The ultimate example of sustainable training and sustainable racing…
What other athlete has had a career spanning five (5) Olympic Games – Sydney, Athens, Beijing, London & Rio – and has yielded as many medals as Phelps has won resulting in him becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time? What other athlete has had a career in swimming that lasted more than two decades?
What is often overlooked is what it took for Phelps to become the most decorated Olympian of all time during the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. Whereas many if not most Olympic swimmers attending the Summer Games swam one, maybe two events, perhaps an individual event and a relay and had nothing to lose by going “all in” whenever they raced; Phelps’ agenda for the Summer Games was not two, three, not even four or five events… the goal was to win gold in eight events to eclipse Mark Spitz’s record and to become the most decorated athlete in any Games. Whereas everyone else had time to recover between events, or having only one event didn’t need to think about recovering because once their swim was over… the Games were over for them; Phelps had to swim within himself every single time because he always had another event to swim (that is until he had swam all eight events).
To achieve the ultimate goal of eight Olympic gold medals, Phelps had to race in a sustainable manner: in a way that would allow him to win each event, but never in a way that would compromise his effort in any other event.
We race the way we train…
To race in a sustainable manner, Phelps had to train in a sustainable manner.
But before we get to the training part, and how Phelps trained to become the most decorated athlete, let’s complete the course on how Phelps raced in Beijing.
Phelps was able to sit out of preliminaries for relay events (it is customary for a coach to sub in an athlete to swim in the preliminary heat of a relay event, allowing the team to “save” a key athlete for finals); but Phelps obviously could not sit out of preliminaries for any of his individual events. Still, Phelps swam a total of 15 times during the Rio Olympics (provided I have counted correctly)… and for Phelps to do what Phelps did (i.e. 8 gold medals in 8 events) he had to race within himself every time so that he never over spent in any one event, costing him a win in that event and any event or all the events that followed.
Contrast that with the athletes Phelps was competing against: no other athlete at the Beijing Games was attempting to win eight gold medals meaning that there was no other athlete in Beijing that had to save himself as much as Phelps had to in each of his races. Yet, Phelps while swimming with restraint… beat them all.
Imagine if Phelps didn’t have 8 events, and all he was competing in was one event at a time… how fast could he have swum? What World Records would we have witnessed in Beijing if Phelps could have swam without restraint, without having to hold back because of all the events he had yet to swim?
Here you have an athlete who can win race after race and essentially do it with one hand tied behind is back (representing that he had many events to compete in) yet how many people are studying Phelps, how Phelps trained, how Phelps raced, or perhaps more importantly how did his coach Bob Bowman train Phelps to do what he did? This case study should be coaching 101 for every single swim coach on the planet… but I would bet that like the sports media, coaches have written Phelps off as an one off… and by doing so, disrespect Bowman writing him off as getting “lucky” that Phelps came to him (as if Phelps would have achieved these same results with any other coach).
I do not believe it for a moment.
I believe there was genius in how Bowman trained Phelps, and there was equal genius in how Phelps trained and allowed himself to be coached.
So how did Bowman train Phelps?
It started around the age of 13… Bowman clearly had foresight into the potential of Michael Phelps (unlike multiple Canadian swim coaches who rejected Penny Oleksiak at age 9 because she couldn’t swim more than a length or two of the pool). Bowman proposed to Michael and the Phelps family his vision for the success Michael could achieve, and with everyone committing to the vision… the training started:
5 years straight of training without a single day off!
Bowman had Phelps train 5 years straight… no days for Thanksgiving, Christmas, not on his birthday, no days off period. Phelps writes in his book “No Limits” that in order to be able to train day after day it required difficult decisions… he didn’t hang out with friends, go see movies, instead he went to bed early because tomorrow was another day of training. Bowman knew that if Phelps was to break Spitz’s record of Olympic golds, that he would have to have a physiological and psychological foundation that would be unwavering during the entire duration of an Olympiad. Other athletes were showing up to compete and maybe, just maybe medal in one event, but if Phelps was going to medal in eight and go down in history then his training would have to reflect the goal.
Consider what is required to train everyday, often times twice a day in the pool, plus dryland for 5 years straight: no single workout can compromise the athlete. No single workout can compromise the athlete… sound familiar? Its the same principle Phelps raced in Beijing: no single event can compromise the athlete … that is if he is going to win 8 gold medals.
