Olympic event for the swimming community yet to be recorded.
Back on track though, so we have two extremely talented swimmers who were/are on top of the world as the best swimmers in their time and age. Has anything changed since Mark Spitz cruised to his Munich Olympic victories in 1972? Both Phelps and Spitz swam the butterfly stroke as their signature style, so after our discussion of the top 4 most common butterfly mistakes let’s have a look on how these two super swimmers did it and how they compare against each other.
Apart from the obvious that Mark Spitz had a mustache, didn’t have an access to a full Speedo LZR suit, didn’t use swimming goggles and didn’t wear a swimming cap, the most interesting differences come to light when we examine the video footage and photographs from their butterfly events.
higher drag coefficient and thus slower or more energy wasting swimming style. Michael uses majority of his energy for forward motion instead of the lift motion, therefore, making him much more efficient in the water.
One thing in regards to breathing is common between these two super athletes though. They both breathe every stroke. Michael does not breathe off the start and off the turn, but otherwise every stroke. The idea here is that breathing every stroke keeps the swimmer in the correct rhythm and it supplies the ever needed oxygen. Also, it was said that if a swimmer breathes every other stroke, during the non-breathing cycle, his/her body is deeper in the water, thus adding to the swimmer’s dreaded drag. In contrast, with every stroke breathing, the swimmer stays higher in the water and has to exert less energy into forward motion propulsion.
What else is different? How about the way the arms move during the recovery cycle of the stroke (above the water)? In Mark Spitz’s case, elbows are bent which causes a lot more stress on the shoulder, more energy output since more muscles need to be involved to perform the bent motion and most of all, the higher body position during the breath as he needs much more room to clear the water with his arms. Michael, on the other hand, has his arms nice and straight, just skimming the surface of the water which saves energy and also makes the arms move faster during the butterfly recovery phase.
I wasn’t able to find a great underwater footage of Mark, but from looking at a short front facing video, we could see that he keeps his elbows quite bent on the entry and also his hands are producing a lot of bubbles. Michael, keeps his arms quite straight on the front entry and there are almost no bubbles under his hands in his stroke. You might be wondering, what the heck am I talking about, "bubbles"? And rightfully so. This is an advanced skill to master, but the idea is that your hand should enter the water so cleanly that you do not trap any bubbles in your palm and fingers. This bubbleless entry will allow you to catch the water much sooner and your catch will be more powerful since you are catching water and not air. Next time you are swimming, why don’t you look at what your hands do in the front of the stroke during the entry and watch for the bubbles. Try to adjust your hand entry or your underwater reach, so the bubbles that are created by the hand disappear before you start with your catch.
As a side note, not really related to the butterfly stroke, check out the start differences. Spitz, as everyone else at that time is using a feet together start (grab start). Nowadays, track starts are much more popular. Also, most of the swimmers in Spitz’s time didn’t grab the block with their hands, instead they used their hands to swing their body forward. Today, the arm swing is only used during relay starts, but for individual events, everybody grabs the block and uses the hands to generate more power off the block.
There you have it. High level analysis of what swimming was like for Mark Spitz and how it has changed for Michael Phelps. If you spot any other differences, please share them with us in the comments. It is amazing how the sport evolves as our understanding of the swimming science becomes more astound. I definitely applaud all the swimming researchers out there who are trying to make our sport better. Well done and keep up the good work.