What is Tabata and How Can You Use It To Improve Your Running?

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) programs exist across athletic fields. There are many variations to these workouts, depending on the muscles you want to focus, the sport you’re playing, and the goals you’re chasing. Like most HIITs, Tabata is a brief, highly-focused and grueling exercise meant to push you to your limits. It’s also a rather universal workout regimen, as runners, bodybuilders, and anyone else can partake in it and see personal bests get broken. Of course, Tabata can be used to improve your running, but it won’t be easy; it’s high-intensity for a reason.

The Origin of Tabata (and how it works)

Dr. Izumi Tabata developed the regimen in 1996. Tabata and a team of researchers were hired by the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo to assess the training regimen of the institute’s speed skating team. He broke the team up into two different groups and tested their aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (muscle) at medium and high-intensity training levels, respectively. The medium group worked out one hour a day five days a week for six weeks. The high-intensity group only worked out for four minutes and 20 seconds on the same schedule.

Dr. Tabata found that the medium-intensity group showed gains in their aerobic health but not in their anaerobic. The high-intensity group showed marked gains in both categories. With that, Dr. Tabata devised a simple and (brutally) effective training regimen:

  1. Workout as hard as you can for 20 seconds.
  2. Rest for 10 seconds.
  3. Do eight sets.

The prevailing theory was that muscles were given only a brief period of time to recover before the workout begins again. While there are inherent dangers to this, those muscles would also be at their most malleable and open to growth. Since you are working at your full potential, you are burning substantial calories, and with the proper mix of exercises, adding to your aerobic and anaerobic health.

The Tabata structure can be implemented into any workout regimen and can be used to cover different muscle groups, so long as you keep to the 20/10 rule. For instance, in less than an hour, you might do several Tabata variations. One for your, one for your chest, one for your legs. All of these workouts would take you to your limit and meet your requirements for the day. That means doing as many reps (or, in our case, running as hard and as fast as you can) in that 20 second time period. It’s as efficient as it is difficult. It is the perfect exercise for those who have little time but want results.

Of course, our focus is on running, so let’s stick to that.

But before we do, let’s answer an important question. 

Can Beginners Try Tabata?

Technically, yes, as the video below demonstrates.

However, the Tabata method is (purposely) very difficult for even the most experienced runners. Beginners, whose forms may not be as developed, or whose muscles are quite ready for that level of exertion, may not be able to complete the exercise and are at a higher risk of injury. However, there are beginners versions of the Tabata structure that can help ease you in.

First, do a five to ten-minute warm-up that focuses on the muscles you want to target. Let’s say you want to work on your quadriceps and your core. A great beginner’s Tabata exercise would have you do two old favorites: squats and crunches.

Crunches: Focus: Core, abs.

Duration: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Cross your arms in front of your chest. Many people put their hands behind their head. Don’t do this. Reflexive tension could hurt your neck.  
  3. Bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor. Keep your feet hip-length apart.
  4. Lift the upper part of your torso by engaging the abs.
  5. Lie back down and pause for a moment before lifting again, as you do not want momentum to do the job for you.
  6. Repeat at best possible speed. 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

Bodyweight Squats: Focus: quadriceps

Duration: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

  1. Feet set shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hands behind your head like you’re about to be cuffed.
  3. Using your hips, dip downward like you’re sitting in a chair. Knees and hips should be flexed.
  4. Dip as far as possible. This will be different for everyone, don’t worry. Keep your knees outward. Head and chest facing straight ahead.
  5. Quickly rise again into a standing position.
  6. Repeat at best possible speed. 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

There are multiple benefits to this. By working out different areas, you can fit in more than one Tabata exercise into your workout. Please keep in mind that doing one doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do the other in the same workout as well.  Tabata exercises may seem small and brief on paper, but keep in mind that those 20 seconds have to be done at your absolute best. It’s quite possible that this might be too much for you your first time out as well. If so, only choose one of these exercises and do as best you can with it.

If you find them the Tabata structure to your liking, feel free to apply it to other basic workouts. You’ll notice that some of these exercises focus on different body parts. It should go without saying, but the entire body needs to be working in unison for you to run optimally. Your core and your arms are very important for your balance and stride while running. These exercises do not need to be done as often if you choose but can be very helpful depending on your goals. If you’re not familiar with these exercises, don’t worry–we’ve included videos so you can get a sense of what they look like. 

Knee High Jog: Focus: quadriceps

Duration: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

  1. Spread your feet shoulder-length apart, knees bent.
  2. Keep your arms at your sides.
  3. Bring your right knee up to your belly button (like in a run, just bringing the knee up higher)
  4. Bring your right knee back down while bringing the left one up.  
  5. Jog in place at your best possible speed: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

Jump Rope: Focus: quadriceps and hamstrings.

