Back to the Butterfly

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Backstory: five years ago I signed myself up for a SCUBA diving course. At the first class there is a swim test: 200m, and treading water for 10min. I splashed and gurgled my way through the swim, then sank and drowned. Twice, and barely survived on the third trial.

“That’s awful, dude”, I said to myself, “you’ve got to learn how to swim.” So I gave myself two years to learn to swim the butterfly. “But why the butterfly when you can’t even swim?” Why not? “How do you know you could ‘swim the butterfly’?” I’ll swim 1000m of it.

I was not completely stupid, so I signed myself up for some lessons, followed by a masters swim class. It was then when I realized that I was completely stupid. The instructor was bragging about being able to swim a 100m butterfly. If a good swimmer can only make a tenth of the target, it’s probably not a good target.

Undaunted, I got a copy of Total Immersion’s swimming material, and for several months religiously dolphin-kicked an hour a day, 4 days a week. Other swimmers looked at me oddly, especially at the beginning when the dolphin kick doesn’t get me anywhere.

(It doesn’t get better – they always look at you funny. Swimming fly also always get the 18yo hyper-muscular boys to start butter-struggling, i.e., to cross 25m with 33 strokes (!) )

There’s a lot of nuance in the stroke that is hard to pick up from books and videos — and in any case, the material out there are never about swimming the butterfly for a distance.

To complete the happy story: a year later, on a sunny summer afternoon I did the 1k butterfly. I had no idea how I did it – my training distances for a full stroke were ~400-500m. But I was happy enough for that, and with starting capoeira, to not swim again for almost two years.

Fast forward to March 2011: I really enjoyed swimming the fly. There’s something just awesome about the surging and diving. Taking advantage of living near a LCM pool, I again set myself a 2yr goal: 5k butterfly. There’s still precious little info out there, but according to one Tom Boettcher (Big Shoulder 5k butterfly swimmer), dry land work is important. Swimmit (the swim community on Reddit) offered some suggestions for that, but I’m having a hard time working them in with the yoga.

(A side effect of yoga practice is that I’m always hungry. A side effect of swimming is that I’m always hungry. The past few weeks I’ve been eating whenever food can be found 🙂 )

Having started swimming again in the past few weeks, I’ve been pretty consistent in doing ~1-1.5k fly per session. These are usually broken up into 400/400/200/100/100/50, but I’m also mixing in some 1-1.2k continuous. Unlike the last go-around, I’ve been doing straight up swimming and very little drills; the only ones I do is fist-swimming and 4-kicks/pull.

When I swam the 1k three years ago it was a 3-kick per pull (i.e., adding a kick to the glide after the recovery), and the stroke back then had a pronounced hitch on the recovery as I catch a breath. This time around I’m finding that eliminating the extra kick actually works better: perhaps more air in the carburetor is more important than worrying about running out of fuel. Breathing more frequently also seems to help to eliminate the hitch.

Strange things I meditated on over the course of a swim:

  • inward rotate the legs, and keep the knees tightly together. Pigeon toe. Think mermaids.
  • A 5-count stroke.
  • Shoulders: (1) stretch dive, (2) catch+outward pull, (3) slow pull, (4.0) slow pull, (4.5) accelerate, (5) swoosh! rubber-band arms.
  • hands/forearms: (1) stiff, (2) stiff, (3) stiff, (4) stiff, (5) jelly!
  • kick – there seems to be two ways for the pulling-kick that work for me, and I don’t yet know how they fit in the counts (and I didn’t know I don’t know until I wrote it down). When done “right” I feel an extra propulsion in the surge, and with the inwardly rotated knees, my toes feels little whirlpools at the end of the snap.
  • keeping tension in the trunk (“long spine”) seems to be helpful in keeping a powerful dolphin – esp. when tired. Plastic bags don’t make very good propellers.
  • look straight down when breathing. This seems to work only when the pull is slowed down, and lead with the crown at the same time of the pull. If I’m not in sync this is a certain water-gulper.
  • There’s two little mouse, one living between the scapula, another at the small of the back. Make sure both of them get to breath in each stroke cycle.
  • Stretching the glide phase seems to be a delicate balance and depends on how the entry after the recovery was. Too long a stroke is bad – there’s no sense of flow when the cycle is stopped and started; too short a stroke is bad too.

There’s a sweet spot where the rhythm of the surges and dives / pulses and snaps coincides with the breathing cycle. Between sprinting for 100m and plodding for 1200m, I found that there are different sweet spots for the same body; the sweet spot may depend on how buoyant one is, so there may be a different set of techniques for every body. The challenge for an “infinite fly” (the world record by Vicki Keith is 80km (!!), and several people has done flys in the 10s of km) is possibly to find the swiftest sweet spot in the aerobic regime, and train for the discipline and strength to hold that form. We’ll find out if that’s true or applicable in the upcoming months.


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