Olympic Legend: Michael Phelps - A Peek Into His Holistic Training

It has been months post Rio 2016 and thus Michael Phelps’ retirement from competitive swimming. However the glorious career of star swimmer Michael Phelps has been and would always continue to be an inspiration to the many swimmers aiming at creating their marks in the swimming world. With 5 Golds and 1Silver at Rio culminating in to a total of 23 Olympic titles and 28 medals, this swimmer from Baltimore exuberates an invincible desire to win; perhaps, it is indeed his way of life- to do his best at all that he does.

However, what really went in to achieving this rare greatness; making him the most decorated Olympian of all times, is what we shall attempt on gathering in today’s article. It is practically impossible to sum his efforts in a few odd words. Also, it would be unfair, if we spoke of diet alone and how it enhanced his speed and recovery, because his training has been holistic.

With the qualifying meets for states just around the corner, let us try and imbibe the following ingredients to success.


When we say, Michael Phelps is a born swimmer, he indeed is. He has been innately gifted with a body suited best for swimming.

  • A height of 6 ft 4 inches and has an arm span way higher at 6 ft 7 inches. This helps in covering a larger distance per stroke.
  • His upper body is longer than his lower body resulting in lesser drag in the pool.
  • His feet are a size 14 and not just that he is also double jointed allowing his feet to dolphin like flippers.

But it is not just the genes that decide one’s fate, it is how you train those genes, is what that matters. And he has done just that. Diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, he was directed to the pool at a young age of 7 to decipher the unstoppable energy in the waters and to no surprise Michael Phelps used this energy to break records after records.


“It is what you do in the dark, that puts you in the light” the tagline of Under Armour video featuring Michael Phelps gives us an insight in to his relentless hard work and determination.

  • He used to swim a religious 6 hours a day for 6 days a week covering 50 miles per week.
  • This was supported by dry land sessions involving weights, circuit training along with high intensity interval training and flexibility training.
  • In his book with Alan Abrahamson, No Limits –The Will to Succeed, he mentions about swimming a session in the morning, followed by a nap and then a late afternoon session at the University of Michigan’s Canham Natatorium.
  • He also mentions “Eat. Swim. Do other workouts like weight-lifting. Sleep and repeat.”
  • He is observed to perform more body weight bearing exercises and avoid heavier loads that may make muscles heavier and difficult to float.
  • He also resorted to massage therapy including cupping which became quite famous during Rio to tackle sore muscles and enhance recovery.
  • This was further supported by his popular ice baths which could be intended for multiple reasons such as fat loss, hike in metabolism and recovery.

While he burnt an excessive amount of calories every day, it was essential he ate the same amount to continue pushing harder.

Michael Phelps’ 12000 Kcal Diet

His is the most popularized diet of all times that has been reported multiple times by a variety of websites and newspapers - The Michael Phelps’ 12000 kcal diet before London 2012. His diet was a whopping 10,000-12,000 kcal per day and looked some-what like this:

Breakfast: 3 fried egg sandwiches with cheese and veggies + omelet made of 3-6 eggs + 1 bowl of maize breakfast cereal + 3 french-toasts with powdered sugar + 3 chocolate chip pancakes and 2 cups of coffee

Lunch: 0.5 Kg of pasta in tomato sauce + 2 ham and cheese sandwiches and energy drinks

Dinner: 0.5 Kg of pasta in tomato sauce + 1 large meat pizza and energy drinks

He attempted to cover the left over calories while resorting to sports drinks throughout the day. In one of his interviews he mentioned that he had to consume a humongous amount of spaghetti to ensure enough carbohydrate stores and he had to just force it down being no fan of the same.

Swimmers today burn a high percentage of calories and if not supported with the same amount, can lead to weight loss, poorer recovery, diminished carbohydrate reserves, poor muscle strength and ultimately early fatigue and poor performance.

Before Rio, he mentioned that he no longer could consume such high quantities of food, because with age his metabolism had slowed down and it could no longer match that of a 23y old Michael’s. He was also training lesser than earlier. He is known to be consuming an average of 3500 kcal per day with the incorporation of oat meal, fruits and coffee for breakfast, followed by meat ball subs for lunch and whole grains, vegetables and salad with lean meat for dinner.

He mentions the importance of carbohydrates because they act as primarily fuels for all events including 400 and 800 m and consuming enough carbohydrates post the event/ training can aid in restoring the depleted muscle glycogen and enhancing recovery.

Mental strength

I personally believe that it is the mental strength that is by far the most defining factor in one’s performance. Training rigorously and consuming such high calorie food requires immense will power and determination. It is his mental strength and his will to ‘not lose’ rather than the will to ‘succeed’ that has lead him to deliver such incredible performances.

Two of the many instances if I had to highlight as examples would be the following:

  1. During Beijing 2008, Ian Thorpe, Michael’s rival as well as idol was questioned if Michael could go 8 for 8 to which Thorpe claimed it was highly unlikely for Michael to do so. Phelps taped Ian’s quote right in front of his locker as a means of constant reminder so as to use it to fuel Thorpe wrong. This is rare, because most swimmers usually get bogged down by negative comments by opponents.
  2. Second, it was during Rio’s 200 butterfly; the most awaited event between Michael Phelps and Chad le Clos when the latter shadowboxed Michael in the ready room to which Michael’s Darth Vader stare caused frenzy in the media. Phelps plainly allowed his performance to speak back winning the gold.

Phelps in his book also reveals his practice of visualizing an event- the start, streamline, the stroke, the breathing pattern, the turns, the push and the finish. He says that he can visualize the whole race to utmost details. This is what pushes him to better his training in the pool. It is important that swimmers know their deficiencies and build up a plan to improve those.

Michael Phelps is who he is today because of the tremendous efforts he has put in. He is a true example of ‘nothing is achievable without hard work, determination and the will to succeed’.

With this article, I leave you all with new found hope and faith within yourself. Nothing is impossible against a strong will. All the Best!

Author: Mihira A R Khopkar

B.Sc. Dietetics, M.Sc. Sports Nutrition


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SwimIndia does not guarantee results of any sort, before making any changes to your diet plans, please consult an expert.

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