Lessons From Legends: Tough Stuff, The Response

  27 Gold Medal Mel Stewart | December 31st, 2012 | Featured, National, News

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

I’m not a fan of sequels. It creates memories of famed titles like Teen Wolf Too, the second Blues Brothers and sitting through Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel — something only a loving parent can do for their child.

But given the thoughtful feedback to the article “Tis The Season For…Tough Stuff” a response and an expanded view seems called for—preferably just for coaches. Swimmers, stop reading.

Some of the most prolific comments to the first article:

“Swimmer burn out.”

“All distance swimmer examples except Ian Crocker.”


And my favorite, “Borderline child abuse.”

Casey Converse’s 20,000 for time brought a particular amount of attention and criticism. It is the mission of the “Lessons from Legends” series to inform and educate swimmers, parents, coaches and fans about the history of swimming, encourage thinking, but not to try to judge what’s right and wrong. So below are a few more thoughts you might consider.

In the summer of 1987, Jerry Frenstos improved his swimming tremendously and finished third at the USA Nationals in the 400-meter individual medley. Jerry wasn’t very tall (5’7”)─about the same height as world record holder Dave Wharton and both athletes were not nearly the height or talent of a Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, or Tom Dolan. Jerry won a gold medal at the 1987 Pan American Games but his time of 4:23.3 was still well behind Jeff Kostoff and Dave Wharton’s world record of 4:17.

Since only two swimmers could make the 1988 Olympic team what could Frentsos do to catch up?

In the fall of 1987 he told his coach he had heard that Wharton had completed 11 x 1000s individual medley, long course meters. The trick to succeeding was getting through butterfly as you tired. He asked his coach if he could try to exceed the distance Wharton had covered. In November Jerry swam 12 x 1000 long course individual medleys, barely getting his arms out of the water on the last 250-meter butterfly on the 12th one thousand.

The next day Jerry asked his coach if he could find a day in the winter or spring that fit into training, when he could try to increase his distance. Although Jerry’s training included a strong quality element (such as 80 x 50s, 8 fast on :45 long course, 2 ez), six months later he swam 20 x 1000 individual medleys. He could have swum longer, but he had tickets to the Cincinnati Reds game that started at 7:30 pm,  and at 7:00 he decided to stop at 20.

His counter and split taker was “the abused” Casey Converse. His average 1000 time was about 14:43, better than Casey had swam freestyle in his ‘punishment swim’ 12 years earlier.

At the US Trials in July, Jerry was the most improved of the top 10 world ranked 400 individual medley swimmers, dropping his best time about three seconds to 4:20.5. But Kostoff beat him for second by 18-hundredths of a second for the second spot on the Olympic team.

When a swimmer starts asking a coach for great challenges, you know you have a special athlete. It was Mary T Meagher that asked Dennis Pursely about swimming a 10,000 butterfly, not the other way around.

Are these examples outdated? Mary T’s time in the 200-meter butterfly from 1981 would have made the 2012 USA Olympic Team and been in the finals in London.

The idea for the book …And Then They Won Gold came from Coach Eddie Reese. One of the things Eddie told me that was essential to tell coaches was the endurance work that athletes like Ian Crocker did in high school such as 100 x 100s and 20 x 200s fly. Ian’s 50.4 100-meter fly is current isn’t it? His short course meter times during his senior year of college are some of the fastest of all time.

Dave Salo is one of the most effective coaches in the world today, and thrives on challenging his swimmers with short distances and fast swim training. But before Aaron Peirsol won any of his five Olympic gold medals in backstroke he swam some 1650/1500s backstroke, instead of freestyle, in some of the Southern California senior meets.

So what’s the point?

Being the most effective swimming coach in the world is the result of helping athletes become motivated to do whatever is required to excel and to feed their minds and bodies with the right amount of inspiration, emotional support and challenging work at the right time.

The two plants pictured are great examples. photo

My Plant

Both are the same type of plants, but the one on the left is years older than the one on the right. It hasn’t grown nearly as much as a result of an owner that doesn’t have as good a feel for when to water it, when to fertilize it and how to progressively provide it sun in the spring and summer. You might say that he is outdated or ignorant in his knowledge of how to help a plant grow.

You could say the small plant has been drowned in water by it’s owner, on many occasions burned out by the sun or to put it simply experienced ‘plant abuse.’

The bigger plant has spent much more time in the sun and endured much heavier watering. But it has been done at the right time and in a progressive manner.

Swimmers are the same way.

No one has to do 20,000s to become the best in the world. A study of the training of Bobby Hackett in 1976 (Four Champions, One Gold Medal) to Grant Hackett in 2000-2008 (…And Then They Won Gold) spells out two choices for distance training pretty clearly.

