Michael Phelps Is Not A Fish

BY KENNETH LUNDGREN

I read a great article over the summer on Michael Phelps (actually, one of my athletes e-mailed it to me). As with anything regarding sport, especially dominant Alpha males, I cut it out, save it, file it in my filing cabinet. No matter what the sport, you can learn a TON about the best athletes in the world and try to adopt some of their idealogies or training methods… Once a month I go through the top article on the stack and see if there’s anything worth remembering or holding onto…

Regarding the 6’4″ Phelps, the kid was physically born to swim. Long torso, short legs, incredibly long arms, huge hands, long flipper feet… That Leonardo da Vinci drawing, where a man is standing with his legs spread and his arms out and his body fits inside a perfect circle — that wouldn’t work for Phelps. His dimensions are incredibly off… He has the wingspan of someone who is 6’7″. Phelps, because of his build, doesn’t have to work as hard as others. He’s almost a Newtonian swimmer, with these huge “flippers” thrusting him through the water…

Also, Phelps is incredibly flexible. On his back, he can stretch his legs forward and touch his toes to the ground — completely flat… His shoulders, too, are unnaturally flexible, as is his spine, allowing him to slither through the water. With these attributes, plus perfect swimming technique, his body rides high on the water, his long arms “shunting great volumes of water behind him.”

Inside that body, Phelps also produces the smallest amount of lactic build-up than any elite athlete in history. His numbers are downright astounding… According to the article, “under aerobic strain Phelps produces far less lactic acid that other athlete. The lower the levels, the better a body’s state of aerobic conditioning. Because his system can clear lactic acid quickly, he can recover more quickly. After he set a world record in the 100-meter butterfly in 2003, his blood lactate was an absurdly low 5.6 millimoles per liter of blood, one-half to one-third that of other elite swimmers. At competitions during which Phelps has raced multiple events in quick succession, he has been known to clear lactate from his blood while racing. He also has the ability to tolerate high levels of blood lactate — he swims at full strength and speed while carrying a load of lactate that would bring other athletes to a relative crawl.”

Interesting. But what I find REALLY interesting is Phelps’ training. When he was younger, his coach Bob Bowman had him complete massive volume in the water, aerobic pace, much more than the standard child’s workload. This aerobic training increased his heart and lungs in a way that could not be possible later on. Bowman said, from the very start, they aimed to create the strongest possible aerobic engine…

I can’t absolutely say whether his training has helped him clear lactate build-up more quickly or produce ridiculously low amounts of lactic acid (perhaps a genetic gift), but it can be argued that Michael’s large amount of aerobic swimming has helped him handle larger swim workloads, recover faster from efforts, recover faster from workouts, and push it harder when he’s going full-metal…

Bowman said that during typical swimming sessions, the swimmers start at a certain pace and swim together… Then they raise the intensity mildly, and at this point the swimmers start going faster, but not Michael — he stays at this advised limit, almost a tempo effort, holding back, not caring how slow he is going… Only in the final zone, the “red” zone, does Michael pour it on and fly by the other swimmers… Bowman made the point that many swimmers go from slow to fast but Michael understands there is a time and place for all types of work…

The cornerstone of Phelps’ success in his endurance. Years of laps have developed his capacity to endure. His aerobic capacity has been developed incomparably over the years and his muscular endurance is in a class of its own. Reading that article, out of all the information stuffed into those 10 pages, the part where Phelps would get to the pool first and swim for long periods at a certain intensity, never wavering as other swimmers do, and then leaving the pool last, swimming at a certain intensity swimmers usually bypass quickly, really hit me.

Michael Phelps developed his engine perfectly, whereas a lot of endurance athletes end up going too easy and then right away too hard…

Work Cited: Levine, Mark. “01: Underwater.” The New York Times, 3 AUG 2008.

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Kenneth Lundgren's Diary | Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 | | |