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Vive le Papillon!

(or Is There Fly After 25?)

(Revised from an article first appearing in Schwimmvergnügen in 1993 and later reprinted in Swim Magazine. I've updated it to include some of the stuff we've been doing different with short-axis strokes in the last few years. If you have not yet read the article Slip-Slide'n Away, go do it now.just trust me on this.)

Event: 200 Fly — Heat 1 of 1

So, there you are, Joe Normal, sitting in the bleachers, watching the four people (of the nine entered) who actually made it to the blocks, driving their bodies through yet another length of what has eluded you thus far in your swimming career — meaningful butterfly.

You note that they are mostly ex-college, ex-Olympic or other career swimmers. They most certainly have, in their backgrounds, maniacal coaches that forced them to swim repeat 1000s all fly while wearing sweatshirts and waffle-stomper hiking boots. They were trained (perhaps bred as well) for superhuman feats. For them the 200 fly is but a gnat on the back of Goliath.

That Guy

But, over in lane 5 is That Guy. That Guy frustrates the hell out of you. He's no great swimmer. He's 15 years older than you. You can beat him soundly in any freestyle event under 500 yards. You've never seen him swim the 50 fly. Yet there he is, finishing the 200 fly. Not only is he finishing it, he negative split the race, got his arms over the surface on every single stroke and, as if to add insult to injury, he can climb out of the pool un-assisted. It defies all logic.

Now, you've got nothing against butterfly. It is a beautiful stroke when swum properly. You swim some in virtually every workout. You can even put together back-to-back 25s with no rest to total 50 uninterrupted yards of fly (of course, you milk that turn for every inch of glide its worth and pray there will be a crowd at the other end so you can justify taking that last stroke just before the flags).

That's where it ends, though. The concept of swimming 100 fly is foreign to you and the 200 is the stuff of nightmares.


According to the rule book it goes like this: "From the beginning of the first pull the swimmers shoulders shall be in line with the water surface. Both arms must be brought forward over the water and pulled back simultaneously." There are some qualifying statements and nit-picky details but that will suffice for now.

Aesthetically, ButterFly is the most fluid, graceful, sensuous, erotic, poetic, inspiring, beautiful stroke there is. People stand in awe. They flock from miles away. They ..... Alas, I digress. ButterFly, done right, is easy to spot and great to watch.


The technical term for the somewhat less than graceful series of jerks and spasms that occur 1) after lactate/fatigue (L/F) has robbed a swimmer of ButterFly and 2) until the end of the prescribed distance.

Aesthetically, ButterStruggle sucks. It is easy to spot and watching it is kinda like watching a cat hitch up a fur ball - it's painful to watch, there ain't a whole lot you can do about it at the moment, and the results are nothing to brag about.

The difference between That Guy and you, Joe Normal, is that while your ButterFly succumbs to L/F somewhere between 1 and 20 strokes and lapses into ButterStruggle, That Guy has somehow built up his fly endurance so that he can swim 100+ strokes without ever swimming a single stroke of ButterStruggle.

ButterStruggle is generally the direct result of fatigue in the muscles used to swim ButterFly. When this happens the body instinctively shifts the workload to other muscles. This causes changes in working angles of limbs, changes in ranges of motion, changes in power application, timing etc.

Which do you do more of?

My observation has been that the majority of "Butterfly" swum by Masters swimmers really consists of a small amount of ButterFly swum at the beginning of a repeat and a larger amount of ButterStruggle swum through the remainder of the repeat. Swimming ButterStruggle trains a different set of muscles to do something other than ButterFly. The swimmer that "trains for fly" by doing 5 strokes of ButterFly followed by 45+ strokes of ButterStruggle in every 100 yards isn't spending his time wisely (although the fitness swimmer may revel in the exorbitant quantity of calories burned by ButterStruggle).


How to learn to swim more 'fly and little or no 'struggle?

