Relationship between Michael Phelps depression and his training

Posted on January 29, 2018

(Last Updated On: January 29, 2018)

In January 2018 Michael Phelps was in the news a fair amount, due to this:

“I am extremely thankful that I did not take my life.”

From this interview (one hour, thirty one minute mark). Bolding mine:

“Really, after every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression,” said Phelps when asked to pinpoint when his trouble began. He noticed a pattern of emotion “that just wasn’t right” at “a certain time during every year,” around the beginning of October or November, he said. “I would say ’04 was probably the first depression spell I went through.”

That’s very interesting, because Phelps was in the 2000 Olympics, but didn’t suffer from depression. The 2000 Olympics was his worst one. He didn’t even medal. From a pure reward basis, that’s when he should have been most depressed. Or at least more depressed than ’04 or ’08, when he ransacked the field.

But we won’t play psychiatrist here. There is potential for psychoanalysis, where many, after getting everything they ever wanted, end up feeling empty. Was Phelps another example of fame ruining someone? I have no idea. Or what about Phelps growing up with divorced parents? Again, I’m not going to touch these factors, but appreciate they’re potential explanations for his situation.

However, it is fact physical training impacts depression. I will stick to this line of reasoning. We more often hear about the positive i.e. depressed people could benefit from exercising regularly, or exercise can help prevent depression.

Something we don’t hear much about though is exercise causing depression. I think it’s worth entertaining in Michael Phelps’ case.

His timeline

Let’s examine his work load by year, using the world championships and olympic years as reference points.


2000 Olympics

  • One race


2001 World Championships

  • One race


2003 World Championships

  • Six races


2004 Olympics

  • Eight races


2005 World Championships

  • Six races


2007 World Championships

  • Seven races


2008 Olympics

  • Eight races


2009 World Championships

  • Six races


2011 World Championships

  • Seven races


2012 Olympics

  • Six races


2013 World Championships

  • Did not compete


2015 World Championships

  • Three races
    • He didn’t compete in the worlds this year due to disqualification (his second DUI), but he did compete in nationals, so we’ll use that


2016 Olympics

  • Six races

The first element of this is obvious. Phelps depression was most pronounced from 2004 to 2012. Here:

His racing workload was far and away the greatest at this point.


World Championships vs Olympics

The astute reader is then thinking,

“Alright, but the workload between olympics and world championships wasn’t that different. A couple races on average. Assuming his workload was part of the cause of his depression, why was the olympics more depression causing than the worlds?”

Simple. To qualify for the World Championships,

“The competition period to achieve these qualifying times began on March 1st, 2016 and ends on July 5th, 2017. Only times posted at FINA approved events will be accepted by FINA.”

You have over a year to qualify, at any approved event of your choosing. So you could conceivably qualify for five different events, at five different meets. Which is crucial, because that means you’re not tired from one event to the next. You can peak for each individual event.

To qualify for the Olympics though, you have to compete in the Olympics trials. That’s five weeks before the Olympics. You have to finish in first or second place. Your time does not matter. You want to qualify for five events? You have to finish in first or second, five different times, in a few days. There’s no messing around at the trials.

In other words, accounting for the Olympic trials and adding them to his Olympics, Michael Phelps workload was actually this,

Peaks are Olympic years.

We can double his workload in Olympic years compared to World Championship years.

This is something Charlie Francis, a famous track sprinting coach, railed about years ago. That the American Olympic Trial system is insane, and terrible for the athletes. Due to how good American athletes are, you effectively make them do the Olympics twice, in back to back months. If you get hurt at the trials, you’re screwed for the Olympics.

-I’ve written before how the Olympics are NOT all the world’s best athletes, because each country can only send so many of its best.

I know it might be hard for people with no high level sporting background to grasp this, but when we’re talking this level of human performance, five weeks is no time to recover from all-out effort, and prep the body to do it again. Most are lucky if they can properly peak one time per year. Twice is hard; twice in five weeks is impossible.


Speaking of injury

What happens in most scenarios with overtraining is a person gets hurt. The body can’t keep up with demand, so it breaks down somewhere.

However, Michael Phelps…swims. Injuries are significantly less likely. Meaning Phelps, and swimmers in general, are not as likely to feel the effects of overtraining through injury. Furthermore, they are not as likely to avoid the mental effects.

If your knee gets hurt from running too much, the rest of the body catches a break while the knee heals too. But in swimming, with no injury, the brain starts wearing out and becoming the weak link.