But the art of coaching is choosing when to challenge, and with what type of work, when to recover and the coaches art is being ‘painted’ on a dynamic canvas of the swimmer’s body that changes every day and whose capacity is unique to each individual.

That is the amazing predicament that you accept when you choose to become a swimming coach.andthentheywon9 - Copy

Chuck 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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27 Comments on "Lessons From Legends: Tough Stuff, The Response"

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3 years 9 months ago

Agreed, I have a swimmer that on her own, when she learned about Mary T doing 10,000 butterfly asked if she could do something like that. So we did 100 x 100 butterfly because she wanted to.
Her first amazing feat was when she was 8 years old she wanted to do a 1000 butterfly, so I let her. Her efforts have allowed her to be among the top ten in the US for her age group.

Keep up the excellent writing.

3 years 9 months ago

Thanks for the excellence response & more insight into doing things at the right time. I’ve been fortunate to have had 2 girls groups of 5 swimmers (13-14yrs. & college age) do a 24 hr. relay of primarily 50’s with great effort and watching 3 of 5 girls doing their best 100 free at the end of 24hrs. and several going on to become world class swimmers who didn’t even have Jr. cuts before doing this. It’s made be believe that doing things way out of our comfort zone weather 20 x 1000 IM, 10,000 Fly for time (not one I would have folks do) or insanely fast 50’s & 4-5,ooo yard workouts, it’s all about getting to the unseen talent to do incredible things they never believed possible. Even if they never make Nationals, imagine what they believe they can do in other aspects of their life’s. As we all know – success can come in many different approaches/packages.
Thanks again !! 🙂

3 years 9 months ago

Wait, did you say 24 hr. relay?? With only 5 swimmers??? I’m impressed.

3 years 9 months ago

What is a 24 hr. relay??

3 years 9 months ago

Braden re: 24 Hr. relay. This had been a Guinness Book of Records swim that 5 British men had done in the 70’s. Had a 13 yr. girl that wanted to break a World record & she found in the records. I said find 4 others that wanted to do it & she did including a future to be world record holder in the 400 thru the 1500. Basically it’s non stop 50’s in relay fashion going fast & go 72 miles. Years later a group of college women wanted to take on the challenge that had gotten faster – though they missed the 82 miles, then swam well & went around 30K per swimmer averaging around 26-27 seconds per 50. Learned a lot from the mistakes the 1st time, especially on food/body weight lost. Most girls had a :90min. nap and massages throughout the evening, where we swam 4 girls at time. I know from visiting with many of the swimmers later, it had a great impact on their belief on how they handled tough challenges under stress / fatigue going forward. It’s impacted me into knowing the folks can handle more then we ever realize, if we’re open & willing to step way outside our comfort zone.

3 years 9 months ago

The quote that comes to my mind is “when the eagles soar, the parrots will jabber” from Winston Churchill. Everyone will only go so far as they are willing to push themselves, but there are a special few who are able to take on the big challenges. They and the support staff around them deserve accolades for trying to push the limits. Not everyone makes it, but some will spectacularly. Kudos to Coach Warner for responding to the naysayers with this – without the challenges of some of these sets we would not know what is possible in our sport. Let the naysayers focus on themselves – leave the eagles alone. They don’t need you.

swim coach
3 years 9 months ago

“Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.” — Buddha

Chest Rockwell
3 years 9 months ago

I am a young coach trying to learn so hopefully this question spurs on discussion and not defensive responses –

“When a swimmer starts asking a coach for great challenges, you know you have a special athlete. It was Mary T Meagher that asked Dennis Pursely about swimming a 10,000 butterfly, not the other way around.”

What does swimming a 10,000 butterfly do for someone who is training to swim a 200 fly? Even if she completed the swim in just over 2 hours (which would have been something to see), what is the training benefit for someone swimming a race that is 1/50th the length? It is natural to assume she was training well below race pace, wouldn’t this have been detrimental? I know that sounds crazy given how good she was….. but I hope someone can humor me.

3 years 9 months ago

Rockwell- That type of swim is almost purely psychological. The potential for confidence building is huge, if the swimmer is wired that way AND they don’t get hurt in the process. I would think from a purely physiological stand point, there is little to be gained in this. The gray area is the mind controlling the body and the impact confidence has on the bodies ability to do incredible things. In a race situation Mary T. steps up to the block thinking and knowing she is (probably) the only one behind the blocks in that championship heat who has done that.

I was and still am one of those nay-sayers. A jabbering parrot, if you will. I certainly believe in hard work, the problem I had was the context with which information and examples were presented.