Some swimmers take the attitude that they can't train for fly until they get better at fly. I tend to think that you can't get better at fly till you train for it. To this end we have had wonderful success with a drill we call "Half Fly". In fact, I don't consider it a drill. This is the way our swimmers train virtually all of their fly over 25 yards.

All that is needed to master this type of fly training is 1) the ability to swim at least one stroke of more or less proper ButterFly (if you are not sure you have one fly stroke right, get with your coach now) and 2) the ability to swim the rest of the length with moderate paced freestyle.

Half Fly (or HFly) defined:

Warning if you ignored my earlier note about reading the Slip-Slide'n Away article, drop everything and go do it now or you'll spend the rest of this article scratching your head.

Beginner: The swimmer comes off the first wall and glides into three Short Axis Pulses (SAPs — Now will you go read that article?) takes one stroke of ButterFly and flows the recovery/entry of that stroke into 3 more SAPs (with no strokes) and transitions to easy or moderate paced freestyle. The swimmer finishes the length freestyle and executes a flip turn or open turn as desired. Repeat for 500 yards.

Beginner first-class: The swimmer comes off the first wall and glides into three Short Axis Pulses (SAPs) takes two strokes of ButterFly (in a normal swimming rhythm) and flows the recovery/entry of the second stroke into 3 more SAPs (with no strokes) and transitions to easy or moderate paced freestyle to finish the length, executes a flip turn or open turn as desired. Repeat for 500 yards.

Intermediate: Same as Beginner and Beginner First-Class except with three ButterFly strokes in a swimming rhythm coming off each wall.

Advanced Intermediate: Ditto above but with four strokes each length.get the picture?

Once the swimmer can comfortably complete 500 yards with X number ButterFly strokes per length then it's time to move up to X+1 strokes, always being sure to drop back at the first hint of ButterStruggle. We call it Half Fly because many people can handle this drill from the git-go with enough strokes to get half the length. But one stroke is enough to get started.

More SAP

We also do a fair amount of training with fins and find that, instead of transitioning into freestyle, continuing with SAP for the rest of the length is a very workable alternative for most people. Also, alternating strokes and SAPs — e.g. three strokes, three SAPs, three strokes etc. — is a great stepping-stone to larger percentages of ButterFly.

And, generally, we find that most people can eventually wean themselves off of fins for this kind of alternating stroke/SAP work once they start to build some confidence in the drills. Zoomers serve as a good stepping-stone in moving from fins to nekked pheet.

The advantage of continuing with SAP is that the swimmer continues to practice and train the prime core body mover muscles and motions of the stroke throughout the whole length. One might argue, "Well then, why not simply continue swimming fly instead?" Simply because once ButterFly deteriorates to ButterStruggle, the core body is out of the loop — it has become all arms and legs and splash.

Quantity only counts if it is quality

The intermediate swimmer that does a 500 HFly swims anywhere from 100 to 250 or more yards of meaningful ButterFly during the swim (and practically zero ButterStruggle).

A similar ability level swimmer that tries to go a 500 all fly gets in, perhaps, 25 to 50 yards real ButterFly and another 450 or more ButterStruggle (assuming he completes the distance).

Guess which performance is more impressive to the casual onlooker? (This is, perhaps, why Paul Tsongas had the presence of mind not to demonstrate any distance greater than 50 fly in front of the media while he was running for President).

HFly really worx!

Over the years we've had many swimmers that have undertaken to swim the 200 fly using the Half Fly method of training. Along the way they have acquired the ability to swim much longer distances of fly. T20s and T30s HFly or all Fly, Moderate paced aerobic as well as anaerobic threshold sets in workouts, the Hour Swim, 500s in meets etc. And the majority of this by swimmers without extensive competitive age group or college backgrounds. (It was one such person finished the last 300 yards of the 5K La Jolla Roughwater Swim Gatorman event all fly, in excellent form and got a huge round of applause from the spectators.) The best part is that with HFly as an option, swimmers choose to do all this voluntarily.

Meaningful ButterFly. It's there in the pool. It's up to you to put it your lane.

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 1993-2002

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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