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Swimming Etiquette

© 2002 - 2006 By Art Hutchinson

General Awareness

Swimmers should observe and respect the pace and workout routines of other swimmers in their lane - especially when circle swimming - avoiding actions that are likely to interfere with those routines. Examples include:

1) Slower swimmers starting a set should wait to push off the wall until faster swimmers have passed (i.e. don’t push off right in front of a faster swimmer who’s coming into the wall about to turn, as this blocks the faster swimmer). Slower swimmers should push off almost immediately behind a faster individual or group, thus extending the time until they are lapped again and need to stop.

2) Faster swimmers starting a set should give slower swimmers as much “running room” as possible before pushing off, (rather than jumping right behind and immediately tapping their toes to move over.)

3) Allow swimmers doing faster strokes to go ahead. For example, those swimmers doing breaststroke, stroke drills, or a using a kickboard should stay aware of the likely need to give way to swimmers doing freestyle - usually a faster stroke.

4) Try to select or negotiate workout routines complementary to others in the lane. For example, a set of short backstroke sprints may be difficult to weave in with others who are already doing a long, steady freestyle set without interfering with each other.

5) Swimmers resting or otherwise waiting at the wall should stay far to one side of the lane, (preferably at the left from the perspective of an approaching swimmer, or the right from their own perspective looking back up the pool). Resting swimmers should specifically avoid standing or floating in the middle of the lane as this interferes with swimmers "swimming through" who need to tag or flip at the wall. If the lane is crowded, other swimmers may need to rest out away from the wall along either side of the lane.

6) When circle swimming, swimmers should never stop in the middle of a length (e.g., to adjust goggles), as this may cause a trailing swimmer to run into them. Unless one is swimming in 'split' format or alone, it's best to continue to the wall and stop there. If the loss of a contact lens is at stake, it's easy enough to close one or both eyes for a few strokes and swim by 'feel' to the wall.

If the pool is busy (i.e., three or more people in most lanes), those swimming in lanes by themselves or with one other person may want to continue circle swimming even after a third swimmer leaves their lane (since others will likely join the lane again soon, requiring a switch back to circle swimming anyway.)

A swimmer entering an open lane, or joining one person in a lane that's designated differently from their expected pace (i.e. a faster swimmer in a “Slow” lane, or slower swimmer in a “Fast” lane), should stay aware of arriving swimmers, and be prepared to move to a more appropriate lane if/when other swimmers join them. That is, the lane speed designation takes precedence over the pace of incumbent swimmers who simply happen to be swimming there.

Some pools have special rules about what is and is not permitted in lap lanes, including pools that require circle swimming, even if lanes have only one swimmer each , and other pools that expressly forbid circle swimming, regardless of what swimmers in a lane might agree amongst themselves (confused yet?) Some pools place restrictions on strokes other than crawl.

If it's not obvious, ask a guard about local rules and/or about the best place to do laps. Some pools will even add another lane line if a swimmer requests it and the play areas aren't particularly crowded. Alerting the guard(s) that you're a "serious" swimmer may prompt some extra vigilance on his/her part in maintaining the integrity of lap lanes versus 'play' areas.

Entering the Pool

Swimmers arriving at a pool should do three things before getting in the water:

1) Make note of “Fast, Medium, and Slow” lane designations. If such signs aren't obvious at your pool, ask a lifeguard.

2) Spend a few minutes observing and roughly timing the per-lap pace of swimmers already in the pool.

3) Select a lane containing swimmers moving as closely as possible to the pace that one realistically expects to swim throughout his or her entire workout.

It is the responsibility of the swimmer entering a lane to inform all incumbent swimmers in that lane of their desire to change format (i.e. from ‘split’ to ‘circle’ swimming or vice versa). Be patient, as this may take a few minutes.

A swimmer entering a lane being ‘split’ by two people (each swimming up/back on their own side) should be sure before s/he begins to swim that s/he alerts both individuals to the need to change to a ‘circle’ format (everyone swimming counterclockwise* on the right side of the lane). This is most commonly done by sitting at/on the edge of the pool, waving a kickboard under water, or standing in the water in the corner of the lane.

When entering a lane with only one swimmer, the arriving swimmer should still notify that swimmer of his/her presence before starting to swim, and explicitly agree with him/her on which format to use (circle or split).

Entering swimmers should allow incumbents a few laps before expecting them to stop. Incumbent swimmers have an initial right-of-way, but not a right to ‘own’ the lane indefinitely or to insist on their own idiosyncratic rules.

