Swimming Workouts and the Tabata Protocol


A few days ago I introduced the concept of the Tabata Protocol and incorporated it into last Thursday's work out.  In case you missed it, click here to refresh your memory.

The Tabata Protocol - like many of it's fellow HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) or Sprint Interval training methods - comes in-and-out of popularity.  It has been said to promised everything from increased fat-loss to an exponential, almost super-human, improvement in an athlete's anaerobic threshold.

To be clear:  

This article does not promise anything along the lines of quick fixes or super-human superpowers.  Here, you will only find logical assessments and potential benefits.

The mythical claims associated with Tabata Protocol are seemingly based on the scientific study performed by Izumi Tabata in 1996.  The findings, "Metabolic profile of high intensity intermittent exercises," were published in March 1997 in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 29(3): 390-395.  To quote the great and knowledgable Wikipedia:

A popular regimen based on a 1996 study[5] by Izumi Tabata (田畑 泉) uses 20 seconds of ultra-intense exercise (at an intensity of about 170% of VO2max) followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated continuously for 4 minutes (8 cycles). Tabata called this the IE1 protocol.[6] In the original study, athletes using this method trained 4 times per week, plus another day of steady-state training, and obtained gains similar to a group of athletes who did steady state (70% VO2max) training 5 times per week. The steady state group had a higher VO2max at the end (from 52 to 57 ml/kg/min), but the Tabata group had started lower and gained more overall (from 48 to 55 ml/kg/min). Also, only the Tabata group had gained anaerobic capacity benefits.

So, what does all this mean for Swimmers?

In order to understand the importance of the Tabata Protocol...and it's limitations in non-laboratory settings.....We must first remember some key components of physical fitness and endurance training.

Lets start with the basics.

There are (3) three major types of muscles in the body:

  1. Cardiac (heart muscles),
  2. Smooth (digestion, vascular muscles, etc) and
  3. Skeletal (bone and joint movement)

Of these three muscles systems, the Skeletal muscle is the "boss" of physical exercise and movement.  This "boss" interacts with it's minions (the cardiac and smooth muscles) to ensure energy needs are met.

There are (2) two major forms of exercise:

"Aerobic Exercise" occurs when the cardiac and smooth muscles are able to meet the oxygen demands of the skeletal muscles while doing work.  In other words - there is enough oxygen to go around for everyone.

VO2max: can be understood as the maximum about of oxygen a body can supply the skeletal muscles during physical exercise.

In theory this easy, right? Not even close.  In reality, your ability to maximize your oxygen supply is limited by the rate at which your body can clear out lactic acid.

"Anaerobic Exercise" occurs when the cardiac and smooth muscles are unable to supply enough oxygen to the skeletal muscles - Oxygen Debt - an alternative means of energy production is required to meet the demand and continue the work.

Enter: Lactic Acid.

Lakta acido
BAHAHA! HUGE MOLICULE THAT HURTS MUSCELS! Lakta acido (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Anaerobic Threshold: the point at which the body begins it's descent into oxygen debt.  The descent begins even as your body is still able to supply a significant amount of oxygen.

Note: During a workout - once at the anaerobic threshold  the athlete can back off the intensity and recover enough to finish the workout.  If the athlete attempts to continue or increases the intensity - thus crossing too far over into anaerobic territory - they will require a few (very painful) days to recovered before they attempt to workout again.


"Great Coach Meg, I already knew all that, now what?"

Ok, smarty pants - can you tell what this means for your swimming?  

No?  Then read on!



Swimmers  live in a world of oxygen debt!

The very nature of swimming, and being a swimmer, requires your face, mouth and nose to be underwater most of time spent training!  It's not that you don't need oxygen.....you're just constantly in short supply.

Each training workout should include a segment that allows the athlete to flirt with the anaerobic threshold without crossing into the painful "point-of-no-return".......

......... and lets face it, we've all been there.

Enter: The Tabata Protocol

What is it?

  • 20 seconds of AS-FAST-AS-POSSIBLE, ALL-OUT Sprinting
  • 10 seconds of all-out REST
  • Repeat for a total of 8 Times

How long does it take?

  • Each Round takes a grand total of 4 minutes

The Catch?

  • The 20 seconds of work require an effort of 170% VO2max.
  • In truth, for non-elite athletes in non-laboratory settings, this is almost impossibleHowever, if the athletes gives each 20 seconds everything they've got - they will still see a significant amount of improvement over time.

I strongly suggest that you find yourself a kickboard and set a pace clock up somewhere where it is easily visible.  By keeping your face above the water, you allow for optimal exposure to oxygen.

From there, put yourself through the paces:

8 x (20 seconds AS FAST AS POSSIBLE and 10 seconds rest.)

 Keep in mind - it's only 20 seconds of work...so GO ALL OUT!

Swimming Workouts and the Tabata Protocol = Awesome.

Your legs will thank you.

Keep on Swimming,

Coach Meg


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