When I was a writer for Muscle & Fitness magazine I wrote a first-person feature in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics where I had the swimming coach at Pierce College in California put me through an entire in-season Michael Phelps butterfly workout. I believe it was two separate 2,500 meter sessions with an emphasis on butterfly, butterfly drills, pulling and speed work. It was brutal. I did the morning part of the workout solo with the coach and the afternoon part with his college team. I was 30 at the time, which was about 12 years past my swimming prime, the height of which I could claim to be an above-average, but by no means elite, fly specialist.
Back then I could still go all out for a 100 meter fly and finish without feeling like I was going to vomit. I could even plow through a 200 meter fly with just enough gas in the tank to actually finish the race without totally shortening my stroke and breaking down on technique. The game plan my coaches and I put together for the 200 meter fly was basically this: go out long and come back strong, meaning, I’d make sure I spent the first hundred stretching out my stroke, getting the most out of every pull and kick, with perfect form and perfect tempo… Then I’d spend the last hundred forcing my body to not give in to the pain and fatigue and to keep up a strong stroke to the finish. Easier said than done.
Right now many of you are aware that Michael Phelps just qualified for his 5th Olympics by winning the 200 meter butterfly at the Olympic Trials. This is astonishing. The 200 meter fly was my best race back in the day, so for a little perspective, I thought I’d break down what it feels like to actually go full tilt in that event, considering most people, even avid swimmers, claim that they can barely do one lap of fly.
THE FIRST 50 METERS
The first fifty meters is the best. You have the momentum from your start and your whole body is pumping through the water on auto pilot. Elite swimmers thrive on muscle memory, visualization of a race and logging so many laps in the water that the race itself has been swum a thousand times in practice, right down to every stroke, breath and turn. In short, it has been rehearsed so much that there’s very little thinking involved. The main thought is to control your adrenaline so that you don’t go out too fast. If you’re in the final of a 200 meter butterfly event, the first 50 is a test drive. You’re feeling out your body to see how hard you can push while you still feel smooth.
THE SECOND 50 METERS
This is where strategy begins to kick in. With one 50 under your belt, you know how your body feels on that day. You’ve done tens of thousands of meters of butterfly in the past year, you have an odometer and RPM gauge in your head about how fast you can go given the distance that is left. Your form is likely still strong, your breathing is easy and your heart rate may just be about to peak. Depending on how your upper body feels, you may rely a little more on your arms here, knowing you’ll need your legs on the back half. Towards the very end of the first 100, that little ‘check engine’ light in the back of your brain will start going off to let you know that holding perfect stroke form is tough, and you’re really not giving your body enough oxygen to do it.
THE THIRD 50 METERS
Ok. This is where it starts to get freaking hard. Your lungs almost always start that acidy, burning feeling after pulling out of your turn into that third 50. When you come up for air after your kick, you’re probably not struggling in the truest sense of the word, but you’re no longer comfortable. At this point, the race becomes a mind game. Swimming is all about finding your perfect, fastest form for a stroke and then giving yourself the endurance and power to replicate it over and over again throughout the race. When you begin to tire, your muscles tighten, your stroke shortens, your efficiency goes to crap and you go slower. All these things are in play on the third lap of a 200 meter fly. Your core is usually on fire, but you can’t really think about that because so are your arms and quads. The thing that keeps you going is that you know that once you push off the next wall, you might as well redline because there’s only one lap left.
THE LAST 50 METERS
This last 50 meters is basically the old version of rounds 12-15 in boxing matches. This is what separates the men from the boys, the Phelps’ from the phonies. Almost every top tier high school and college butterfly swimmer can put together a decent 150…it’s that last 50, where your shoulders scream, your lungs beg for air and your legs are somehow wobbly in the water that puts your name on the map. This last lap can be torture if you’re not fully prepared. Because of the nature of butterfly, your torso is elongated, your lungs are stretched and you have to lift your head slightly to breath..and when you think about it, these are all of the opposite things our bodies do when we’re exhausted. Usually, when we’re physically wiped out, we double over, curl up, or put our hands on our knees to catch our breath. The form for butterfly is in direct opposition to this, which means that for the entire last 50 meters you have to will your body to NOT DO what millions of years of evolution are telling it to do. If you can manage to do that, while also continuing to lift your head to breathe, push your arms in the water to go forward and to flutter your legs up and down to propel your body, then you’ll finish the race.
Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?
And on a side note, if you’re looking for a cool swimming website to follow the trials and the sport in general, Olympic Gold Medalist and butterfly aficionado Mel Stewart‘s SwimSwam.com is a terrific site.
Jon Finkel is the author of Forces of Character with 3x Super Bowl Champion and Fighter Pilot, Chad Hennings, Heart Over Height with 3x NBA Slam Dunk Champion Nate Robinson, as well as Jocks In Chief, The Dadvantage – Stay in Shape on No Sleep with No Time and No Equipment, and all twelve volumes in the Greatest Stars of the NBA book series for the National Basketball Association, which won several ALA Young Reader Awards.
As a feature writer, he has written for Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Muscle & Fitness, GQ, Details, The New York Times, AskMen.com, ComedyCentral.com, Yahoo! Sports’ ThePostGame.com and many more. His work received a notable mention in the 2015 Best American Sports Writing anthology. He has appeared on CBS: This Morning promoting his books.