Monday, August 18, 2008

Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’ Swim Coach: Building a Swimming Machine



“You’ve got to understand how monotonous and boring our training is, and hard.”

--Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’ coach.


Vision

“My job is to be in the water and swim. That’s about it.”

--Michael Phelps, discussing his intense focus.

“Nothing. I just get in the water and race.”

--Phelps, when asked about what goes through his mind during a race.

Peak performing athletes are produced by a confluence of factors; "a perfect storm of circumstance." These athletes must, of course, have rare natural talents and abilities; the opportunity and access to use state-of-the-art training and coaching; and a set of mental and psychological characteristics, including ferocious ambition, discipline and a capacity for self-sacrifice.

Michael Phelps has been Bob Bowman’s all-consuming project ever since Bowman found Phelps and decided “to build the perfect machine.”

He started the preteen Phelps on intense six-days-a-week practice regimens, often making him swim more than once a day, to work systematically on his mechanics, his endurance and his strength. He recognized Phelps’s potential aerobic capacity, challenging him to swim at least 50 miles each week. He knew that prepubescent children can, through training, increase the size of their hearts and lungs in ways that are no longer possible later on.

“The larger the heart and lungs,” he has noted, “the bigger the aerobic engine.” Beginning when Phelps was 12, he worked the swimmer seven days a week, guided by the assumption that competitors who rested on Sundays were at least one-seventh less conditioned. “Michael has a pretty easy life, if you don’t count the five hours a day of torture I put him through,” Bowman said.

Discipline and Preparation

Bowman is High Performance Coach of Club Wolverine, the elite Ann Arbor, Mich., swimming organization, whose members include Phelps. From 2004 until his resignation earlier this year, Bowman was also the head coach of the University of Michigan’s swim team.

Bowman’s current training regimen for Phelps included thin-air training, a proven and perfectly legal means of boosting an athlete’s red-blood-cell count, which increases the oxygen delivered to muscles. Training schedules featured three sessions in the pool per day and an additional hour of “dry land” activities like weight training or Pilates, for a total of 70 workouts over a three week period.

Although Bowman was dedicated to mixing up the training regimen to keep his swimmers from getting too comfortable or complacent, he followed certain patterns: the early session featured 90 minutes of low-key, continuous aerobic exertion — three or four miles of wake-up laps. Midday practice was an intense two-hour affair, putting the swimmers through their paces at top speeds or at the very threshold of their endurance; dry-land work followed for an hour. Later in the afternoon, the day’s final workout focused on muscle power rather than lung power, featuring drills with parachutes, fins, paddles, kick boards, floats, limb-disabling bands, snorkels and other accouterments designed to isolate particular skills. Bowman made sure that his swimmers had little time or energy left at the end of the day for anything but eating, sleeping and occasionally slumping in front of the television.

Phelps, who is said to require 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day to sustain his efforts, spent much of his free time napping or in pursuit, as he puts it, of “whatever I want to eat, whenever I want it, however much I want.”

Performance Feedback

“Swim-power tests” were administered to transmit measurements of velocity and force 60 times each second. A camera mounted on a track on the pool wall followed Phelps him down the lane and another camera filmed him from below. The apparatus, which Genadijus Sokolovas developed, analyzes a swimmer’s effectiveness according to 25 to 30 different parameters and gives coaches a way to quantify the costs of a swimmer’s mechanical flaws.

“Before this,we were just guessing — high elbow position is better than low elbow position, or pulling in the middle is better than pulling from the side. Now we can test any hypothesis.

The Future

“I’m pretty sure his records will be broken in 5 to 10 years. The swimmers who are going to do this are already in the system.”

“There is no point at which athletes can’t continue to improve. You can always do higher-intensity training, or maybe higher volumes. A swimmer can do more training on land; or more strength training in water, like swimming against resistances. You can improve your technique. You can improve your nutrition. Basically, I don’t see any limits in swim performance. We’ll never build the perfect swimmer. The records will go up and up.”

--Genadijus Sokolovas, a former pentathlete from Lithuania and the sports-science director for USA Swimming.

Excerpts from Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, 8/3/2008.
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