A unmotivated swimmer who was missing too many practices is punished with a 20K swim. That is all we are given. Do we have any idea the context of the days, months leading to this other than him missing practice? In the end it worked out for him, but was this a last resort? Did Coach Schubert try other methods before giving this 20K swim? I have not read the book so I don’t know all of the information regarding this particular case. I am also not trying to say Coach Schubert didn’t know what he was doing here, but with just the four sentences dedicated to this, some will wonder if Coach Schubert got lucky with an irresponsible decision to make a swimmer do a 20K as punishment.

The biggest take away from all of this for coaches, young and old, is understanding your athletes before any of this is ever considered. The second to last statement should not read “choosing”, but “knowing” when. You have to KNOW as a coach when its right to have a swimmer do things like the example sets posted and KNOWING you have the athlete that can do it.

3 years 9 months ago

While completing a time-trial of this distance does not directly relate to a 200 yd race, it does increase one’s capacity to do training sets that do relate to a 200 yd race with much more effectiveness. Read Bowman’s articles about why Michael would do 10x 800s as a part of his training, It explains the concept very well.

Doing that one time-trial didn’t improve the race, it improved the training done afterward.

3 years 9 months ago

Here is where I am in my thought with this sport – why do swimmers, unlike virtually any other athletic endeavor, train one way and race a different way? If we were actors, we wouldn’t be rehearsing “Glengarry Glen Ross” for 3 months and then expect to perform “Romeo and Juliette” on opening night, right? So why do we train swimmers entirely different than how they race? 10X800 would be a purely aerobic set – but practically nothing we do is a purely aerobic race, nor would anyone except the extremely rare Michael/Ryan/Missy/Natalie need to have the capacity to swim multiple races on multiple days at 6 day meets. Trust me, I’ve agonized over this. What is the training benefit of a kid who wants to break 4:20 in the 400IM coming in and going 10X400’s IM and maybe 2 of them are withing 10 seconds of their best time? Why isn’t breaking the swims up into smaller chunks, allowing them to more closely mimic what would occur in a race, a smarter, more accepted way of doing things? It would seem like volumes could be exponentially lower, burnout rates could drop as well as injuries, and a swimmers confidence would come from the knowledge that they have done in practice what they are about to do in a meet? I’ve recently read “Sprint Salo” which was eye opening, as well as a paper from a guy named Brent Rushall (if you read it, go in with a grain of salt – his ideas are interesting but his delivery is highly offensive) so I’m rethinking a lot of what I’ve done as a coach and what I’d done as a swimmer. So, as far as “capacity” training goes, why wouldn’t doing 4X50 at goal 200 pace on 1:00, and then the following week trying to do 6X50 then 8X50 and then dropping the interval slightly be less productive than doing a 10,000 fly?

3 years 9 months ago

First, you have to ask yourself what sports you’re comparing this to. Gymnasts, for example, train six to eight hours a day, six days per week for events that last no longer than the men’s 200m freestyle.

Track athletes are physiologically unable to train like swimmers because of the incredible load forces imposed on their joints when their feet strike, and those forces increase as the speed does. Even with closely monitored training programs and limited workouts on the track, elite-level track stars get injured far more frequently than elite-level swimmers. What you have to wonder is whether or not if all things were equal and running had the same impact force as swimming (virtually none), would track athletes train more like swimmers, or keep to what they are doing?

Chest Rockwell
3 years 9 months ago

Right, but are the Gymnasts who train for so long every practicing movements or technique they wouldn’t want to do in a performance? Or are they trying to perfect every movement so it is automatic? Also, they have multiple disciplines to practice with little crossover between them, which certainly adds to the training needed.

My hang up is that the stroked employed/physiological adaptations incurred from training longer than race distance is different from the stroke employed, physiological needs of short, intense bursts of work, which is what most of competitive swimming consists of.

3 years 9 months ago

I’ve read both SprintSalo and Brent’s article. As well as several article from coaches on the other side of the debate. At the end of the day, the best thing I can say to this ongoing debate about Over-distance vs. Velocity training is that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

You can not argue that both methods have had successes and failures. Some athletes adapt to better to different forms of training.

I particularly have seen injuries occur on both sides. I believe that injury rates have more to due with poor technique, physical development issues, and or lack of consistent practice attendance/ effort.

As for burnout, I believe this has more to do with failure to achieve the things that motivate us to stay in the sport, not necessarily the type of training they participate in. For example, read Amanda Beard’s book. It shows that burnout can occur in velocity based programs as well. Plus it shows that even Salo was doing double practices at the time he wrote SprintSalo.

