Mind Grinder Swimming Sets and Exploring Your Limits

Chuck Warner, author and coach, is an old friend. Thoughtful and passionate about the sport, he has studied the details behind what it takes to achieve swimming excellence.

Lessons from Legends

What training is too extreme to prepare to swim fast? Some coaches advocate challenging the mind and the body with what Coach Bob Mattson used to refer to as “mind grinder” sets. They were arduous in their length of 5-10,000 yards/meters and earned their name by what some would describe as a monotonous series of numbers. Before open water swimming gained some popularity in America, the coach regularly used a quarry to train swimmers and, in the 1970s, helped many of them become world class. Like many other coaches, Mattson was recognized as someone that pushed swimmers hard.

What is it that drives coaches and swimmers to explore their limits?

University North Carolina, Mercersburg, Cincinnati Pepsi (at that time) Marlins and Wilton Y great John Davis goes to extremes to help troubled teenage boys that usually aren’t swimmers. Although John has been a professional counselor for less than 20 years he is credited for helping more than 7,000 families with very difficult situations. One of John’s passions is mountaineering and, if the boys earn the right, they might be able to work their way to partaking in a “2xtreme Dream.”

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Among the experiences that John and his boys have had are climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, the High Andes in South America and in Russia the 18,510 foot Mt Erbus. These are not simply “hikes” up a mountain over the course of a week. They are technical climbs during which a single stage at a base camp can last 2-3 weeks while the boys learn how to climb a 2000 foot wall of ice, that takes 2-6 hours. In their training they not only learn the skills involved but also become accustomed to environmental adaptations such as the pressure on their skull from the altitude changes.

Why would anyone do this?

Davis points out the sense of satisfaction that comes with achievement. He has taken what he’s learned about positive thinking from his swimming career and professional training and applied it to counseling as well as mountaineering. In his fabulous book EXTREME PURSUIT: Winning the Race for the Heart of Your Son he tells the story of gathering his group at the base of a mountain. Then the inevitable happens. The clouds will drift away, revealing an immense mountain and it’s summit. An intimated boy will look up and meekly ask,  “We’re going to climb that?”

Any coach─or in this case a counselor-has a choice in that moment. In a recent article we quoted one young coach as tersely telling his athletes, “At the end of the season you’re going to stand on that starting block to race the best in the world. I want you to know that you’ve done things that no one else has. This is one of those things!”

That temperament and those types of words are a choice that John could utilize. Or perhaps he might say, “It’s going to be dangerous, so pay attention.” But that might add an overload of fearful emotions to the experience. John’s approach is to simply smile and say, “Yea, isn’t it going to be great!”

And to him it is. It’s just a matter of perspective. Hopefully the boys feel the same way, especially when they enjoy the view and sense of accomplishment at the summit. They see a metaphor for their life of peaks and valleys, but ultimately standing atop one of the greatest vistas on earth.


Perhaps this sense of glorious achievement is why Jerry Frenstos swam 20 x 1000 individual medleys, or Larsen Jensen joined the Navy Seals after being America’s best 1500 man, or 13-year old Sippy Woodhead was willing to attempt 30, 000 meters in one day or Tracy Caulkins moved from stroke to stroke to set American records in every one of them.

Perhaps, it also puts a different perspective on Casey Converse’s much discussed, and criticized, punishment of swimming a straight 20,000. That swim might be put into context by a story that Casey tells in Four Champions, One Gold Medal of a Christmas training trip in Hawaii in 1975:

“Mark (Schubert) was driving a bunch of us in a van through the mountains and beginning to descend down into a valley where the pool we were training at, that day. You could see triple rainbows around the mountaintops. The main set at workout was a long straight swim. As we raced through it, my teammates and I were passing and challenging each other, moving from lane to lane looking for open water. It was as much fun as any teenager could have.”

For some swimmers and coaches, what’s too extreme, might be Tom Jager’s test set of 8 x 50s on 8 minutes ─ at altitude, from a dive and without a breath on any one of them. With six weeks to rest for peak performance Tom would swim under the USA National time standard on each one -at that time about, 23.5 long course, 20.5 short course.

But, like the explorers of endurance, Jager’s high school years of training for longer events, such as excelling in the 200 backstroke and 400 freestyle helped him build a wider base of work, and work ethic, to build from.

A critical question that all coaches need to regularly ask themselves about their program is, “Are we challenging our swimmers with the type of work in their high school years that will give them a chance to meet their potential by the end of their swimming career?”

At the same time it’s well worth considering the importance of a blend or balance of stresses. One wouldn’t build strength in the weight room with biceps only for 10 weeks and then triceps only for 10 weeks. Balance each week is necessary to properly build the capacity to train closer and closer to race speed and achieve the maximum development of a swimmer’s potential.

John Davis started a foundation called “The 2xtreme Dream” to help teenagers release their hands from a life of miserable dependency and grasp the hand of excellence, growth and, through the exploration of a mountain, all of life’s possibilities.

Each swim program has at it’s foundation the same potential.

andthentheywon9 - CopyChuck Warner has been a swimming coach for more than forty years. His teams have won seven national Y team championships, been runners-up for the NCAA Division II championship three times, been a USA National Team swim coach three times and Big East Conference coach of the year four times. Chuck has authored two books: “Four Champions, One Gold Medal” about the training and race for the 1500 meter gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. “…And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence – Volume I” is out now. It is eight short stories of some of the greatest male swimmers in history. The second volume devoted to women’s swimmers is due out next year. He is the founder, President and CEO of Arete Aquatic Services and owner of the ARETE Swim Camp.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ORDERING“…And Then They Won Gold” go towww.areteswim.com and access “Books/Media.”

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7 years ago

Great article!! My club coach would always find ways to challenge us and the team responded well. I actually enjoyed the 10x800s LCM @ 9:20 where they had to be under 8:50 and stuff like that.

7 years ago

These articles and the thought put in to them keep getting better! Keep them coming! Very introspective, and if nothing else should push coaches to explore and push ALL parameters within which they work (both with the athlete & whatever limitations facilities are), while encouraging their pre-collegiate athletes to expand and broaden their horizons.

Can’t say enough about these articles, and if nothing else, everyone that reads & responds must admit that the articles have made them think! GREAT!

Reply to  baxter
7 years ago

Excellent again & valuable for athletes who need to see what’s been done & come up with their own challenges, that gives them ownership. Another like Tom Jager: got this from Leigh U. coach in the 90’s. At first- the athletes thought it looked ez but by the end:) 3 K set with X being 200 pace: All on :30 base -Goal of holding stroke count & rate for you chosen stroke. 10 x 25 @ :30 X+1 sec. 10 x 50 X +1 10 x 25 X 10 x 50 X 20 x 25 X-1 10 x 50 X-1 20 x 25 @ :30 Go ! sometimes we’d go 16 x 25’s IM order 4 in row @, the… Read more »

7 years ago

Love the work you guys are doing here. A note about the aforementioned legend (other than that the correct spelling of his name is Mattson!) His Mind Grinder set is a kind of pyramid of broken 1000s: 7 x 1000- 20×50, 10×100, 5×200, 1×1000, 5×200, 10×100, 20×50. He’d assign a relatively fast base interval targeting :10 recovery or put each 1000 on an interval with :10 set rest after each repeat within. While he’s a virtual encyclopedia of similar sets, he’s been an absolute guru in stroke mechanics, years ahead of the curve, and still coaching into his 80s. It’s great to see him getting a mention.

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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