Gary Hall: What Makes Michael Fly?

Most people that swim butterfly are not so pretty to watch, especially at the end of the race. It is not coincidental that some of the greatest flyers in history also had some of the most graceful strokes. Mark Spitz had one of prettiest flies of all time and set standards that endured for years. Pablo Morales, Mary T. Meagher, Mel Stewart and many others, including Michael Phelps, not only were the fastest of their time, but also made butterfly look the easiest.

One of the most overlooked reasons for their success is not what they did underwater, but what they did during the recovery. The recovery is the period in which the hands leave the water and get ready for the next entry. In these few tenths of a second, which happens to be the most visible part of the race to the spectator, the ability of the swimmer to completely relax the arms has a huge impact on how long a swimmer can sustain the rigorous effort required by the butterfly stroke. During his world-record setting hundred-meter fly races, Phelps never looked like he was in a hurry or stressed on the recovery. Instead of throwing his arms over the water, he swings them gently with the most relaxation possible.  Those few tenths of a second are spent in complete relaxation, undoubtedly one of the reasons that he is able to finish so relentlessly in the second half of his race.

Underwater, you will see just the opposite. The hands enter at the shoulder level with an immediate catch in a high elbow position. From there, he accelerates the hand and forearm through the pull as quickly as possible to generate arm propulsion. Then, he sinks back into utter relaxation as his fingertips glide over the water.

Of course, I would be remiss not to tell you that behind every great butterflyer are a great pair of legs. All great flyers learn to use their legs in both directions, kicking both up and down, which is essential to generating propulsion during the stroke cycle. Strong legs also help avoid the elevation of the shoulders and the associated increase in frontal drag. When the legs crash and burn, the increased drag will doom the swimmer to an unpleasant outcome.

Michael uses a few other technical regularities, such as tucking his chin to his chest at hand entry to reduce drag and breathing every stroke (except the start and turn) to help keep his lactate level to a minimum. With his strong legs, his fastest body speed during the fly is actually greater than during his freestyle. One could say that during his recovery, Michael comes closer to hydroplaning than any other human being in history.

So if you want to be like Mike, grab your FINIS Swimmer’s Snorkel and Alignment Kickboard, and start kicking. When it is time to put the arms into action, remember to relax through the recovery, catch with high elbows, and accelerate the arms through the pull as quickly as possible. Oh…and don’t forget to breathe…a lot.


Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.