Defining Energy Categories

A Little History Lesson

When we introduced the 3S system back in 2001, some “institutional” users (national federations and larger programs) roundly criticized us.  Yet at the same time coaches who wanted to improve their abilities flocked to us, believing we had a viable alternative to the old-fashioned notions about coaching that were strangling their development.

These “early adopters” coaches approved the service and achieved tremendous results, but even though their athletes demolished record after record, the pillars of the sport establishment still ignored us. It is hard to blame them, however, looking at this situation in hindsight because the concepts we were extolling were radically different, and the program seemed structurally rigid, which flew in the face of “creative” (seat of your pants) coaching.

In the early days we wanted coaches to succeed so badly, we really left very little room for creativity or even deviation from our “suggested” course of action in essence saying “If you want to swim (row, run, cycle) faster, then you need to do X, Y and Z.” Needless to say, we couldn’t have made ourselves more unpopular if we had tried.

Now with ten years of serving coaches under our belt, we actually encourage more creative uses of our suggestions. Of course we still provide invaluable guidance on fundamental aspects of the training process, and always begin season planning with well-defined training volumes and finish our plans with clear and specific targets for each training set during the season.

And over the years we’ve seen just how successful this approach can be. Actually, we have a mountain of testimonials and spread sheets of shattered records in our office. So many in fact that we really don’t collect success stories any longer. We just expect them because success (results) is basically what we deliver.  That’s why nearly every coach who’s used 3S, uses it season after season. And that kind of loyalty is exceedingly rare in this profession.

Despite the incredible success of our coaches, we still struggle with some of the labels that were stuck on us ten years ago, and are still just as misunderstood because of them. Whenever I introduce a first time user to our system, I have to catch myself with the realization that many of the concepts I am explaining are brand new in his mind.

Using 3S to any appreciable effect requires a paradigm shift in thinking. Coaches who try to merge their “conventional” wisdom about sports physiology and training methodology with ours, are doomed to fail. Imagine a 50’s computer operator who’s only worked with key-punched cards trying to operate a modern day main frame. Nothing “computes”. And unless a coach can abandon his old habits and mindset, he’ll never be able to fully embrace or appreciate what 3S has to offer him.

Over the last ten years the pool of 3S users has grown exponentially across the globe. We have also been fortunate in having had access to leading world experts in high performance coaching. Of course this has increased our knowledge base, and made it even more valuable than we can calculate. But all this has also enabled us to have some very insightful discussions about the very nature of coaching and sports training in general. To our surprise we discovered wide-spread confusion in the minds of coaches about the training theories they think they understand and how they use them in daily practice.

ENERGY ZONES: Are we on the same page?

Now we come to the real crux of the matter. As coaches we all use common terms, and assume that everybody in the profession attaches the same value and meaning to them. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Take Exercise Physiology for instance, and the way Energy Zones are defined. This is Human Physiology 101, so what can be confusing about that?

Well, while it is true that the science of exercise physiology is largely used as a universal platform for evaluating training loads, intensities, and an athlete’s reactions to them… the definition of training zones is far from standard. Actually, its use varies considerably among different nations, and even between various sources.

This immediately brings us to another dilemma “Are we all really speaking the same language?”  This is not an academic question. It can have grave consequences, because interpreting definitions of energy zones in different ways leads to different interpretations of training sets as well as the training effect expected after their application. In other words, the particular amount of work required (or suggested) at a given intensity may be calculated quite differently from one “system” to another.

To find a way out of this maze we need to start by studying the criteria used to define the different Energy Zones.  Of course if you are a “pure” exercise physiologist you will immediately consider using Heart Rate, Lactate accumulation, or VO2 max.  Now I don’t mean to be disparaging here. This is perfectly acceptable as long as you use them in a well-equipped laboratory and use these parameters consistently, not mixing and matching them from time to time as is commonly done.  Although not perfect, this will nonetheless give you some desirable information about how different energy production processes work during the course of physical exercise.

On the other hand, if you’re a coach, your “lab” is your pool or track or rowing channel and any additional (and costly) laboratory equipment only interrupts the training process.  In real life, for the vast majority of coaches, even a good heart rate monitor can be a luxury. Despite all this, we really do need to have methods that are effective in the field… ones that allow us to connect training loads with training effect, so that it can be measured and adjusted on a daily basis ranging from individuals to large groups of athletes.

And this is where confusion generally sets in between followers of “conventional” exercise physiology methods and 3S. Our system uses an “ergometric method” that was well researched in works of Dr. Nikolai Volkov and postulated by Dr. Sergei Gordon back in the early seventies.  If you are not familiar with this concept, research it, and you will find that it is well studied and documented in specialized literature.

But the point I’m trying to make here is that time of effort at a specific intensity can be used as a measure of relative intensity and connection to a predominant energy production mechanism responsible for provision of energy for effort of such intensity and duration. As a matter of fact you can find suggested duration or “time of efforts” requirements in different systems. And if you use time of effort as a criteria for Zone Definition, the outcome may confuse you.  We made comparison between Energy Zone definitions suggested by the US Swimming and our system (3S).  Please note the values marked in orange color.  This values demonstrate the difference in values defining the Energy zones.  What it means in practice – you will be missing training goals in 80% of your sets in practically all Energy Zones if you are following US Swimming suggestions…

Are we on the same page when it come to understanding Energy Zones?

So, this is where “disagreement” and misunderstanding starts in the minds of 3S’s detractors. But note that the reason for disagreeing is not about our system in general, or the output it produces.  The “problem” lies in confusion created around definitions of Energy Systems. Add to this confusion the the fact that the ergometric method (and its use as criteria for evaluating effort and connecting it with a training effect) is a relatively rarely used concept in the West.  Still another reason that makes ergometric studies so unpopular here is their connection to sport pedagogical science, something not very popular or well-funded in the Western system, resulting in a dearth of clinical research.

But once you understand the ergometric approach, all of the elements of the 3S system will become clear and obvious.   More so, this method is very precise which was proven again and again by our users over the last decade.  The question remains: “are you aware of this method?” and “are you using proper intensity levels in your sets?” And if the answer is “No”, you are most definitely missing an important component that can make your training more precise and effective.

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