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What Are Tabata Sprints?
Posted By Mark Sisson On January 15, 2009 @ 10:12 am In Fitness,Health,Sprint | 210 Comments
As you probably already know, we’re big on sprinting around here for a number of reasons. First of all, sprints most closely emulate the type of activity Grok  would have performed. You know – slowly stalking and hunting an animal for hours at a time (the constant, steady movement I prescribe) only to erupt with an intense burst of speed for the final kill (the sprint). Then he’d have to lug the thing back to camp (deadlifts, squats, and other high-intensity weight bearing training). Sprints are great because they are exactly the type of movement that man has been making for hundreds of thousands of years. Why mess with a good thing?
Second, modern science has confirmed that Grok’s mode of exercise is actually the most efficient and effective. The chronic cardio  crowd still has plenty of sway (as evidenced by the post-New-Year’s-eve legions of overweight joggers shambling down the streets with pained looks on their faces), but it’s getting difficult to ignore facts. We now know that high-intensity interval sprinting (think Grok stalking and then pouncing, stalking then pouncing) is far more effective at burning fat and maintaining – or even building – lean muscle mass than the moderate jog-ten-miles-a-day training espoused by so many “experts.” And for that, we have one Dr. Izumi Tabata to thank. Actually, I’d like to thank Grok, first and foremost, but Dr. Tabata helped legitimize this particular brand of exercise to a population otherwise skeptical and addicted to chronic cardio.
Tabata’s findings from a 1996 study  on moderate and high-intensity interval training helped legitimize a movement – away from chronic cardio and toward high-intensity workouts. He showed that high-intensity intermittent training actually improves both anaerobic (intensity and muscle building) and aerobic (slower, oxygen consuming) body systems, while aerobic exercise only improves aerobic systems. Of course, these findings would come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever done burpees to exhaustion, or followed a CrossFit WOD, or run beach sprints  (wink). Many fitness buffs undoubtedly suspected that killing yourself in short bursts of speed was doing something right, but until Tabata’s research, there wasn’t much vocal opposition in the fitness community to the idea that low and slow was the way to go (apologies for that rhyme).
Tabata’s study even spawned a specific training method: the Tabata. Quite simple and effective, a Tabata session consists of twenty seconds of maximum output, followed by ten seconds of rest, repeated eight times without pause for a total of four minutes. Any exercise will work (running, cycling, burpees, jump rope, squats, etc.) Doing Tabata sprints is perhaps the most rewarding – and physically taxing – way to spend those four minutes.
Run as far and as fast as you can for those twenty seconds. Some like running in straight lines to see how far down or how many times around the track they can make it in four minutes. I like to run back and forth, because it gives me the opportunity to map my progress as I go. On the return trip, I try to make it back to the previous starting position. Keep this up, and you’ll be eternally motivated to defeat your best sprints. When I find myself making it back to the starting position each time, I know I’m not going as hard as I can, so I push myself. Be sure to keep track of your time and go hard.
You can technically perform Tabata sprints anywhere: up a hill (for extra kick), on a track, wearing a weight vest (for Primal pros), in the snow (but wear shoes, please), on a trail (watch out for roots and rocks), even on a treadmill (and since you’re timing yourself, this might actually work fairly well – keep in mind, though, that you’ll be flailing and sweating like a madman, so don’t do this in a crowded early-evening gym), but I prefer doing it on the beach. That way, you have the option of running in dry sand (with the bonus – or punishment, some would say – of more give and harder work) or the slightly forgiving wet sand. Whichever you choose, your joints will thank you for not pounding them on hard concrete, and, well, you’re on the beach (isn’t that enough? Sorry, inlanders). There’s also the added bonus (again, some might say punishment) of getting an extra workout from traversing the uneven and varied surfaces on the beach (dunes, dips, inclines, sand castles… kidding).
The best thing about Tabata sprints, in my honest opinion? They only take four minutes to complete. Four minutes. There’s simply no excuse (save injury) not to try them, so drop what you’re doing and get out there and sprint!
I’ll close this post with a video so you know what’s in store for you:
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