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3S Zones

A Practical Guide to 3S Training Zones

and Training Loads distribution

Part 1.  How we define our training goals?

Training Efficiency: The importance of training goals and loads

 There is no shortage of resources (in hard copy or Internet) when it comes to finding different exercises and workouts.  What is missing in practically all of them (and I am not even mentioning their validity) is the connection between the targets (training zones) and loads (exercises) that are most effective in each case.

To increase training efficiency, we need to define training targets from one side and corresponding (most effective) training exercises (loads) as means to achieve measured and specific training effect, on another. In other words, we want to use the most effective training sets at any given point of our training season. Coincidently, it should not come as a surprise that “Optimization of training process” is considered the most important task of modern sports science.

The standard approach to categorizing functional “targets” in sports training is usually associated with energy production pathways (training zones), where each energy production mechanism can be viewed as a separate “power plant”, since by the end of the day we compete in ability to maintain maximum speed (power) at a distance of competition.  Every energy production mechanism is usually associated with the amount of energy it can produce per unit of time and its dynamics (or “power” and “capacity” of the specific process).

And that is where the real challenge starts: while the physiological processes describing the biological energy production mechanisms are universal and well defined, different sport science schools use different criteria for zones definition.  By itself, any approach may have its own merits. However, the selection of criteria has a direct influence on the zone’s boundaries and consequently, precision of targets we chose to reach the desired training effects.  As a result, while practically all coaches use the same vocabulary to define targets, their definitions (by set modality, duration, and intensity), as well as the results of application such sets are often mismatched.

Comparison of US Swimming and 3S Training Zone Boundaries  

The last two columns in the table above represent the recommended efforts duration in zones.  Duration of effort at specific intensity can be viewed as a dosage prescribed to inflict desired training effect and therefore, by itself, it is critically important to keep it right.  However, our comparison reveals significant difference in that parameter.  If we assume that the human biological functions and physiological processes are universal (and we have absolutely no evidence to contrary) the energy zones based on the physiological parameters should not be that much different under different systems (or when the different criteria for zones definition are applied).  Obviously,  we want to keep our targets clearly defined.   However, our comparison suggests that if we follow the recommended time of effort in Zones EN3-SP3 (Under US Swimming terminology) we either working way too hard (increasing time limit in Zone) or simply working in the lower zone since it is a physiological impossibility to maintain effort of specific intensity for suggested duration.

Universal Approach to Zones’ Definition

Understanding criteria behind zones definition is crucial since they define both zones’ boundaries and the training format necessary to achieve designed training effect.  Yet another important consideration is the universal properties of the selected method, meaning the ability to evaluate training zones (targets) and training means (sets) using the same terms. This requirement is extremely important since it opens the ability to construct the model of human behavior in response to specific stress.

Today, Super Sport Systems (3S) is the only company who has been able to implement such a model and offer it to anybody who is interested in high-precision and effective training.

The criteria used in 3S model is based on a duration (time) a particular energy mechanism production process may sustain at maximum load (effort). This choice of criteria is only natural since in practical terms, all elements of training and performance (at least in endurance sports such as swimming, running, cycling and rowing) are based on distance, speed (power) and time.  The energy pathways can also be expressed in the time at which they produce maximum amounts of energy and maintain production.  Therefore, energy zones’ boundaries can be established in time as well.  The only known caveat in this approach – is a requirement to measure time at or near maximal effort at which each mechanism can maximize its production.  However, due to the phenomena of sport activity, this requirement is only natural since our goal is maximum performance anyway.

Once we know the time boundaries of each zone, we then can select the exercises by their modality, duration and intensity that are most effective for achieving the desired training effect in selected zone.

The Zones model adopted by 3S is “classic”, developed mostly by European schools in mid 20th century, the time of the exercise physiology renaissance.  3S School research helped to establish very precise time boundaries for each zone. This approach allowed us yet another important step: calculate training exercises in different modalities with a goal to establish optimum intensity (pace) for a selected combination of working distances.  And once we know the time boundaries of in each zone, we then can easily identify the working distances and number of repetitions to satisfy a goal of reaching maximum training effect in selected zone.

Table 1.  Energy Zones Based on Maximum Time of Effort in Zone  

Once the training zones boundaries are established, we can connect them with most effective training sets.

