Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, has 23 gold medals and a total of 28 Olympic medals. Since the age of seven, Michael Phelps has been swimming competitively and even went through a five-year streak during his teenage years training every single day, 365 days a year. Sundays, Christmas and Thanksgiving included… and twice on his birthdays, according to life-long swim coach Bob Bowman.

When pressed on his motivation for getting in the water over 1,800 consecutive days, Phelps responds that it comes down to his competitive nature and “not wanting to lose… wanting to do something that no one else had done before.” Michael and Bob rationalized that swimming each Sunday for a year would add over fifty training days that his competitors would be missing, “… so they were always playing catchup. I was just getting that much further and further and further and further away.”

Michael Phelps

At eight years-old, as evidenced above, Phelps was already goal-setting and had his eye on making the US Olympic Team. Fast-forward twenty-two years, and he’ll be competing on his fifth Olympic team as the most decorated Olympian of all time.

What is the secret to Michael Phelps’ stunning success? Is it his high calorie diet? Six foot seven wing-span? Owaves digs deep into his training to uncover insights that might be more generalizable to the rest of us…

Day in the Life: Michael Phelps while training

  • 6AM ~ Wake Up
  • 7AM-9AM ~ Swim
  • 9AM-10AM ~ Weightlift
  • 10AM-12PM ~ Eat
  • 12PM-1PM ~ Nap
  • 4-6PM ~ Swim
  • 6PM-8PM ~ Dinner
  • 8PM-10PM ~ Spend time with wife Nicole and kids
  • 10PM ~ Bedtime

Mental Training

Bob, already a vetted coach when he first met Michael in 1996, decided to invest his time into the eleven year-old because he saw the “competitive nature, focus and build” necessary for a future Olympic champion. Bob describes Phelps as one of the “most goal-oriented people I’ve ever met” and believes what separates athletes at the elite level is “their mental game”.

As evidenced above, Phelps has an ancient habit of writing down his goals, usually in the form of times for various races, keeping them private, and checking on them daily.

Another long-held tactic Michael employed at Bob’s coaching is visualization. While lying in bed at night, Michael will visualize himself swimming the entire distance of a race, both from the perspective of someone in the stands and from his own point of view in the pool. He will visualize both best and worst-case scenarios, planning in his head what to do if his suit rips or goggles break. Phelps famously credits this part of his training for success in the 200m butterfly at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where he won gold and set a world record despite not being able to see for the last 75m when water filled up his goggles.

A final mental technique that Phelps credits for his success is an automatic resilience to “bad” performances. He is convinced that the only true metrics of his success are proper training and trying his best. As long as these two requirements are met, Phelps does not agonize over losses or dwell on past outcomes. He simply focuses on the next day of training and the upcoming race. This philosophy is instilled by Bob who learned from legendary Olympic coaches that “you need to focus [athletes] on the process of success, not the outcome.” By focusing on the process, athletes become more relaxed during otherwise tense situations and perform better.

Exercise and Nutrition

Much has been made of Phelps’ 12,000 calorie diet, but according to his interview with 60 Minutes it actually amounts to 8,000-10,000 calories per day. Per his trainers, he would lose 5-10lbs a week from his rigorous physical training if he didn’t average this load. He does not follow any strict nutrition guidelines – Phelps will order the burger and snack on chips, Oreos and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups while at home. Eggs, crab meat and pizza are additional staples.

Michael’s physical training amounted to 25-30hrs per week, and included at least three days a week of weight-lifting. “Eat, sleep and swim. That’s all I can do,” Phelps told NBC in 2008 when describing his routine. “Get some calories into my system and try to recover the best I can.”

Rest and Recovery

Now living in Scottsdale, Arizona, Michael gets to spend more time on the golf course, which is his favorite way to relax and unwind. He’ll leave his cell phone in the car, and unplug for the full session. Other favorite downtime hobbies include fishing and poker.

More formal ways to recover include cupping, hyperbaric pressure chambers, cold baths, stretching and massage.

Phelps claims to be a “homebody” outside of the pool and prefers spending time with his wife and four kids. Only times they’ll mosey out if not for work will be to get some food or run an errand. Watching the sun set over Camelback Mountain from their backyard usually ends the day.

Recent Achievements

Since his retirement, Phelps has been active in mental health advocacy, raising awareness about depression and anxiety. He continues to be involved in swimming through his foundation and mentoring young athletes. His efforts in promoting mental health reflect his commitment to overall well-being, both for himself and others.