Personally, my program is somewhere in the middle of the debate. I believe that the correct blend of capacity based work, with race specific training can produce positive results in a larger group of athletes than one that is on one extreme or the other.

I have seen in 11 year of coaching that this is what works for my team and athletes. We have a great retention rate, and our athletes achieve their goals the majority of the time. I have also found that most athletes are not satisfied with having success in only one race distance or stroke, not to mention that as an athlete’s body develops, their training needs and even primary strokes can change. Training all athletes with a base of 40% Fr/ 15% of each Fly/ Bk/ Br/ and Primary Strokes allows for younger athletes to explore their potential and find where they can have the most success. As athletes reach Junior year of High School we allow for the percentages to shift to a heavier primary event distance and stroke, but maintain an IM base and blend of capacity and specific training to occur.

I am not in support of arguments that demand that one type of training be better than the other for all athletes. The best thing a coach can do is believe in what they are doing, understand how it works, be willing to tweak practices for individuals, as well as interview potential athletes prior to joining the team, so that you work with athletes that also believe in your program, and show traits that your type of training will work for them.

3 years 9 months ago

I also believe that you have to take the full body and as a whole, in understanding training effect.

The human body is an incredible thing, as well as the mind. It is capable of adapting for a multitude of tasks at once. We may never truly understand exactly how it does this, be we must recognize that it does.

It is because of this that a 20K Time-trial can prepare the body and mind to train at a higher level, going forward than if it never experienced the 20K. The 20K lifted the bodies aptitude to handle not just the intensity of the duration of the 20K but also greater intensity of a shorter duration. As well as improving the recovery time following the training to follow.

3 years 9 months ago

Are these articles as well as the Bowman one on why Phelps swims 10 x 800s online anywere.


3 years 9 months ago

The articles ran originally in American Swimming Magazine, and have been reprinted a couple of times. I have never tried to find them online, but assume that they would be available, as I have found other articles from the same publication in the past. I believe the article was a part of a bigger talk on training for the 400 IM.

The key point of it can also be found in Bowman’s usas online clinic on training capacities.

I don’t want to try to summarize the articles, because I’m afraid I wouldn’t do them justice. What I took from it was this…
Capacity based training is the sum total of all the non-specific at or under threshold work that is done in a given season. It is this work that extends an athletes capability to train with less stress on the body and recover more quickly for training sessions. This allow athletes to attack more intense training at a higher level, as well as extends the ability of an athlete to compete in multiple events at a high level. When it is time to target a specific result, more race specific pace and stroke count work should be employed to rehearse the race as they want it to occur.

It is my personal belief that both capacity and race specific training should occur throughout the season, just in differing amounts dependent on the goals of that training phase.

3 years 9 months ago

It is purely from the mental aspect of training…when someone can do a 10,000 fly straight…they know they can accomplish anything!

I think people need to separate the “daily” or “weekly” massive sets from the Christmas training sets. We will do approximately 150% over our normal daily total over the course of the 2 weeks of Christmas training. Why do I choose to do it that way…2 reasons; first and most importantly – it culminates our aerobic base training for the short course season and second, for the mental aspect of being able to accomplish that amount of workload. And when you place it in the season-long perspective, this 2-week period represents less than 5% of their training. And when they go back to their “normal” routine – it is like a mini-taper!

I think one of Chuck’s points in his post was that these types of sets helped paved the way for success down the road. And as age group coaches, we must do 2 things – first get them to constantly improve (short term) while preparing them for the next level (long term).

One of the biggest problems with club kids that move on to college programs is that many are used to 5-6 practices/week and then they are thrown into a program that requires 9-10/week and they can’t handle it.

The overwhelming majority of highly successful swimmers have come from a background where they were given a monster aerobic base as a teenager. Are there examples of kids who were successful without an aerobic base? Absolutely, but I am talking about the vast majority of the highly successful ones have that aerobic base training.

Looking forward to reading the replies…and my hope is that this was explanatory and not defensive.

3 years 9 months ago

Can you define “aerobic base?” I used to use that term a lot as well, but most of what I’ve read recently says that swimming is a mostly anaerobic sport, so why have we all be so concerned with training their aerobic systems? It also seems like separating the three energy systems isn’t possible, all are being used to some degree in all races/practices, the % just change slightly depending on which race it is, so why did we/do we try and train just the “aerobic system” in the early season?