*Note: in Commonwealth countries such the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc., the 'circle' convention is often (but not always) reversed, i.e. swimmers stay to the left of the lane and swim clockwise, or 'anticlockwise' - as is true of automobile traffic and rotaries/roundabouts in those nations. For foreign drivers and swimmers, this can take some getting used-to! Adding to the variety (and making it all that more important to observe before starting to swim), many pools in the UK, alternate clockwise and 'anticlockwise' lanes, so that swimmers in adjacent lanes are always swimming parallel to one another rather than in opposite directions. This has the benefit of reducing the number of smashed hands, punches to the eye, and dislocated shoulders that can occur in collisions between oncoming swimmers whose wrists have the misfortune to lock together at the top of their opposing strokes.

Passing and Being Passed

When passing...

An overtaking swimmer should gently but distinctly touch the feet of the swimmer being overtaken. It may take two or three touches, but overtaking swimmers should not need to repeatedly slap or grab at the legs of a slower swimmer to politely make their presence known.

Swimmers enjoying a draft behind a strong lead swimmer, but who are just barely able to hold that pace should think twice before tagging the leader's toes and requesting to move ahead. In such situations, it's highly unlikely that the (formerly) trailing swimmer will be able to hold the same pace for very long when leading without the draft. This can lead to repeated "leap-frogging" and unnecessary contact, which can be annoying and disruptive for everyone in the lane.

Drafting swimmers not wishing to pass should swim far enough back from a lead swimmer that they don’t inadvertently touch the lead swimmer’s toes.

Overtaking swimmers should not attempt to swim ‘wide’ past a slower swimmer—unless they are the only two swimmers in the lane—since in most cases this presents a hazard to other oncoming swimmer(s), forcing them to pull over to get out of the way.

In the rare case that a passing swimmer does swim wide, s/he should be confident in his/her ability to sprint into the field of vision of the lead swimmer well before s/he gets to the wall. Otherwise, this sets up for a collison at the wall as both swimmers attempt to turn on top of one another. In the case of any ambiguity at the wall, the swimmer whose head is behind should give way to the swimmer whose head is in front.

In the equally rare case that a strong swimmer finds him or herself at the back of a line of several slower swimmers in circle format, it is acceptable (after looking carefully) to move to the other side of the lane mid-length and proceed in the opposite direction, somewhat ahead of the line s/he had been trailing. This should only be done in cases where the lane is relatively crowded, where there are no other lanes moving at a more suitable pace, and where the process of tapping several swimmers in succession would be overly disruptive. For anal-retentive swimmers fond of keeping detailed training logs, this move has the unfortunate disadvantage of completely messing up one's lap counts by introducing fractions. :)

When being passed...

A lead swimmer who feels a touch on the feet from an overtaking swimmer, should continue to the next wall, then stop in the corner of the lane to let faster swimmer(s) past. A single light touch may be accidental and can be ignored, but two or more distinct touches should be regarded almost universally as a request to swim through.

A swimmer who has been touched on the feet should move to a corner of the lane as soon as they get to the next wall in order to make way for passing swimmers turning there. It's best if the touched/stopping swimmer moves immediately to the far left corner (from the perspective of an approaching swimmer), which would be the far right corner (from their own perspective looking back up the pool). This routine applies as well to swimmers stopping of their own accord, (i.e., even if they haven't been tagged on the toes), since another swimmer who hasn't seen fit to touch toes may be right behind.

In circle format, swimmers should always stay aware of the gap behind them to the next swimmer, and try to anticipate when that swimmer (if s/he is faster) is likely to overtake him/her. This is easily accomplished by looking back just before or during each turn, (whether 'flip' or 'open').

A lead swimmer who sees another swimmer coming up close behind as s/he turns at the wall should consider stopping and moving over immediately at that wall in order to let the faster swimmer past - rather than blocking that swimmer for an entire length to the next wall, creating a situation where toe-touching becomes necessary.

Swimmers being overtaken should never stop in the middle of the pool, nor should they continue beyond the next wall (e.g. back to the shallow end) after being ‘tagged’ on the feet. Instead, they should stop at the next wall, at the corner of the lane.

If more than one swimmer is bunched close behind, the swimmer being overtaken should allow the entire group of faster swimmers to pass before pushing off the wall again (i.e. don’t push off right in front of someone else who’s also obviously faster.)

Swimmers being overtaken should not attempt to speed up (or slow down) once ‘tagged’, nor should they jump in and ‘tag back’ the new lead swimmer on the next lap.

If two or more swimmers are closely matched in pace they should either position themselves at opposite ends of a lane (endless pursuit) or agree on how to share the lead.