The Hardest Sets of All-Time

  By Casey Barrett // Swimnetwork Columnist


All swimmers work hard. Wait… Scratch that. All swimmers think they work hard. Even the sprinters. Pain is a proud partner for all of us, at some point all of our bodies have been broken and crippled into lactic acid induced paralysis. But some are a breed apart. Aquatic masochists who can take a degree of coaching sadism that’s certainly cruel and unquestionably unusual. The sets they complete send shivers down the wet spines of lap stroking mortals. Best times might be the final word on swimming success, but there’s another standard that counts for swimmers: the sets they did to get there. They’re a shadow currency that carries serious weight among those who know how much it truly takes – and those who can take ever more. This January 4th to 17th, in Potsdam, Germany, an international crew of the some of the hardest core swimmers on earth is gathering for what’s shaping up to be the ultimate distance training camp. They plan to attack the hardest sets any coach can possibly conceive. They’re calling it Battle Training. It’s the brainchild of German National Team coach Dirk Lange and it’s an open invitation to any and all who think they can hang. Germany’s Phelps-beater Paul Biedermann will be there, along with Germany’s open water four-time world champion Thomas Lurz. Russia’s European champion, Yuri Prilukov is going, along with the top distance stars from Australia, South Africa, Canada, and elsewhere. In an email last week, Dirk Lange summed it up for me nicely: “The strongest will survive,” he wrote. “We’re offering it for everyone who is not scared of pain.” A fine taunt for all you self-respecting distance swimmers out there… It got me thinking about the all-time hardest sets I’ve ever heard of… or, in some cases, ever swam myself. Here are five workouts that the folks at Battle Training can try to live (or die) up to… if they can take the pain:

5.) 24 x 400’s, long course – by Tom Dolan. 6 of each stroke, descending each series 1 – 6. Devised by Rick Curl, it was sets like this that helped make Dolan the greatest IM’er of his generation. 6 x 400’s Fly is a back-breaking set any day. When it’s just 1/4 of the main set, you know you’re going around the bend and asking for rare and memorable pain.

4.) 80 x 200’s Free on 2:30, long course. Wearing gym shorts and tights. Ok, I’m biased, I did this one myself when I was at the Bolles School in 1993. But I’ll take the challenge with anyone who’d like to say it doesn’t belong. 16K wearing shorts (with pockets) and tights, while holding 1:10+ for over three hours. 1996 Olympic champ Trina Jackson was among the last standing; others had to be dragged from the pool barely conscious. Literally.

3.) 20 x 1500’s on 20:00, long course – by Larsen Jensen. Had he made it, this one would be number one. However, word has it that Jensen made it to #17 before missing the interval and having to stop. No shame there. It’s sets like this that made Jensen step up every time under pressure and always perform at his best when it mattered most. With this in the bank, it must have seemed easy.

2.) 4 x 5000’s on 50:00, short course – by Jeff Kostoff. The distance king of the 80’s reportedly did this one while he was at Stanford. Makes you delirious just thinking about it. 20K averaging under 1:00 each 100… Flipping at every wall for 200 consecutive laps before a few gasps of rest, then doing it again, four times. Kostoff did this 25 years ago. You can take the fast suits and the tech-assisted records, sets like this are more impressive any day.

1.) 30 x 1000’s on 10:00, short course – by Erik Vendt. The gold standard by, quite possibly, the greatest training animal in American swimming history. Vendt performed this masochist masterpiece in high school when he was with the Ocean State Squids in New England. It happened one Saturday morning when Vendt and his coach, Josh Stern, decided to show up at the pool an hour and a half before workout started for the rest of the team. When his teammates arrived, Vendt had already plowed through half of this monster. They dove in and pushed him through the back-half – another 10 miles at minute pace! Anyone who’s swum with or even crossed swimming paths with Vendt has a story to tell about his training toughness, but this set may set the standard for every age grouper who wants to know where those outer limits lay… Here’s hoping the swimmers in Potsdam push these limits further still… If you’d like to be one of them, the invitation is open…

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