3 years 9 months ago

Lets get some science in here. I did a 20,000 yard race (race in that the idea was to go as fast overall as possible…) last year, and while I’m not necessarily a perfectly controlled experiment, I think there were some interesting results. The swim took me 3 hours 42 minutes including all of the time spent resting at the wall (which means pretty steady 1:06s). Splits were taken the whole way through. I was a little fast on the first 5000 at 54:30 but the next three were all evenly split. I didn’t get my heart rate at all during the swim, but mentally I can say that I felt like the first 10000 was very easy and smooth. From 10k to 13k wasn’t bad physically, but mentally I just really wanted to quit. It was INCREDIBLY boring. From 13k-18k my arms really started to hurt. There is a feeling I used to get as a club swimmer where my arms would just ache during any practice over 8000 yards, but that I hadn’t really gotten ever since I started doing doubles in college. That was definitely the worst part of it. Then after 18k the remaining distance seemed so short that I started counting in reverse and I tried to pick up the pace (and felt like I was working much harder), but was too tired to actually go any faster. I don’t think I could have gone any faster overall than I did despite how easy it felt at the beginning. Also in case you are interested I always wear a dragsuit, but did not during the 20k

Now for the science…I pretty routinely measure my resting heart rate, and my average resting heart rate (as measured when I woke up) before the swim was 52-53. About a week after I did the 20000, I measured again and my resting rate was down to 44-45. Not sure what this implies, but it proves that it certainly had an effect on my body. On top of this, we pretty routinely do 200s on 2:30 in practice as part of the pre-set and usually I would go around 2:10 (at just an easy pace) on them, but ever since I did that 20000 I usually go 2:06 with the same perceived effort.

ALLLL of that being said, please do not take this the wrong way. I think (and I believe the results show) that THAT kind of practice is very good at preparing you to PRACTICE better but I do not think it has a direct impact on races. I do recommend doing this sort of thing or something similar ONCE, but it means nothing unless you throw high intensity 5000 yard and under practices later in the year (for a month at a minimum). 1:06s seem great at that distance, but if I went 5:30 in a 500 at a meet I would for-sure quit swimming. You need to practice at faster than your meet pace if you want to get better

Chest Rockwell
3 years 9 months ago

“THAT kind of practice is very good at preparing you to PRACTICE better but I do not think it has a direct impact on races.”

This is a huge part of my currently line of thinking – is the goal is to prepare people to be great trainers or do we want them to be great racers?

3 years 9 months ago

We should be doing both. Athletes have to be prepared to train better, if they are going to use the specific training in the most effective way. Often we can get better race specific training as a result of the capacity based training done in conjunction, which can potentially mean better results at the end of the season.

I really like Ben’s comments because I agree that one without the other does not ensure positive meet results. You must do both at the right times of the year.

Plus, we have a responsibility to our athletes to make sure that they are prepared to handle the expectations of whichever college coach they choose to work with. We can not change these coaches, what they feel works, or how they will treat our athletes moving forward.

3 years 9 months ago

I think the biggest misconception in coaching today is that if you can create the perfect physical preparation for an athlete, they will beat an equally talented and/or superior athlete. I lean towards the philosophy that says that someone who has done something grueling and exceptional (i.e. a 10,000 for time) will touch the wall before an athlete that has never been challenged in that way. The “bada$$” factor will usually win out.

3 years 9 months ago

I’d like to hear Trina Radke weigh in on this. I mean, she swam for Shoulberg and went through some pretty insane workouts with Dave Wharton, Sue Heon, Dave Hartzel, Ron Karnaugh, Karin LaBerge, Polly Winde etc.

Chest Rockwell
3 years 9 months ago

@wonka –

Sprint Salo (I emailed the publisher and he said “just print a copy from the internet, so don’t feel bad about this) – http://www.teamunify.com/tsc/__doc__/146380_4_Sprintsalo.pdf

Rushall – http://coachsci.sdsu.edu/swim/bullets/energy39.pdf

Bowman – http://www.usaswimming.org/_Rainbow/Documents/c1f11511-1699-45d1-b1b6-4aaeb1dda88f/Capacity%20Training%20for%2010%20Year%20Olds.pdf (looks like something John Leonard did based on BB’s presentation)


3 years 9 months ago


Thank you for these.

3 years 9 months ago

No matter how you look at it one man’s pain is another man’s glory. Each person is different and each can train different. To get success you need to go beyond what you think you can do. Yes you can 6,400 IM’s all week long and get nothing but sick of swimming but you can do it once in a while and get great results because you swim it as a challenge you can try to beat. This is where the coach needs to motivate not punish with sets like these. If any point during your race you feel like giving up and for one instance you remember “hey this is nothing compared to what we did a few weeks ago”…… “I can do this”. The mission was a success.

I do agree to has to be a progression, you can not expect a 10 year old to do crazy stuff but you can slowly get them ready for the future by doing some t30’s or timed 600’s as a “test” set.


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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