tree silhouette at sunset under dramatic sky with lightningOK, OK – another article about energy systems and training zones in swimming.

No – this is not just another energy systems article – this one is different….

Now, the real problem is not with the zones themselves – (although we could debate the accuracy and usefullness of some of the “landmark” training studies on which training zone theory is based) – the real problem is in the practicality of using training zones in their current forms in the coaching of age group swimming squads.

Take for example this typical, common swim squad scenario:

The coach of the local age group swim squad plans a workout for his team. He wants them to do a workout which includes a training set of 40 minutes at AT. He has 25 kids in the water doing the workout with ages ranging from 13 years to 19 years. The team completes the workout and he is confident they have all swum the main set at the precise speed he requires for them to stimulate a response and adaptation for AT enhancement.

He creates workouts using his training zones model of seven different zones:

  • RECOVERY (60% max);
  • AEROBIC ENDURANCE 1 (65% max);
  • AEROBIC ENDURANCE 2 (70% max);
  • AT 1 (80%) max;
  • AT 2 (85%) max;
  • VO2 (90%) max;
  • SPEED DEVELOPMENT (max speed).

Here are just ten things that make this approach really questionable:

  1. Unless each swimmer is measured accurately and continuously throughout the training set, how can you know for certain they are training precisely in the right zone?;
  2. How do you know each swimmer has the ability to pace their training exactly, evenly and precisely through the set to ensure they are in the right training zone?
  3. If you are basing the intensity of this training session on a previous testing session, how do you know if the swimmer has improved or gone backwards since the test session thereby making the test results useless for this current workout?;
  4. Each individual swimmer will be at different stages of recovery from their previous workout and from other activities, e.g other sports, being at school;
  5. Each individual swimmer will have adopted a different nutrition and hydration strategy during the previous 24 hours;
  6. Each swimmer will have different levels of engagement with the current session and will execute the session differently;
  7. How accurately are you measuring intensity? Heart rate is increasingly suspect as a primary measure of exercise intensity – particularly with young age group swimmers. RPE is wide open to error and inaccuracy owing to its subjective nature and individual variations in perception. It is basically the good old stop watch if it is anything;
  8. If swimmer’s racing is about executing technique and skills at speed under fatigue and pressure, why limit the intensity prescription to fit a purely ‘physiological model?’;
  9. The incremental gaps between the training zones in this typical model are very small and very very difficult to measure accurately in the splash and dash chaos of an age group swim team training environment – honestly – can you really accurately measure the difference between 80 and 85% max in 25 kids in the middle of a swim set?
  10. The validity of the training zones model itself? Coaches and physiologists working with small squads of elite athletes can’t all agree on one training zone model, so what hope does an average part time age group coach working part time with large numbers of swimmers have?

Yet, in spite of all these complications and variables, we have waxed lyrical about how small variations in swimming speed at training are critical because you will be stimulating AT1 instead of AT2.

When you think about it, we are basing the training of swimmers on a theory which has more holes in it than a box full of broken sieves.

It is time we all took a more practical, realistic approach to the whole energy systems / training zones theory. Why not for example simplify things like this?

  • TRAINING ONE: Low intensity for endurance and recovery;
  • TRAINING TWO: High speed neural stimulation / speed development;
  • TRAINING THREE: Race specific – i.e. at target race speed with race skills, stroke mechanics and strategies.

But most importantly, if the sport is going to progress, surely we must move beyond our current limited models of managing exercising intensity and strive to identify methods where each individual athlete within a squad is training at their own unique optimal intensity level every session: individualisation of preparation is critical for peak performance success.

Sure, the research might say things are more complex than this. I agree totally – things are probably a lot more complex than this at cellular level.

Sure, some coaches will say they know for sure that their training system using six, seven, eight or twenty two different training zones works and they have medals to prove it.

Sure the physiologists will all speak with confidence that the research tells us the body has multiple, complex, interacting energy systems. All this may be true.

However, in practical terms – (read that word again – Practical) it is next to impossible to accurately and precisely determine training zones for all the swimmers in a moderate to large size age group swimming team.

And therefore, you have to ask, why are so many coaches still doing it?

And you also have to wonder if there are much better ways of doing things?

I would love to hear your views.

Wayne Goldsmith