The Fit List

The Best 20 Seconds of Pain You’ll Ever Endure

How even the smallest intervals can make athletes mental superstars.

The Best 20 Seconds of Pain You’ll Ever Endure

Emerging research shows improved fatigue resistance and athletic performance require not only strengthening the body, but also strengthening the mind. Photo: U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet/Flickr

After seven years of participating in endurance sports, I can honestly say that I no longer lose sleep due to angst the night before a race.  I do, however, lose sleep the night before a Tabata workout. And the crazy thing is, the entire session only lasts four minutes.

Founded by Japanese scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata and his colleagues at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, the Tabata protocol is systematically designed to push an athlete to his or her max.  The workout is simple: 20 seconds all-out followed by 10 seconds rest, repeated eight times consecutively.  Increase the duration of the all-out segments, or decrease the recovery, and your legs will be trashed before your cardiovascular system reaches its peak.  Decrease the duration of the all-out segments, or increase the recovery, and the workout would fail to hurt so badly.  (If you need empirical evidence, just try it yourself. Tabata intervals are probably most effective and safely completed while cycling on an indoor trainer.)

By stressing both the aerobic and anaerobic system simultaneously, Tabata training not only yields unique physiological gains, but also, and perhaps just as important, huge psychological benefits. 

“Mentally staying on the gas and not backing down as the four-minute session progresses is nearly as difficult as the physical effort,” says Colorado-based professional triathlete Will Jurkowski. “Creating this personal history of not backing down when it hurts and becoming familiar with the metallic taste in your mouth and your legs turning to mush,” he says, “ultimately builds a body of work to lean on in race situations.  You’ve taught yourself how to relish in the suffering.”

Jurkowski may be on to something.  An array of emerging research shows that fatigue resistance and ensuing performance isn’t just about making the body stronger, but also about strengthening the mind.  

A recent systematic review of over 40 studies performed by University of Kent researchers, Psychological Determinants of Whole-Body Endurance Performance, supports a theory called the “Psychobiological Model of Endurance Performance.” This model includes perception of effort as a key determinant of performance and says that it can be altered through training.  Although the psychological effects of Tabata training in particular have not yet been studied, one could easily argue that by methodically taking an athlete to his or her limit, the Tabata protocol decreases perception of effort in other high intensity situations, like racing. 

The experience of top age-group triathlete Justin Arnosky serves as evidence. He says that the biggest benefit of Tabata training is not physical, but rather, that it helps him “get mentally prepared for the pain I can expect to experience in Ironman triathlons.”

This begs the question: if a four-minute sufferfest is good for altering future perception of effort and bolstering an athlete’s psychological resolve, is an hour, or perhaps even a full day of hell even better?

The Atlanta Hawks’ star shooting guard, Kyle Korver, thinks so.  He and a few training buddies partake in an annual misogi, or a day-long workout that’s foremost purpose is to inflict maximum pain and discomfort to cultivate not physical, but mental fortitude.  (Think: running an underwater 5K while carrying an enormous 60-plus pound bolder.)  

In an article we published in December, Korver told Outside that misogis have turned into his “grind activator,” and he credited the workout for helping him build the mental grit to get through an 82-game season.

While these prolonged sufferfests are intriguing and filled with sex appeal, they don’t come without risk.  Nearly every well-respected running, swimming, or triathlon coach I’ve ever spoken with cautions against doing epic workouts too frequently.  Not only do they increase injury risk and demand more recovery time, but they also have a huge psychological cost.  Given an athlete can only put his or her body and mind through the ringer a few times every year, it might be best to save the extended heroic efforts for race day.

All of this brings us back to where we started and my love-hate relationship with Tabata intervals.  While the physically and psychologically demanding workout is the longest four-minutes ever, it is still only four minutes, which means you can recover from it easily and thus regularly experience the systemic pain of being at your max in small doses throughout the year. Hopefully, the benefits will show on race day, when your aerobic capacity and mental grit surpasses those of your competitors. 

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