anaerobic capacity in these same subjects. The tabata protocol is unique because it stimulates response in both the aerobic and anaerobic systems.

Protocol

Athletes trained 5x per week for 6 weeks. Each workout day started with 10 minutes at 50% of VO2max. For four of the five workout days, athletes completed 7-8 sets of the following:

One Set of Tabata

  • 20 seconds at 170% of VO2max and 10 seconds rest (no pedalling). These two efforts were alternated until exhaustion, defined as dropping below 85 cadence.
  • Athletes were expected to complete about 6-7 sets, one after another with only the 10 second break. 
  • Although no time for the break between sets was established, 3-5 minutes is a good idea.

Other Notes

If the athlete made it to 9 sets of tabata (rather than the expected 7-8) before exhaustion, their next workout would increase in power by 11 watts. To clarify, if 170% of your VO2max is 500w, the next workout intensity would be 511w for the 20 second portions of the protocol. On the fifth workout day of the week, athletes did 30 minutes at 70% of VO2max and then 4 sets of tabata.

Tabata Cycling Workout

Following the protocol above, a typical cycling workout using the tabata protocol would look something like this:

10 minutes at 50% VO2max (Endurance Zone 2)
7-8 sets of :
6-7 sets of the following with no rest between sets :
20 seconds at 170% VO2max
10 seconds without pedalling
Rest 3-5 minutes
5-10 minutes at 50% VO2max (Endurance Zone 2) cooldown

Why the Tabata Protocol Works for Cycling

The purpose of this specific protocol is to maximally fatigue both the aerobic and anaerobic systems. Izumi Tabata specifically noted the importance of the time frame and intensity.

Follow Up Tabata Study

In a second research paper published 6 months later, Tabata compared two protocols, the first (IE1) was the tabata protocol above. The second (IE2) was another high intensity exercise protocol where athletes completed an effort of 30 seconds at 200% VO2max. Afterwards, they rested for 2 minutes and continued to exhaustion (4-5 sets). 

Comparing these two protocols, the tabata protocol elicited maximal aerobic and anaerobic fatigue in the subject. IE2, on the other hand, did not elicit maximal fatigue in the athletes. This follow-up study indicates that the tabata protocol is beneficial because of its unique ability to maximally tax our energy systems. This maximal stimulus elicits maximal response in improvements in exercise performance. 

Why Tabata Works

All in all, the goal is to maximize the time spent at high intensity. It is known that time spent at or above VO2max is the main contributor to improvements in VO2max. It could be speculated that the reason this protocol elicits such a strong response compared to control protocols is because of the time that an athlete can spend at 170% of VO2max in a single given workout. In an average tabata protocol, an athlete will spend approximately 7.5 bouts of 6.5 sets of 20 seconds at 170% VO2max, or about 16.5 minutes. This is a massive amount of time to spend at ~600w in a single workout. As a result, the body’s response to the effort is massive. 

Variations of Tabata for Cycling And Other Sports

Cycling

Some coaches will extend the tabata protocol to other time periods. Some will do 30 seconds ‘on’, 15 seconds ‘off’. Others will recommend 40 seconds ‘on’, 20 seconds ‘off’. I am skeptical of the effectiveness of these other time periods. It’s difficult to maintain 170% of VO2max for these longer durations. If the athlete cannot maintain 170% of VO2max, there is no guarantee that they are maximally taxing their aerobic or anaerobic systems. The training stimulus may be lost. Tabata himself is quick to note that his work should not be extrapolated beyond the research he directly published until other independent studies have been done on these other lengths of time. 

Other Sports

As I noted earlier, Tabata also emphasizes that tabata workouts should not be extrapolated to running or burpees or push-ups. His reasoning is sound; there is no guarantee that the body is going to be taxed in the same way. Push-ups and burpees do not tax the aerobic or anaerobic system enough to elicit a response to any system. This is also true with running; there is no guarantee of the intensity of the efforts. As a researcher, it is disappointing to see Tabata’s work incorrectly extrapolated beyond his own research. His message has been diluted. The goal of the tabata protocol is to elicit intense aerobic and anaerobic stimulus, through cycling, to increase exercise capacity in trained athletes.

If we want to see the same responses that the research subjects experienced, we should be looking to follow the protocol as closely as possible.

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