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Building a Better Butterfly

Coaching butterfly endurance without wrecking strokes

Terry Heggy | January 31, 2017

A well-executed butterfly stroke is one of the most beautiful things in all of sports, and swimming it can be an exhilarating experience that makes your spirit soar. Yet butterfly is also a uniquely demanding stroke because its two-arm, over-water recovery motion requires strength and flexibility that don’t come easily to many Masters swimmers. How can you provide adequate butterfly training for your athletes who struggle with this sublime stroke?

First: Forbid Faulty Form

Repetition develops habits. That’s why you constantly remind swimmers to focus on streamlining, efficient breathing, a good catch, and effective pulling. In the heat of competition, these repetitively-developed habits form the foundation for excellent performance. At the same time, if swimmers practice with poor technique, those bad habits are the ones that will show up when they race.

The problem is that many swimmers can only perform a handful of decent butterfly strokes before their form falls apart. Therefore, you want to create sets that recognize this reality and allow your athletes to gradually build up their endurance without ever developing bad stroke habits.

One-Arm Fly

Removing the two-arm recovery allows athletes to swim longer distances while focusing on the stroke/kick timing, core movement, and waveform nature of the stroke. Make sure they understand that this is a butterfly set, not a one-arm freestyle. Emphasize the undulation and abdominal involvement in the kick, and provide feedback to ensure that motion is directed forward rather than merely up and down.

One-arm butterfly can be swum primarily as a relaxed timing drill, or it can be swum hard, on intervals that aren’t much slower than freestyle sendoffs. You can add variations for variety or to adapt for athlete ability levels:

  • Switching sides—Swim odd lengths (or repeats) on one side, evens on the other; or count strokes before switching (e.g., 6 strokes on each arm).
  • Breathing—Breathe to the side (either on the pulling side or opposite), or in a normal butterfly breathing position.
  • Resting arm—The nonstroking arm can be held to the front in catch position, or to the side with the hand next to the hip.

Three-Stroke Monte

This go-to drill for butterfly rhythm is also known as the “right arm, left arm, both arms” pattern. You can choose how many strokes to use for the pattern; most swimmers find 3 right, 3 left, 3 full to be sustainable over a decent distance.

Splendid Segments (aka Breakout Bliss)

This is my favorite “perfect stroke” butterfly set because it builds butterfly endurance and encourages swimmers to hold form without crushing their spirit. The idea is to swim a long continuous distance alternating between perfect butterfly and relaxed freestyle. Tell your swimmers to leave each wall with a great butterfly breakout followed by as many flawless butterfly strokes as possible. As soon as the stroke begins to degrade, swimmers switch to relaxing freestyle until they reach the next wall. Then, they push off hard again, using a powerful dolphin kick (see Dynamite Dolphin Kick, SWIMMER Magazine, Sep/Oct 2016) to propel them into another awesome breakout and superlative stroke segment. If the stroke deteriorates in any way, shut down the fly until the next wall.

Watch carefully to ensure that every butterfly stroke taken is strong and rhythmic. The point is for swimmers to practice perfection, not to “be tough” at the expense of form. Of course, as endurance increases, the expectation for additional perfect strokes off each wall rises. But realistically, toward the end of a typical 10-minute version of this set, I would expect to see more than a few swimmers executing just one good stroke before switching to the easy free—and that’s OK.

Variations include asking swimmers to be perfect coming into the wall, or to come off the wall swimming freestyle and perform their perfect fly strokes in the middle of the pool. At the end of practice, another nice variant is to swim a long set of 25s that starts with perfect fly, switching to relaxed freestyle (or one-arm fly) as soon as fatigue makes two-arm perfection impossible. The advantage of 25s is that each swimmer has clear water and can swim down the middle of the lane without worrying about collisions; the endurance is developed by doing a bunch of them.

Finally: Furnish Fruitful Feedback

As you help swimmers build butterfly endurance, you need to recognize each athlete’s unique relationship with the stroke. For those blessed with smooth shoulder flexibility and natural rhythm, you can assign longer butterfly swims and shorter intervals. For those whose physiology makes the stroke a challenge, you can suggest additional flexibility exercises while limiting the amount of continuous fly you request.

Regardless of the athlete, though, feedback from the coach is a critical element in preventing the adoption of bad habits. Let swimmers know when their form has deteriorated and provide immediate correction. And when they are performing the stroke correctly, be generous with the high fives and encouragement. Before you know it, your entire team will become fervent fly fanatics!

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Terry Heggy

Terry "Speed" Heggy has been swimming for more than 50 years. He won his age group in the 10K Open Water Championship in 2006, competed in the National Championship Olympic Distance Triathlon in 2014, and qualified again for USAT Nationals in 2015. He's the head coach of Team Sopris Masters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., and is a USMS-certified Level 3 Masters coach and an NASM Certified Personal Trainer.

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