Choosing the Right Masters Swim Lane

Should you stay in your lane at Masters swim, or does a better one await?

Photo: Michael Macor/Getty Images

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Choosing the right lane in a Masters swim session can be pretty tricky. After all, some clubs have three lanes, some have 12, some are filled with former collegiate champions, some are geared more toward triathletes and those swimming for fitness.

But they all have one thing in common — a coach on deck who should be able to help you figure out where you belong.

Of course, it’s one thing for a coach to place a swimmer they’ve been watching for weeks in the right lane; directing a swimmer who’s new to a program is something else entirely, said Karyn Austin, a Swim Smooth certified, USMS Level 2, and USAT Level 2 coach in Gainesville, Florida. Austin has led several Masters swim programs in the area since she began coaching over 25 years ago, and in her current program, SWAG, she estimates about 80% of her swimmers are triathletes, spanning the gamut from beginner to professional.

A big believer in the benefits of swimming with a group, Austin also encourages the athletes she coaches remotely from all over the country to find a nearby Masters program — and to make sure the program suits them.

“Reach out and talk to the coach about how they structure their programs,” she said. Do they offer endurance workouts? Do they include drills to help with open water swimming? Are there other triathletes on the team? A program that’s solely focused on preparing for swim meets, for example, may not be the best fit for your triathlon training needs — but a conversation with the coach will help you make that call.

RELATED: Triathlon Swimming: An In-Depth Guide From Triathlete’s Editors

Experience level: New to swimming (or new to Masters)

“When I have someone new show up, they’re often so nervous. They look at the pool like a deer in headlights,” Austin said. “I’ll ask them, ‘If I had you do 10x100s with 10 seconds to rest, what would your interval be?’” That interval is a strong indication of where the athlete should start — if that estimation is accurate. (Not that any triathlete has ever overestimated their speed, of course.)

When in doubt, she recommends new swimmers try a slightly slower lane. “I can’t stand seeing someone in a lane, hanging on for dear life the whole workout,” she said. “If you’re fighting the water, sprinting the warm-up, only getting a few seconds of rest during the main set, and just trying to keep up the whole time, it’s probably not a productive workout,” she said. Unless you’re doing a sprint workout, you shouldn’t be coming out of the water completely exhausted. So, if you find yourself utterly gassed, don’t hesitate to move down a lane in the next session. Generally, Austin suggests swimmers not change lanes during a workout, but if you absolutely can’t keep up (or are out-swimming everyone in your lane), exceptions can always be made.

RELATED: Do You Know Your Swim Gears?

Athletes choose a lane at Masters swimming

Experience level: Got some laps under your Speedo

Experienced swimmers, especially those who have been a part of the same Masters group for a while, can still struggle to find the right lane — especially if that Masters session is taking the place of a swim workout on their triathlon training plan. If your plan calls for an easier swim, Austin says there’s nothing wrong with scooting down to a slower lane; on a day calling for a swim that really challenges you, choose a lane that’ll keep you on your toes.

Keep in mind, though, that the type of workout planned that day can be a factor in which lane you choose.

“It’s always fair to ask your coach, ‘What’s the point of this workout?’” Austin said. When you understand the purpose of that day’s session — like whether it’s focused on technique and endurance, a threshold workout, or packed with sprints — you’ll better understand how you should feel during your main set, allowing you to choose lanes accordingly. For example, if you’re a strong sprinter but slower at longer efforts, you might struggle to keep up with a faster lane on endurance days, but maybe you should be out front on the 50s and 100s.

While your coach may recognize this and organize lanes accordingly, don’t wait on them to make the call. “You’ve gotta check your ego and do what’s best for your lane mates,” Austin said. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re starting a set where you should lead, but try to give other swimmers a chance to do the same if they’re feeling fast. And, as always, practice good swim etiquette, tapping a foot if you’re catching up to the swimmer ahead of you, and moving to the side — sans attitude — if someone wants to pass you.

RELATED: Mastering Triathlon Swim Training

When the right lane is a private lane

Of course, as Austin notes, some folks — new triathletes in particular — come in with serious form issues. “It’s detrimental to get into a program if they have glaring issues,” she said. “A competitive atmosphere isn’t quite right.”

If you’re truly just starting out and have never had a coach offer feedback on your swim form, it’s worth talking to the coach of the program before you show up for practice to see whether they coach any newbie-friendly sessions. Austin, for example, acknowledges that her Monday, Wednesday, Friday morning sessions, which are large and more advanced, aren’t the best option for beginners, but she has smaller midday sessions that do allow her to work more closely with swimmers who need more help with their form.

And, she says, there are always private lessons — and just a few private lessons with a qualified coach may be enough to get an athlete ready to start circle swimming with their local Masters crew.

RELATED: Understanding the Masters Swim Session

Jan Frodeno Reflects on His Final Ironman World Championship

Immediately after finishing 24th place at his final Ironman World Championships, the Olympic medalist (and three-time IMWC winner) explains what his race in Nice meant to him.