Connection of Training Goals with Training Sets by Duration and Type 

Understanding Paces: “Race Pace” vs. “Current Threshold Pace”

If we follow this logic, we already know that the effective work time in Zone III should be between seven and fifteen minutes.  Our typical 10 X 100 (5 X 200) squarely falls into this category.  The question remains however, what intensity is optimum for achieving maximum training effect?

We argue that training paces should be based on current individual threshold times in working distances (distances we select for a specific set).  This logic changes the common paradigm from “faster is better” to “fastest possible at current time – longer”.  To be fair, we need to admit that finding this “golden weekly pace” may not be that easy without the help of specialized tools, but hey, we are living in the 21st century with technology aiding our decisions at every step, and 3S tools offer this technology to maximize your coaching decisions which inadvertently lead to your swimmers’ attaining their maximum performance.

3S paces are calculated based on season’s Seasonal Results Progression curve, which can be also viewed as an individual adaptation progression curve.

Example of an Individual Progression Curve on 100 Freestyle in a 16-week cycle (with 92.5% reduction of previous season best time (50 seconds) and Season target Time (48 seconds).

Considering the selected season progression settings, the critical threshold time (expected full-out effort) on 100 yards in this example is ~ 51 seconds.

The target times in our example remain true as long as you satisfy set composition rules. For example, the recommended format of sets for Zone III is Interval. The general rule for interval sets construction are provided in our previous table (Connection of Training Goals with Training Sets by Duration and Type).  The recommended number of repetitions in Interval modality is between ~ 5 and 12 (depending on selected working distance: the longer the distance, the lesser is the number of repetitions). And, if our logic and calculations are correct (which is what we stand behind), the swimmer ability to execute calculated number of repetitions at suggested pace (keep time), heart rate at suggested rest between repeats can be used as an instance gauge of an athlete’s physical ability at any given time*

(* this statement is specifically true in relation to any interval set in Zones II and III).

Basic Set of Rules for Planning of Training Loads:

  1. It is important to understand that there is more than one training zone system that exists. Training zones can be defined using different criteria.  Each approach may have its own merits. However, picking the training zone system means that you must stay with the selected system and use standard criteria and conditions in all elements of the training process from planning the season, weeks, sessions, and particular sets.  Ideally, you want to use systems that offer maximum precision of zones’ definition.
  2. Proper determination of energy zones is critically important for construction of effective training exercises (sets) since each system offers different approaches to exercise classification as well as Zones “corridors”. It is not unusual to see coaches establishing their goals based on “common” zones labels, but using means different in their effect to stated goals, thus making all planning irrelevant and misleading.
  3. Selection of training zones criteria may have a decisive impact on the periodization model. To our knowledge, only the ergometric approach allows to apply quantitative methods to the training process and its outcomes. In essence, the study of human behavior in response to “standard exercises” led to formalization of the Ergometric model of training.  The quality of any model can be tested by comparing the difference between the planned and achieved individual and group seasonal progression rates as well as by inter-seasonal progression dynamics.  You can find 3S model results in the article titled, “The Measure of Team Success.”

Bottom Line

Without a question, the quality of the training process directly depends on establishing precise individual boundaries for energy zones, planning their volume in season, weeks, and days, and selecting the most effective training sets (by volume and intensity) to invoke the maximum training effect.

It is true that understanding these peculiarities of exercise physiology requires a great deal of education and research.  The sheer fact that scientists can’t agree on universal training zones’ definitions may say a lot about the complexity of this issue.  The obvious question you may ask yourself is – what system do you want to trust and apply in your practice?  The best answer to this question is simple:  follow the results.  Fortunately, the Super Sport Systems school has over 20 years of performance that can be checked and analyzed. If you go in this direction, you will fast find that the individual and group progressions demonstrated by 3S coaches are doubling the industry averages (check the article “The Measure of Team Success (

The advantage 3S offers is obvious. As a coach, you do not need to be a scientist or exercise physiologist to master these skills because the leading sports scientists already developed professional tools that simplify coaches’ decision-making processes.  And so, the only decision you need to make is whether you will decide to use these tools or remain in the dust behind the competition.

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