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How to Design and Implement a Training Program for the Butterfly

This is an excerpt from Swim Coaching Bible, Volume II, The by Dick Hannula & Nort Thornton.

Trends and Techniques in Butterfly

Bob Bowman

Training Techniques for Butterfly

Designing and implementing a training program for the butterfly events presents a formidable challenge to coaches. Although some aspects of conditioning benefit both 100- and 200-meter swimmers, the energy requirements of the two events are quite different. A few of the world's top swimmers are competitive at both distances (Phelps, Meagher, Caulkins), but specialization is the norm and most swimmers excel at one event or the other (Malchow, ˇCavic, de Bruin). Therefore, the majority of stroke training for butterfly swimmers is geared to one of the Olympic distances, and all types of training are thrown into the mix.

The 200-Meter Butterfly

The 200 fly is a grueling mix of endurance and power that challenges any athlete. Endurance conditioning is the foundation of this event, and most often 200 flyers also are competent 400 freestylers or 400 individual medley swimmers. The general endurance work done for these events complements the more specific work done in butterfly sets. In my opinion, little benefit is gained by swimming butterfly in training with less than excellent technique. Historically, great 200 fly swimmers have been asked to complete gargantuan sets of repeat 200s, 300s, and 400s in butterfly
swimming on short rest. They have also done long swims such as 1,500 or 3,000 meters for time. Although it served some of them well, it also engrained bad technical habits and virtually eliminated a continuous kicking action from the stroke in favor of a more gliding and undulating style. This limits speed potential in the 200 and is contrary to the current, horizontally oriented stroke. Over the past decade, Michael Phelps has broken the world record in the 200 butterfly five times and has seldom swum more than four or five full-stroke 200 butterflies in training per year! The reason for this is simple: He cannot use his kick effectively for long butterfly swims and must resort to a survival stroke in order to complete the distances. We have developed other methods of conditioning his butterfly stroke that challenge his physiology while allowing him to perform his stroke at levels that are near race quality.

At the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, short-course 25-yard swimming has become an important part of the training program for the 200-meter butterfly. The reasons for this are twofold:

1. The shorter distance allows the swimmer to use a stroke that is much closer to the actual racing stroke in short rest training.

2. The swimmer can maintain a higher average heart rate during conditioning sets than in 50-meter training.

For these reasons, the majority of our endurance butterfly sets are done in a 25-yard pool. We use long-course training for specific speed work and for race rehearsal training. Some examples of our short-course fly training include the following:

45 × 50 butterfly = 3 × (10 × 50 @ 45 seconds work on stroke control + 5 × 50 @ 35 seconds at maximum speed)

No break is given between rounds. The swimmer must immediately return to the stroke count and stroke control time assigned by the coach. Michael Phelps holds around 28 seconds on the set of 10 with 6 strokes per length. He then swims around 25 seconds on the set of 5. The pace of the 5 × 50 is at his American record speed for the 200-yard fly! Little doubt exists about why he is the best butterfly swimmer in history.

3 × (4 × 100 fly @ 1:10 or 1:15 hold under 60 seconds + 1 minute rest + 100 fly at maximum speed)

The goal is to swim as close as possible to the second 100 split of the 200 fly on the timed 100. There are 300 yards of recovery drilling and swimming between rounds. This is an excellent set for helping the swimmer develop a technique that will maintain speed at the end of the race. We also like to use sets of 25-yard repeats on short rest done at the best speed the swimmer can hold. Twenty to 30 or even 40 × 25 on 20 seconds is tremendously conditioning and mentally challenging. The frequent, short repetitions also allow the coach to give short feedback tips at the end of each length. This helps the swimmer stay focused on technique under the physical stress of the interval.

In addition to the short-course work that is specific to the 200, we work on longer rest intervals and higher speeds in the 50-meter pool. The swimmers perform three to four broken 200s as follows.

50 dive @ 1:30 @ going out speed of goal 200

100 push @ 2:30 @ middle 100 speed or faster

50 dive @ 1:30 @ fastest possible speed

There is up to 400 meters of active recovery swimming and drilling in between rounds. The total interval for the swim and the recovery is around 10 minutes.

8 to 24 × 50 fly @ 1:30 (odd = dive; even = push)

All are performed at maximum effort. This is a great set for working on speed endurance and offers the coach opportunities to give technical feedback at the end of each repeat. This set mimics the anaerobic stress that the swimmers feel at the end of the race and teaches them to maintain proper technique under stress.

In general, our 200 flyers spend two main sets per week on butterfly; the remaining days are devoted to distance or individual medley training. We also sprinkle small doses of butterfly sprints through the week to help the swimmers develop speed and improve technique.

The 100-Meter Butterfly

Most swimmers who excel at the 100-meter butterfly are speed oriented and also train for the 100 freestyle or possibly the short individual medley. The swimmers have a perfunctory endurance program that allows for effective recovery between speed sets in training. For these swimmers, developing power and quickness to enhance the speed of their first 50 is critical. They must also have the lactate tolerance and buffering capacities to maintain speed over the final 50 meters.

Resistance training and speed-assisted training are very effective for the 100 fly. Our swimmers do sets with parachutes, fins, and surgical tubing on a regular basis. We must ensure that technique remains intact when overloading the stroke with resistance work. The repeats should be short and the intensity should be high.

We like to do the following two sets long course (or short course) to develop the type of speed endurance that 100 butterfly swimmers need to succeed.

30 × 50 @ 1:30 (1:15 short course) (1 kick, 1 drill, 1 swim)

The swims are done at maximum speed. The kicks and drills should be done with perfect precision and at an effort that keeps the system engaged and the heart rate steady between swims. This set is tremendously effective for developing the second 50 meters of the 100 fly. Take stroke and kick counts and stroke rates to determine the maximum level of speed efficiency for each swimmer.

10 × 50 done at maximum speed (4 @ 1:30 followed by 1 each @ 1:20, 1:10, 1:00, 0:50, 0:40 and 0:30)

This set, borrowed from coach Richard Quick, mimics the final 20 meters of the 100 or 200 and teaches the body to produce and then tolerate lactic acid. We like to follow this set with 10 × 100 @ 1:30 freestyle holding under 1:10. This buffering set forces the body to metabolize the lactic acid that is produced during the set and makes the total physical system much more efficient.

Both of these sets simulate for the 100-meter butterfly swimmer the physical demands of the race and allow them to perform the repeats with technique that is near race level.

Some swimmers need training for both events. A careful mixture of both types of training helps the swimmer steadily reach progressive performance levels in both events while excelling at the top level of performance in his or her more natural event. Swimmers must perform these sets with proper technique at all times. This includes underwater dolphin kicking. At North Baltimore Aquatic Club, our coaching staff prescribes a number of dolphin kicks that are to be performed on each wall during each specific set. This number is calculated to achieve maximum speed and distance on the underwater work while taking into account the strokes per length the swimmer takes. This balance between power and efficiency is critical in world-class butterfly swimming.

Learn more about The Swim Coaching Bible, Volume II.

More Excerpts From Swim Coaching Bible