A Historical Case For Aerobic Development

Avoid Repeating History

So, what’s the point in this history lesson? As George Santayana famously wrote, “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

As a coach, I receive a lot of questions about CrossFit endurance training, specifically Tabata intervals. Given the hard data on how quickly Tabata intervals can improve VO2max measures, many runners want to know why shouldn’t they do more of this type of training.

RELATED: Can CrossFit make you a better runner?

In short, Tabata intervals consist of six to eight maximum-intensity sprints lasting 20 seconds, with 10-second passive recovery periods between them. The scientific data on this type of workout is staggering. Subjects who used Tabata intervals improved their VO2 max by 14 percent and their anaerobic capacity by a 28 percent compared to the control group, who exercised moderately for 5 hours per week, compared to just 20 minutes for the tested subjects.

Looking at the data, one might believe they’ve found the “secret” to running success in short, maximum-intensity intervals since they produce huge improvements in scientifically measured variables like VO2max.

Sound familiar?

Yes, running Tabata sprints will make you fitter. If you’ve ever tried them, you know getting to eight repeats is difficult for even the fittest of runners. However, will Tabata intervals make you faster? I look at the workout and research the research behind it and pose the following questions:

1. Do these improvements in VO2max translate to running faster?

While we know VO2max is a good predictor of running performance, having higher absolute values doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be faster. For example, consider the comparison between legendary distance runners Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter, two athletes whose VO2 Max values differed by 13 percent (Prefontaine’s was 84.4, Shorter’s was 71.3) , yet whose best 3-mile times differed by less than a second (0.2 seconds, to be precise). Why is this? It’s important to realize that VO2max is only one component to how fast someone can run, as are running efficiency and economy, lactate clearance abilities, and a myriad of other factors.

2. How long do these benefits last?

After a 6-week period of intensely hard workouts, measurements of fitness markers will always improve. But, how long are these benefits retained? For example, we know that after 8 weeks of intense speed work, blood pH levels (the measure of your body’s acidity level) drop to the point where they become detrimental to performance and is one of the main causes of overtraining. It is very possible and even likely, that after 6 weeks, performing Tabata intervals will no longer be effective and could actually hamper your progression.

3. What does the macro picture of training look like? 

Because of their high intensity level, you can’t typically do much other training the day of a Tabata interval or sometimes even the day after. As we discovered the hard way in the 1990s, these short-term gains in quantifiable fitness markers are detrimental to long-term success when they take the place of long-term aerobic development.

I don’t claim to know all the answers. As a coach I’m always learning, but I also try to avoid repeating the same mistakes I’ve already made once, or even multiple times, before. While I wasn’t doing much coaching or running in the 1980s and 90s, I can learn from history, and so should you.


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