Duration: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.  

  1. Don’t trip over the rope. Other than that, it’s hard to guide you. 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

Push-ups: Focus: Chest, arms

Duration: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

  1. Hands flat on the floor shoulder-width apart, elbows pointed at your toes.
  2. Using only your arms, push yourself upward. Keep your body straight like a plank.
  3. Bring your weight back down at the arms, until you reach a 90-degree angle.
  4. Repeat at best possible speed.

Lunging Calf Stretches: Focus: Calves, of course.

Duration: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

  1. Step one leg forward.
  2. Bend the front leg while keeping the back leg straight.
  3. Keep the back leg straight while pushing the heel of the foot into the ground.
  4. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds.
  5. Repeat with the other leg.
  6. Repeat at best possible speed.

Advanced Exercises

In the words of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, “Congratulations, you made it!” We’d use a few other of his motivation quotes, but we don’t want to get in trouble. If you’re reading this far, there’s a good chance that you’re ready to go to the next level of your Tabata exercises. Many of the examples you’ll see are more dynamic variations of exercises you’re well acquainted with. Hell, you might even do these exercises already, but as with everything Tabata-related, it’s the speed that will make you wish you were back in the beginner’s section.

Also, please note, that while the exercises are more dynamic, the actual duration of the exercise and the number of sets have not changed. Your muscles need to be pushed when they are at their most malleable to increase gains. That’s pushed, not pulled from the bone. 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets. Live by these rules.

Jump Squat: Focus: quadriceps

Duration: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

  1. Like all squats, you’ll want to keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. When in position, jump up explosively.
  3. Land carefully back into the squat position.
  4. Repeat at best possible speed.

Burpee: Focus: quadriceps

Duration: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

  1. Legs should be shoulder-width apart.
  2. Squat down, hands on the floor (like the form of a frog).
  3. Keep your elbows bent like a push-up. Now kick your legs back so that your stomach is flat on the floor.
  4. Press upward, like you’re doing a push-up. Ready your hips to launch back up.
  5. Jump to your feet (keep them under your hips) and return to a standing position.
  6. Repeat at best possible speed.

Mountain Climbers: Focus: quadriceps

Duration: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

  1. Push-up position. Keep your weight on your toes and hands.
  2. Flex your knee and hip, and bring your knee forward until you’re in a runner’s “starting position” with weight on the toe.
  3. Quickly reverse the positions of your legs.
  4. Repeat as fast a possible.

Ice Skaters: Focus: gluteal, core

Duration: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

  1. Feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Bend your knees and leap to your right…
  3. …landing on your right foot, while letting your left leg swing behind you.
  4. Reverse: leap to your left foot while swinging the right behind you.
  5. Going from left to right is considered a single rep. Repeat at best possible speed. 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

Spiderman Plank: Focus: core, quads

Duration: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

  1. Assume planking position, but put your arms in front of your shoulders at a 90-degree angle. Feet together, toes curled like a push-up.
  2. While keeping your body straight, bring your right knee toward your right elbow.
  3. Return to starting plank position.
  4. Left leg’s turn.
  5. Repeat at best possible speed.

Bulgarian Split Squats with Hop: Focus: quads, calves

Duration: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets.

Note: You’ll need a surface of about two or three feet to rest your foot on.

  1. Feet hip-width apart with your right foot resting on the surface behind you.
  2. Lower your hips to the floor as far as possible with your left foot.
  3. With the heel of your left foot, jump off the floor explosively.
  4. Land as softly as possible.
  5. Switch feet.
  6. Repeat at best possible speed.  

Scheduling your Tabata (Beginner and Advanced)

At both Beginner and Advanced levels, you should do your Tabata exercises every other day two or three times a week in conjunction with your other workouts. This is a total-body workout meant to maximize your gains. The more calories you burn, the more weight you’ll lose, the lighter and potentially faster you will be. It’s best to do two leg-based muscle clusters (quads, calves) since our focus is on running. However, give yourself some room to breathe by focusing on another muscle group in between. Allow for a 60-second rest period between each workout so your heart rate can decrease a bit.

For example, your Tabata schedule on Monday might look like this:

  • Knee High Jog: (20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets).
  • 60-second rest
  • Crunches: (20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets).
  • 60-second rest
  • Mountain Climbers: (20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Eight sets).

The combined Tabata workout should come out to no less than 25 minutes.

And there you have it. Is the Tabata workout regimen for you? Give it a shot. Tell us what you think. Be sure to subscribe, and leave a comment below.


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