Tabata Intervals

In the cycling world, the ability to go extremely hard for a short period of time often determines the outcome of a race. From a 10 second finish line sprint at 60kph, to a 30 second, 10% steep climb; raw wattage wins races! When it comes to Anaerobic Capacity, there are countless options for improving your ability to produce top end power, but do they all have the same effect? Japanese exercise physiologist Izumi Tabata suggests that his interval training method is superior to all others.

The Science:

Dr. Tabata determined that many athletes do well at improving their economy (Vo2 Max) or the ability to utilize available oxygen, but were not really tapping into their ability to improve anaerobic capacity. Anaerobic energy occurs when the body has no oxygen available to fuel the muscles, and at this point, the metabolite Phosphocreatine (PCr) is necessary to keep functioning. PCr is a finite resource, and takes time to “re-load”. Dr. Tabata found that most intervals didn't stress this system enough to make sure physiological gains. Traditional anaerobic exercises of 30 seconds to 2 minutes were effective, but not intense enough and included too much rest to create proper adaptations. Through his laboratory research, Dr. Tabata found a protocol effective enough to achieve the anaerobic gains he was searching for.

 The study conducted used cyclists and two forms of training. The 1st group used an aerobic method of training (70% of Vo2max), while the 2nd group did 4-min of high intensity work, consisting of 20 seconds @ 170% of FTP and 10 seconds of easy recovery (Tabata, 1). The 2nd group improved their anaerobic capacity by 28% while the first group did not show significant improvement. Dr. Tabata concluded, that very short amount of work and decreased rest, prevented the body from obtaining oxygen to fuel energy, staying anaerobic, and truly adapting the body's ability to utilize lactate and PCr for energy.

Training Application:

So, now that you are an expert on the science, what does it all mean? If you want to make headway in your ability to work at the anaerobic capacity and above, as well as recover quickly,Tabata intervals are a must to take your cycling to the next level!

These intervals should not be taken lightly, and need to be completed when the body is the most recovered, after a rest day or a couple easy days on the bike. In order for the intervals to be effective, cyclists should use the following guidelines:

  • Identify your FTP [Functional Threshold Power]
  • If no powermeter, these are completely Full Gas efforts, as hard as you can go efforts, Heart Rate will lag behind and not represent your effort.
  • Identify what value is 170% of FTP**
  • Be well rested, fueled, motivated and hydrated for your workout
  • Find a quiet / flat stretch of road that is free of stop signs / stop lights / or cross traffic.
  • Go as hard as you can for these efforts! Don't look at your powermeter until after your intervals, and if you went hard enough, the average power for your intervals should be correct.

**In the lab setting, many of Dr. Tabata's subject couldn't complete the full set of repetitions, or failed on the last (Tabata, 2). From a training and coaching aspect, we want our athletes to get the most out of each workout and design them to be achievable, so we decrease the wattage requirement slightly so athletes may finish every rep.

The Tabata Interval Workout for Cycling:

3 sets of 8 x 20 seconds ON @ 170% FTP, 10 seconds easy, with 10 minutes of rest in-between sets.

This is only a 4 minute effort, but you should NEARLY be falling off your bike by the end! One has to be tough as nails mentally to push thru the last 6th, 7th & 8th tabata of each set. As you see the power & heart rate data graph above, notice how the heart rate continues to rise even with 10 seconds of rest, and how it stayed higher for about a minute after the set was complete. This is the body truly in anaerobic capacity and working hard to receive oxygen. The average power for all 20 second intervals was roughly 170% of this athlete's FTP.


You want to hold back a teensy-tiny bit on the first two - three 20 seconders so that you don't crater for Tabatas 6, 7, & 8. Remember 170% of FTP is difficult but doable. Ideally the average power of the final tabata equals the average power of the first tabata. In other words you hit 170% of your FTP for each effort. Avoid being so pumped up mentally that your first efforts are significantly greater than the last. For example 200% of your FTP then 125%. If you start out at 170% and are going as hard as you can and then fail to hit 170% two consecutive Tabatas in a row, you have reached exhaustion and should cease and go home and begin recovering.


Anaerobic capacity efforts are the bread and butter workout for being able to produce peak powers during and at the end of races. Tabata intervals are one of the most effective methods for increasing the body's Anaerobic Capacity. These intervals should find their way into everyone's training program at the appropriate times, and done when the athlete is fully rested. These efforts are extremely difficult and Full Gas! Tabatas produce massive performance gains with as little as 4 to 8 minutes of effort in a workout, making them a highly effective interval training workout!


  1. Tabata, Izumi, et al. “Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max.” Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, vol. 28, no. 2, 1996, pp. 1337-1340.
  2. Tabata, Izumi, et al. “Metabolic profile of high intensity intermittent exercise." Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, vol. 29, no 3, 1997, pp. 390-395

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About Frank Overton

Frank founded FasCat Coaching in 2002 and has been a full time cycling coach since 2004. His educational background includes a Masters degree in Physiology from North Carolina State University, pre-med from Hampden-Sydney College. Frank raced at a professional level on the road and mountain bike and currently competes as a "masters" level gravel and cyclocrosser. Professionally Frank comes from medical school spinal cord research and molecular biotechnology. However, to this day it is a dream come true for Frank to be able to help cyclists as a coach.

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