5 Tips to Swim a better Butterfly

5 Tips to Swim a better Butterfly
There's a unique flamboyance in the butterfly stroke, that's not quite there in any of the other strokes, I think. Watch someone swim a butterfly lap in a regular pool and sure enough most heads will turn to watch. Especially if it's swum really well.

But butterfly is probably one of the hardest strokes to train for and to compete in. Most swimmers fear the 200 fly which was my event at the Beijing Olympics, and many more hate a fly distance set in training. However it's my experience, that training in this stroke will help you work muscles that don't get worked on quite as much in other strokes, strengthen your aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and make you a much tougher swimmer mentally as well. There was a certain arrogance with which I would brag about the huge fly sets that I did in training and it was also this confidence that I took to a race, knowing that being able to complete those sets meant I was supremely fit.

So here are five tips from me to help you swim a more efficient butterfly, which I believe will make both training and racing easier. And hey, even if you're swimming recreationally, why not swim this well and make those heads turn!
Your head position in all four strokes is of crucial importance. I've said this before as well; your body will always do what your head dictates!
Many flyers make the mistake of coming up too high to breathe because they feel they are struggling to swim the stroke and in that moment of exhaustion or panic overcompensate by pushing a large part of their upper body out of the water when they surface for a breath. Remember that the less effort you make to come up for air, the smoother will be your stroke.
I always tell swimmers to lift their head just enough for their chin to crest the surface of the water as they inhale, letting the water graze past, without allowing any more of their upper body to surface. This is a powerful stroke and using the right technique will help you conserve energy for where you need it most. When you tire through training or in a race, it's easiest to start making mistakes in your technique and I would use the position of my chin as a checkpoint for accuracy of technique, ensuring it seemingly rested on an imaginary cushion - the water -right through the in-breath.
You need strong wings to fly and your wings in this stroke are your arms, lat muscles and your entire back. These have to be so strong, and yet loose and flexible enough, to enable you to reach out as far forward as possible and then pull through underwater with a high elbow. There is a lot of instruction in this one line I wrote, but a few checkpoints that you can go over while focussing on the upper body when swimming fly are:
  • Make sure your hands are at shoulder level when they fall together at the top of the stroke
  • Pulling through underwater with a high elbow requires tremendous shoulder, back and rotator cuff strength, for which you must have a good dry land programme. I will address this more deeply in a future blog.
  • Make sure you finish the stroke, without rushing and pulling your arms out early. This requires strong tricep muscles, and this movement also has to be timed with your second kick.
If you are able cover these three checkpoints, you will have a pretty technically correct pull!
Core stability, control and strength are so important for a good butterfly. They dictate how strong your kick will be, how much body undulation you can generate through your stroke and how high your hips remain when you're exhausted toward the end of a race. Your core and lower back are also key to staying stable in fly.
While you need a strong dryland programme to work on core strength, here's a helpful in-the-pool exercise for swimmers who struggle to keep their hips from sinking in this stroke that worked well for me in my swim training. Try to imagine that there is an insect in the middle of your stomach that you are trying to crush with your abs. What happens as you crunch your abs to do this, is that you automatically bring your spine to a neutral position and eliminate the big arch in your lower back that otherwise leads to your hips sinking further. The more control you have in tucking in your stomach and crushing that insect, the higher your hips and body will be in the water!
The butterfly kick is divided into two parts. Both power and timing are key to kicking efficiently through the stroke. Try to ensure you time the first kick with the entry of your arms falling together at the top and while tucking your chin into your chest.
The power in this stroke comes more from the second kick, and swimmers at an international level, today, work very hard at generating power here. I always liked to time the second kick with an explosive breath out, and combined the finish of the pull, using my triceps to push the water back.
At the end of the blog are some drills that you can do to work that second kick and core. But before I list my favourite drills, the last point I would like to cover is,
As competitive swimmers, we work on stroke efficiency all our lives. While training to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, a key focus for me was to use fewer strokes to cover the same distance in the same time. So I would work to complete each 50m split of my 200m fly at a particular target time, while trying to reduce the  number of strokes I swam it in.
As competitive swimmers, we work on stroke efficiency all our lives. While training to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, a key focus for me was to use fewer strokes to cover the same distance in the same time. So I would work to complete each 50m split of my 200m fly at a particular target time, while trying to reduce the  number of strokes I swam it in.
Here is how I did this:
I would set a target time for covering the 50m distance with a push off from one end of the pool, and arrive at a desired stroke count for completing that 50m by subtracting ten seconds from the target time I set.  
So if you plan to complete a 50m fly in 30 seconds, following this method, you would work on swimming it in no more than 20 full strokes.
Why do this? Because if you are able to get your body accustomed to doing this over and over again, then using less strokes and therefore less energy in that 50m split in your race will become automatic. You will therefore have comparatively greater energy than before in that last 50m that hurts everyone so, so much!
So to conclude today's blog, here are my 3 favourite drills for fly.
  1. Work your dolphin kick with fins: Lie on your on your back, feeling like you are kicking with your entire body, not just your hips. You can then progress to still kicking on your back, but keeping your arms straight, pointed toward the sky. This will work your core!
  2. Head up fly: Put on your fins, and sprint 25m but with your head up! Do not let it drop into the water. By trying to do this you will realize how hard you need to kick that second kick, thus training not just your core but that kick as well!
  3. Sculling: I always encourage swimmers to do a bit of sculling in their warm ups, as it helped me feel as though I was holding water better through my stroke! So make sure, whether it is a pre-race warm up or a training day, you always get some sculling drills done!
I hope you can take back some good from this blog, and remember, the butterfly stroke is only as easy or as hard as you think it to be. Yes, there are going to be days when you are so exhausted, you can't feel your arms in training. Yes, there will be times when you will curse yourself for ever learning the stroke and even being good at it! But know that a fit butterflier, is a supremely fit athlete, no matter what stroke he swims! And that alone, is always worth it!
Now it's up to you to SWIMSMART ;)
Thank you,