It’s no different than when you work your desk job too much. Your knee doesn’t act up and get you to stop working. No, you instead become more irritable, apathetic, temperamental…depressed. “I don’t want to do this work anymore.” Medical residents are notorious for being pushed so much, they end up hating medicine, if not commit suicide.

Michael Phelps in 2012,

“I’m done. I’m finished. I’m retired. I’m done. No more.”

“I just wanted to be done with swimming and didn’t want anything to do with the sport anymore.”

This was a dude who had all the signs of being burnt out. Never mind 2012. How about 2008!

“After ’08, mentally, I was over. I didn’t want to do it anymore. But I also knew I couldn’t stop. So I forced myself to do something that I really didn’t want to do, which was continue swimming. That whole four-year period, I would miss at least two workouts a week. Why? Didn’t want to go. Didn’t feel like going. Screw it. I’m going to sleep in. I’m going to skip Friday and go for a long weekend.”


-> By the way, the brain can literally get hotter in times of stress. Look up “psychogenic fever”.

He was drinking heavily during these periods. No surprise. College athletes, who are often overwhelmed, are the biggest binge drinkers on campus. (Or why, as a parent, you might want to rethink your obsession with your kid playing sports.)

In 2012 Phelps stops swimming. 2013 he takes off too. The next couple years he gets engaged, has a baby -so he has a real distraction and emotional support- he doesn’t swim as many races leading up the Rio Olympics, his training load is reduced by 30%,

“Instead of swimming 85,000 meters a week, he swims 50,000–60,000, still high-volume but not as high as it once was. He needs—and is allowed—more recovery from tough sessions.”

and voila, you have a guy who feels a hell of a lot better.


It doesn’t always work mind => body

Especially with athletes, we tend to jump to mental preparation dictating physical preparation. More often than not, this is backwards.

  • Lack of confidence? The athlete hasn’t practiced the particular demand enough
  • Fear of re-injury? The athlete hasn’t been properly engaged in a graded exercise program (they’re trying to do too much, too soon)
  • Choking in big time meets? The athlete hasn’t been regularly performing their best in practice / practice hasn’t been simulating crunch time moments enough
  • Chronically feeling out of it? Rather than the athlete not being mentally tough, they’re mentally overwhelmed

Where if you get the physical side ironed out, the mental side usually falls in step.


I in no way want to mitigate what getting help can do for those with mental health problems. I in no way am saying Phelps getting professional assistance did not also help his problems. It always helps to have the tools to know when you’re doing too much, mentally. Phelps may not have had this.

Nobody knows the conversations Phelps and his coach had over the years. However, my experience training people is it is obvious when a client is overtrained, overwhelmed, tired, depressed. Yet it is also very common for coaches to say “Suck it up!” in these times.

-> I mean, this is what medical schools do. Do we really think sport coaches are any better?

You have to also consider Phelps’ coach’s financial situation heavily depended on Phelps. He is incentivized for Phelps to race as much as possible. Again, I don’t know his coach, but if I had to bet on it, I’d bet the coach wasn’t helpful in this domain. When Phelps felt like he did in ’08, his coach responded with,

“Shortly after Beijing, [his coach] Bowman created what he called Friend Fridays, when Phelps’s non­swimming friends were invited to the pool, as an enticement to get Phelps to show up.”

Just give the dude some time off. Like, uh, red flag:

“10 days before an Olympic media event in Dallas in May. “Michael was actually starting to do O.K.,” says Bowman. “He had put together a couple good weeks of training, and I was thinking maybe this will be all right. We got back to Baltimore on a Monday, and we’re doing a typical [lactate] threshold set and Michael and [training partner] Chase [Kalisz] touch almost at the same time—bing, bing.

I just yelled out the same time for both of them. Michael yells, ‘Are you going to time me or what?’ I gave him [a separate] time and then he started swimming slowly, which is what he does to piss me off. I yelled at him, ‘My timing has been good enough for the last 15 years.’

We go at it. World War III. I smash my watch against the wall. We get into the parking lot, and I peel out and flip him the bird, and he flips me the bird. Well, he doesn’t come back for 10 days. He finally shows up on Day 11 because Matt Lauer was in town to interview him for the Today show. They had no idea. That’s what our preparation was like for London.””

Christ. The coach might need help too.

Granted, again, most coaches wouldn’t be helpful in this situation. I regularly saw my college football coaches say fuck you to players, or call them pussies. Yes, moronic.

Said another way- if I were interested in getting involved in sports psychology, I’d focus on educating coaches more than players.

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Posted in: Depression, Sports