The Ultimate Match Up - Michael Phelps vs. Mark Spitz (How has the butterfly stroke changed over the years?)

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May 23, 2011

The Ultimate Match Up - Michael Phelps vs. Mark Spitz (How has the butterfly stroke changed over the years?)

There is no doubt about the greatness of Mark Spitz in his time and Michael Phelps’ recent ongoing dominance on the swimming scene. Both Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps are multiple Olympic champions with many world records under their belts. Every competitive swimmer knows their name and dreams of their swimming accomplishments.

These two swimming giants are separated by four decades of swimming science innovation and an unprecedented technological revolution. When Mark Spitz cruised to his 7 gold medals in the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, the Internet was just being invented and nobody was aware of its large potential and how it will change the human kind. When Michael Phelps beat Spitz’s record and claimed 8 gold victories in the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, China, the Internet already enriched the lives of about ~25% of the world’s population. In 1972, nobody really knew who Mark Spitz was unless they were keen swimming sport enthusiasts or journalists. In 2008, the whole world was watching Michael’s incredible reign and probably millions of tweets were sent around to announce his victories. I don’t even attempt to predict what will happen in 2012 summer Olympics in London, UK, but it will be the most amazing 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.

The main visible difference comes to light during the breathing part of the stroke. Mark Spitz employs the over the water concept and lifts his head and body quite high out of the water. Michael Phelps on the other hand is using the more modern style with very slight oscillation of the body and just skimming the surface with his chin. Spitz is creating a lot more up and down motion which in turn translates into a much 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.

Finally, in today’s competitive swimming world, if you do not have a powerful underwater dolphin kick, you are as good as fish without a water. Some coaches even go as far as calling the underwater dolphin kick, a fifth stroke. Michael has one of the best underwater kicks in the world, so the kick also contributes to his success. During Mark Spitz’s time, there was no such thing and everybody popped up out of the water as soon as they pushed off the wall.

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.
Be seen, keep your stuff dry and take a break when needed.


T-Wib said...

One difference I noticed was the dives: the 70's group dived out towards their goal, in doing so, causing an inefficient belly- flop and splash. The modern group dives higher, knifing into the water with a more downward angle and less splash.

libor said...

@T-Wib: good catch. The modern group is much more efficient in diving. To learn more about how to dive, see the starts and turns section.