So You Want To Do A Marathon Swim All Butterfly...


Written by Sam Levinson

Marathon swimming is a tough sport. Most people can’t even fathom swimming a mile, and you’ve decided to swim a minimum of six. You’re immersed in cold water, you’ve got grease in awkward places to prevent the salt from chafing your skin off, and after five hours of nonstop swimming, you can barely lift your arms anymore. What could possibly make this sport any harder, you ask? What about doing the whole thing butterfly? If that sounds like a challenge that’s up your alley, it’s time to prepare yourself for some of the problems you’ll face when living with the consequences of this crazy choice you’ve made.

1) Your shoulders hurt!

No list about swimming butterfly would be complete without a complaint about shoulders, so I’m going to open with it. If you swim enough fly, your shoulders are going to hurt. You’re going to have to do your PT and ice every day if you want to keep them intact, and there’s no escaping it. Take good care of those shoulders, because if you need surgery to repair them, you’re going to be forced out of the water for weeks to months while they heal, and that’s unacceptable to a marathon swimmer.

2) Your butt hurts more than your shoulders!

In a sprint, most people rely on their arms to launch themselves through the water, but if you’re going to swim distance fly, you need to be more strategic about your power. Your core and legs are much stronger (and less delicate) than your shoulders will ever be, and they’re going to propel you through miles of open water. All that hip work comes at a cost, though: your butt is going to be SORE because you don’t get to have a lazy kick like the marathon freestylers. Your foam roller is bae, and you need a bolster under your legs while you sleep to keep your glutes stretched enough to allow you to get out of bed in the morning.

3) Your clothes are going to stop fitting!

It’s much more extreme than buying some new shirts, like when you started swimming in the first place. Your strong kick means you now have thighs of thunder and glutes to match, so you need all new pants. Those t-shirts you wore on the daily when you sprinted fly, the ones you thought were already big? You hulk out of them now. The relaxed-fitting dress you loved doesn’t zip up because your lats and abs stick out too far. You now buy coats at least a size too big for the rest of your body so they fit over your achy shoulders. Good luck affording this brand-new wardrobe.

4) You can’t share lanes during lap swim.

Most of your yardage is now butterfly, and your impressive wingspan takes up almost all of the lane. Unless you want to continually smack your lane mate in the face or break your hand on the lane-line, you’re going to need your own lane. Anticipate conflicts at your local pool when you try to convince a random lap-swimmer to split with the side-stroker in the next lane instead. Get some extra ice packs for the backs of your hands.

5) The water is going to hit you in the face…A lot!

Your freestyle-swimming friends will tilt their heads to breathe and occasionally get water in their mouths. There is no “occasionally” for you. The water is going to smack you in the face every time you breathe. You’re going to choke on the waves that are trying to deprive you of precious oxygen that you need to fuel this insane activity. Water is going to find its way into your sinus passages, and it will gush out later on land when you bend over. You will think this last problem is incredibly unattractive. You will be correct.

6) There is never enough air!

Butterfly, as it’s done in a sprint, is an anaerobic stroke. You may have been able to breathe every two or three strokes when you were a sprinter, which was fine because the race was over after a maximum of 200m, and you could repay your oxygen debt after a couple of minutes. When you’re swimming fly over a marathon distance, you’re not going to get a chance to repay that oxygen debt, so you can’t afford to incur it. You have to breathe every stroke, but because you have to lift your head slightly higher than normal if you want to be able to breathe quickly over the swell of the open water, your back is extended just enough to prevent you from filling your lungs all the way during the instant you get to have your face out of the water. You are operating at the limits of what your circulatory system can handle just to be able to hold your normal pace. If you have to pick up the pace for any reason, your oxygen-starved muscles will protest long before your lungs do.

7) You’re not fast anymore!

You’re likely used to swimming in the fast lane in the pool, and to being able to easily keep up with your friends in the open water. Neither of those things are possible anymore. Your average speed for distance fly is closer to that of someone who’s just starting Master’s swim, and you will probably be one of the last swimmers out of the water at any open water event. It’s just not possible to keep up your usual freestyle pace when you’re swimming such an inefficient stroke, especially since you’re not getting enough oxygen. You will constantly be embarrassed by this fact, even if you remind yourself that you’re doing something incredibly difficult.

8) People are going to think you’re drowning!

To the unaccustomed eye, the way your arms sweep forward as you take a stroke is going to look like awkward flailing. The nature of the butterfly stroke means you’re going to be splashing more than someone swimming freestyle. As you fatigue, your form is going to get sloppier, and you have a lot of miles over which to fatigue. All of these factors add up to a lifeguard coming out to “rescue” you while you’re out on a chipper training swim with two support kayakers. You may or may not be offended when the lifeguard tries to tell you that you’re drowning. Your kayaker may or may not have to step in to prevent you from fighting the lifeguard.

9) You can see where you’re going during a long swim!

At first glance, this problem might not seem like a problem at all. You’re breathing every stroke, and your eyes look forwards as you breathe, so you don’t have to exert extra effort to spot like everyone swimming freestyle does. It’s easier to keep an eye on your support boat; in fact, you can’t help keeping an eye on your support boat, or any buoys you’re headed for. Even if you want to keep your head down and focus on just swimming, you’re not going to be able to stop yourself from seeing where you’re going. If your destination is more than a couple of hundred meters from you, it’s going to look like you haven’t gotten any closer to it in all the time you’ve been swimming. Thoughts of why am I not there yet and this swim is never going to be over creep into your mind. These nagging doubts will mess with your resolve and make it more difficult for you to keep going. Resist them, and try your best to keep your eyes down.

10) Every time you tell someone what you’re doing, it sounds like humble-bragging!

The sprinters complain about the 10x200 fly they have to do, but that’s a sprint set to you. You try to summon sympathy for them as you grease up for a 4-hour swim in the wind and swell, but it’s hard. You tell someone you’re training for the English Channel, and they’re impressed and want to know how long it takes, but when you qualify that it’s going to take a long time to swim because you’re swimming it fly, they’re absolutely floored. It’s almost impossible to talk to strangers about what you’re doing without sounding like you’re trying to show off how strong you are, even if you don’t mean to. But even if you don’t mean to show off, you should; after all, you’re swimming the most badass of all badass swims, and you deserve to brag about all the work you’ve put in to make it happen.

Final Thoughts

If all of the above sounds bearable (or, I daresay, even enjoyable), you might be the right kind of crazy to take up marathon swimming all butterfly. You’re not going to win any big races if you’re swimming the whole thing fly, but you’ll definitely win the unofficial after-swim eating competition as you try to refuel those massive butterfly muscles. Marathon swimming is not for the faint of heart, but if you’re up for the extra challenge, marathon swimming all butterfly might just be the best bad decision you’ll ever make.


About The Author

Sam Levinson decided to train to swim the Triple Crown and Ocean’s Seven while she was recovering from spine surgery, because she wanted to show her damaged nerve roots who’s boss. She has done multiple 5k swims all butterfly and is gunning for a channel swim next season. In the time she’s forced to spend on land, she hangs out with her cat and works on creating the zombie virus as a PhD candidate in chemical biology at Boston College. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter @openwaterfly if you like sass and swimming selfies taken when she’s supposed to be doing a workout.

Craig LewinComment