Sustainable Training = Sustainable Racing
When most athletes and most coaches think of training everyday, they think of how performing HiiT daily would impact the athlete and they cringe at the thought of daily training because they know that daily HiiT is unsustainable. But instead of thinking of how to train so that training is sustainable, most athletes and most coaches just dump the thought and go back to hard and easy days and dismiss consistent stable training which constantly challenges the athlete but never so much that they are training beyond themselves.
Why don’t more athletes and coaches train in a sustainable manner? Because an intellectual approach to training requires… thinking and honestly, most athletes and coaches prefer not to think, just do, and do hard, then harder, and then harder still. Thinking to most athletes and coaches is wasted effort that could be spent punishing oneself with yet another HiiT session designed to torture the athlete in a belief that training is supposed to cause an athlete to become more and more tolerant of pain, to be able to suffer longer, harder, than the next… and that that is the key to peak performance. Its absolute ignorance, but hey… ever try and talk sense into a caveman? It ain’t gonna happen… they just want to hit something with their club. Their sloping foreheads preclude logical thought as pure reliance on instinct and heightening their instincts to cause deeper and deeper visceral reactions is all that they know and want to know. Offer them a carbon fiber club or a more aerodynamic club… you will have their undivided attention. Suggest that a club is not needed… and you will have lost them.
Bob Bowman – with his background in psychology and his prior experience as a college swimmer – knew that the mindset, the attitude, the mental perspective, the psychology of the athlete is just as critical to their development as their physiological training. Bowman shares that he is often asked if Phelps saw a sport psychologist on his way to becoming the athlete that we all know him as… Bowman replies to this question with a simple answer: “everyday”. Bowman was Phelps psychologist, his physiological and his psychological mentor. I believe it is this balanced approach in training – physiological and psychological development – that was the secret sauce propelling Phelps to his potential.
Unfortunately today athletes and coaches are not obsessing over quality training, the obsession is with short cuts… and the fitness and sport industries have provided the solution in spades: HiiT as in Hi Intensity Interval Training.
There is not a single study coming out of any university today that questions the validity nor the reliability of HiiT… the search is not for what is the optimal training process (its already been decided to be HiiT), the search is how to maximize HiiT so that we no longer train for hours and hours and hours… instead the hope is that like in the pharmaceutical industry that HiiT will be transformed into a magic pill where no one has to train anymore. We are almost there, I believe the latest research concludes that performing repeated Hi Intensity Intervals for as little as 10secs will yield the benefits that hours and hours of training does.
If that was truly the case then there should not be one but thousands of Phelps, thousands upon thousands of Bolts and Federers, etc… There isn’t and there aren’t and for good reason… HiiT is a losers approach and the losing approach to training because it is a form of gambling with your health which attempts to game your neuro-hormonal body systems to cause a spike in effort allowing a spike in performance (provided you don’t suffer a stroke, heart attack or mental breakdown in the process).
Phelps, Bowman, Bolt, Federer, any and all true athletes, any and all true consistent peak performers are not in search of one offs or temporary spikes… they are in pursuit of being champions, of becoming a champion from the deepest core of their being.
Follow HiiT and you will find yourself amongst athletes who are dopers: chemical and mechanical cheaters, athletes who are mentally and emotionally unstable typically outside of training but not uncommon while training, athletes who are willing to sabotage competitors equipment, athletes willing to cut courses in order to “win”, athletes who are typically injured, in pain, and eagerly train through their pain to demonstrate their toughness, athletes who are at high risk for self harm which includes suicide, and individuals who really cannot be called athletes because their ability to perform is cosmetic, an illusion, a temporary high fueled by their sports nutrition and HiiT not unlike the temporary happiness of a drug addict… short lived with disappointing after effects.
If you are in search of your true potential, then be like Phelps… seek sustainable training solutions, seek a coach who believes in sustainable training, in sustainable racing, who believes that you can only become your best when you are honest in your effort, and that arrives through consistent training, day after day, year after year, with optimal results coming after no less than 5-10 years (or as is commonly suggested in the literature after 7,000-10,000 hours of mindful purposeful healthy goal oriented training).
BTW… Phelps’ five year stint of training was not his starting point. Phelps by the age of 13 had already been swimming for 6 if not 7 years following the footsteps of his two older sisters who both competed at the National and International levels.
Point… there is no short cut and anyone selling you short cuts is some sort of dealer who wants to be your “supplier” of whatever it is you hunger for… you want a quick fix and a ‘high’ that makes you feel athletic… no worries, there are plenty of trainers, and coaches, and spinning class instructors who will happily oblige.
Want real success, real history making success… then stop believing in bandaid solutions, shortcuts, quick fixes and all the other hocus pocus.