Michael Phelps, Losing the 400IM, and His Taper

Did Phelps lose because he trained too hard rather than not enough?

I was definitely surprised that Michael Phelps didn’t even medal yesterday in the 400IM. He gave a cryptic comment right after the race about not managing the lead-up to the Olympics well. He also spoke about feeling like “crap” in the morning.

Certainly he didn’t have the same speed, particularly in the last 100 meter free, that he demonstrated back in Olympic Trials. And the times showed. At Olympic Trials he swam a 4:07.89, nearly a second and a half faster than his Olympic time of 4:09.28.

Barring injury, what is the major reason why a swimmer would swim that much slower even a few weeks later? The taper.

Swimmers put in enormous amount of meters swimming, keeping the body exhausted, the muscles broken down, for what is not a natural activity. To reach peak performance, swimmers engage in a taper, slowly bringing down the amount of total yards they are swimming, and often increasing the rest intervals between high-effort swims.

Tapers are about timing, about dropping the training enough so the athlete is physically and mentally ready to give a maximal effort at a race. My guess is that Phelps trained even harder right after the trials, trying to position himself to win the 400 IM. Then, with a move to a different time zone and all the distractions of the Olympics (how many interviews…), the coaches didn’t quite catch his taper right.

Summer Sanders, a former Olympic swimmer and now TV commentator, agrees with me. In this clip on Yahoo Sports Video, she notes how she saw Michael swimming low in the water during morning practices, rather than up high and fast. The reason? Not quite at the end of his taper yet.

A lot of sports commentators right now are reading too much into his comments about not being prepared, blaming the less-than-stellar two years of training post 2008 on why he swam slower yesterday. Ironically, Phelps likely lost out on a medal not because he trained too little over the past four years, but because he trained too hard over the past few weeks.

Update: Not quite sure what to think after his 4×100 swim last night, where he put in a very fast performance. Looks like he had the second fastest leg of anyone (after Agnel, who upset Lochte at the end). So perhaps he didn’t do the training for swimming a 400, and focused more on shorter events. Or maybe it was just an off day. Or maybe his taper was off. Ah, sports talk…

Maybe jet lag and a bad taper?! Look at his official Olympics photo!

Update #2: First off, many congratulations to Phelps for becoming the most decorated Olympian of all times. That was great to watch. Touching too that the gold medal came on a relay, so it was a team effort. Second, his silver in the 200m butterfly made me appreciate all the more what he accomplished four years ago. Competition at the Olympic level is so close.

But I must say I was even more shocked by Phelps losing the 200 butterfly than I was by the 4th in the 400IM. This is his signature race. Great to see the South African swimmer jam into the wall, and how ecstatic his father was over that win. Olympic glory.

For me, the main reason Phelps got second in the race was his turns. He came in short on at least two turns, though I heard Rowdy Gaines mention three. He didn’t manage a technical detail of the race right, and it cost him at the end. That really was the margin of victory, a series of small mistakes. But he still got swam down in the last 50 meters of a grueling race, which does point to fitness level, age, and all the other things that affect athletes, elite or not.

In an interview with Bob Costas, Phelps also pointed to having “lazy finishes” in practice, which then showed up in his finish at the Olympics. I love the finish to the interview:

The decisions I made over the last four years were the decisions I made. And I’m okay with it. I’m just going to have some fun.

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7 Responses to Michael Phelps, Losing the 400IM, and His Taper

  1. EHobbes says:

    And perhaps the speculated too-hard training between the Trials and the Olympics was an effort to make up for the lack of a sufficient training base (a key ingredient to a taper, particularly for longer events and/or a more grueling schedule)…

    I train with the Master’s team at the same pool as Phelps, and we practice right before his training group. Phelps often doesn’t show up or shows up late (and when he does show up on time, he is the last swimmer in the water, texting away in a corner on the deck). A few months ago, as we left practice one day, we overhead Bob Bowman (Phelps’ coach) lament to another coach “It’s a 100 days out [from Trials] and he [Phelps] hasn’t been to a morning practice all week.”

    Yes, taper is always a tricky thing (especially trying to hit it twice within a short period of time). But I don’t think people realize the extent to which he had *not* been training prior to the Trials.

    (Re: any criticisms that I’m just jealous of Phelps…yes, he is an amazing athlete, but he is an amazing athlete who also doesn’t work hard. Whether that makes his achievements more/less impressive depends on your perspective. As an athlete, it’s always frustrating to see those who put in much less effort do well, but of course, life is unfair.)

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    • ramflabr says:

      This is such a BS comment. The guy won 14 medals. This comes with a lot of effort and training. If he is not ready or uninterested in 2012, that is his problem… To minimize this guy’s accomplishment is BS. Live and let live. He was not motivated. Why should we judge him? Most people like to take 3 month breaks when they win a million dollars, and this guy just made his name… Let him be what he wants. The funny thing is that even with little training (if what the BS commenter says is true) he makes it to the finals… So the guy has the skill.

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      • Eddie says:

        Michael Jordan, Bruce Lee, Tiger Woods, Bill Gates, Michael Phelps. Greatness.

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  2. EHobbes says:

    The hypothesis of the blog post was that contrary to popular assumption, the reason for Phelp’s lackluster performance was that he trained too hard between Trials and the Olympics. And assessing this hypothesis requires one to ask why this might have been the case, especially for such an experienced and successful athlete/coach pair. Other than the fact that tapers are notoriously tricky to hit exactly right (especially two within a month), one reason might be his need to cram some base-building into the interim period (which is not an uncommon approach). However, having an insufficient base, whether due to laziness or a lack of motivation (or some other reason), would make such an effort more important and also more difficult to successfully execute.

    And again, whether a lack of effort diminishes an individual’s achievements depends on your perspective. He won 14 gold medals – which could be more impressive (amazing natural ability/skill) if he put in less work than his competitors. The final evaluation depends on whether one wants to evaluate based only on outcome or on the outcome + inputs into that outcome.

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  3. Eugenio de la Mora Lugo says:

    I believe you have never compete in a serious sport competition. You are approaching swimming as a simple competition between machines. There are many factors determining the performance of an athlete during a competition. What Phelps is about to do (being the person who has won most medals) is amzing. It is clear that he reached his optimum during Beijing 2008…

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  4. EHobbes says:

    And perhaps the speculated too-hard training between the Trials and the Olympics was an effort to make up for the lack of a sufficient training base (a key ingredient to a taper, particularly for longer events and/or a more grueling schedule)…

    I train with the Master’s team at the same pool as Phelps, and we practice right before his training group. Phelps often doesn’t show up or shows up late (and when he does show up on time, he is the last swimmer in the water, texting away in a corner on the deck). A few months ago, as we left practice one day, we overhead Bob Bowman (Phelps’ coach) lament to another coach “It’s a 100 days out [from Trials] and he [Phelps] hasn’t been to a morning practice all week.”

    Yes, taper is always a tricky thing (especially trying to hit it twice within a short period of time). But I don’t think people realize the extent to which he had *not* been training prior to the Trials.

    (Re: any criticisms that I’m just jealous of Phelps…yes, he is an amazing athlete, but he is an amazing athlete who also doesn’t work hard. Whether that makes his achievements more/less impressive depends on your perspective. As an athlete, it’s always frustrating to see those who put in much less effort do well, but of course, life is unfair.)

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