Why Michael Phelps has a Slow Start

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By Swimming World correspondent G. John Mullen of Swimming Science and Center of Optimal Restoration , Creator of Swimmer’s Shoulder System, Swimming Science Research Review

SANTA CLARA, California. July 31. “MICHAEL had a horrible start”

If the greatest swimmer, perhaps athlete, has one chink in his armor, it is his sprinting ability.

I recall after the 2008 Olympics, Mr. Phelps continually saying he’ll be discontinuing longer races to focus on sprint events.

Phelps originally stated he will never do eight events again and will try new events.

Phelps said, “I keep saying I want to go down and start sprinting, but Bob really isn’t so keen on that … I don’t think that’s going to happen … Over the next four years, I’d like to try some different events, maybe not do some of the events I did here.”

Coach Bowman let Phelps experiment for a while after the 2008 Olympics in sprinting, but found Phelps was unsuccessful. Simply put, Phelps is relatively bad at short sprinting. Bowman knew this and is likely why he wasn’t “keen” on letting him keep trying, getting beat, and losing confidence and the psychological edge.

At the ultra-elite level, having a psychological edge is mandatory, but certain physiology is essential. This article will discuss the variables making Mr. Phelps a poor sprinter.

Top time 22.94 performed at a Senior Challenge meet in 2007.

In fact, he’s only achieved the 2012 Olympic Trials cut three times in his career! How come this multi-event swimming outlier manages World Records in nearly every other race except the 50 free where he doesn’t even enter the top 150 in the world?

The simplistic argument is he doesn’t train for the 50 or he doesn’t have enough ‘fast-twitch’ muscle fibers to complete against the elite 50 freestylers. These simple arguments are valid, but this article will dive into the simple and complex reasons, looking at the modifiable and unmodifiable factors in his top events.

Race Strategy
First, let’s make a few things clear. A lot of Phelps’ race strategy is to even-split the race in the 100s. This is common, as most elite 100 swimmers are figuring out being first at the 50 seldom leads to first at the 100. Therefore, Phelps and Bowman have designed his race strategy behind this theory.

As the race shortens, the ability to even split the race remains (most elite 50 freestylers are the top closers in the event), but the overall velocity is obviously faster, forcing a quicker get out time, which Phelps’ doesn’t have. Therefore, for his other races, his slow starts are a part of his race strategy, but in the 50, he just doesn’t have what it takes. For the 100 meter distances, his race strategy is modifiable, but in the 50 he doesn’t have the initial speed to make it a modifiable variable, making race strategy a mixed bag.

Muscle Fiber
Muscle fiber is a complicated subject which many Ph.D. candidates spend years trying to stain and analyze. Most people have heard of fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers, but it is more complicated than the name. There are multiple categories for fast-twitch fibers which determine the magnitude of strength and size.

One is able to transition between types of muscle fiber (ie from a type IIx to a type IIb, but not between type I and II). If I guessed, I would say Mr. Phelps has a lot of type I, making this a static variable.

Stretching Slowness
Stretching is a form of mobility. In swimming, you need to have enough mobility to perform the ranges of motions required to perform ideal stroke biomechanics. Despite common opinion, you don’t need to do the splits or stretch the shoulders any more! In fact, this increased mobility increases the likelihood of injury.

Static stretching is the typical form of stretching. This is when you bend forward and hold the stretch for a period of time. Many studies suggest static stretching decreases force production directly after the stretch. This is why no one should bend over on the block for a long period of time. Static stretching is suggested to elongate the tendinomuscular junction, decreasing its stiffness and ability to recoil.

On the block, Mr. Phelps starts with a static shoulder stretch which likely impairs his ability for his arms to produce force. This stretch is short and likely results in minimal force production decrements. However, Mr. Phelps also bends from the hips from the second he is on the block. This static stretch on the hamstrings is the big killer, impairing his legs to produce force.

This is just a theory, as muscle force production has yet to be performed, but a potential modifiable variable.

Start Biomechanics
One can overcome a poor start in every race, but the margin of error is much smaller in the 50. The most important variable for a start is the speed upon entry, not reaction time. However, elite sprinters likely have a quick reaction time and speed upon entry. Phelps has slow reaction times compared to reaction time potentially secondary to poor biomechanics. Here are a few:

Phelps also performs a front weighted track start on the block. Moreover, he does not properly tuck his chin for the sling-shot effect.

He has his elbows flared to the side and bent, not allowing him to utilize the stretch reflex in his arms. Hyperextended shoulders, poor foot position on Omega block

Stroke Biomechanics
Phelps uses a hybrid stroke. This style uses a straight arm catch on one side and a high-elbow catch on the other. It is ideal for middle distance, allowing a bounce in the stroke to allow an easy, frequent breath. For maximal velocity, minimal vertical movement is required. Moreover, the amount of hip drive is low. Therefore, Mr. Phelps’ stroke style is not ideal for sprints.

I know what you’re thinking, if Phelps’ wanted to be a sprinter, then why didn’t him and Bowman change his stroke? The problem with this is an alteration in stroke can alter motor programming and potentially hinder his middle distance stroke. Therefore, Bowman was not keen on the sprinting idea.

Being the best in the world in every single event is impossible, given the different physiological/biomechanical factors necessary to become the very best at the elite level.Therefore, this article does not imply Phelps is not a spectacular swimmer, likely the best ever. However, there are reasons why he is not as dominant in sprinting. Remember, most things have likely explanations, hopefully this brings a few to light and help even the elite perform better. It’s not you, even the best athletes have room to improve!

G. John Mullen is the owner of of the Center of Optimal Restoration and creator of Swimming Science. He received his doctorate in Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California. G. John has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, Swimmer Magazine, and the International Society of Swim Coaches Journal.

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