For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Professional triathlete Sara McLarty gives some basic rules to follow next time you make a trip to your local pool.
Written by: Sara McLarty
Gone are the days when you can just show up at your local water hole, hop in and splash around for a few minutes. Today, lane space at the better swimming pools is a rare commodity. Teams, programs, groups and camps are forced to compete with each other for legroom and elbow room.
The facility managers walk a tight line between making a profit and trying to please every client. Unfortunately, they are dealing with a fixed amount of supply—they can’t just fly in some extra lanes when demand is at a peak. For example, the National Training Center pool in Clermont, Fla., is open between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. When the pool is set up short-course, we have 23 lanes and a shallow end. But it drops down to eight lanes in the summer when long course is the default format. Between 6 a.m., when my Masters group starts, and 7 p.m., when the last swim team group finishes, almost every lane is booked, sometimes months in advance. On the flip side, our management has a standing pledge that two lanes will always be open for regular members.
Unless you live in a tiny town with a huge pool, you have probably experienced the limited pool space problem firsthand. What is worse than walking out to swim practice and finding the pool a white, frothy mess of other swimmers—two or more in each lane? Some are going slow, some fast, some are kicking, maybe some have a snorkel and aren’t even stopping at the wall. All you want is to get in the water and complete a workout before your lunch break is over. What is a triathlete to do?
The following basics of swimming pool etiquette are universal (OK, American—I’ll touch on some international points a little later) for swimming laps. Unless a sign at the pool specifies different rules, stick to the these:
Choosing a Lane
As you walk out on the pool deck, take a quick glance at all the swimmers in the pool. Make a mental note of the speed at which they are swimming. Compare their pace to how you are going to swim and look for a good match. Use your best judgment so both you and the other swimmers will have a pleasant workout. Some pools post signs on the wall that describe the pace in each lane (“Slow,” “Medium,” “Fast”).
Alerting Other Swimmers
If you choose a lane that has just one swimmer, wait until she stops on the wall and politely ask to share the lane. In the case of two swimmers, figure out if they are circle swimming or splitting the lane. In the second case, where each swimmer stays on one side of the lane, it is important to get the attention of both people before starting to circle swim, which is mandatory when more than two swimmers share a lane. If the swimmers are already circle swimming or performing a continuous swim and not stopping, see “entering the water” below.
Entering the Water
Nothing is scarier than swimming toward the wall when someone jumps in the water right in front of your head. So don’t do it to others! Pay attention and be courteous to the people already in the water. Wait until there is a large gap between people and slip into the water feet first, on the right side of the lane, and stay close to the wall. I like to get in the water and hang on the wall long enough for all the other swimmers in the lane to make a turn and recognize my presence.
This is a no-brainer for all swimmers, novice to elite. It is as simple as driving a car: Stay on the right side of the center line. If you stay on the right side of the black line on the bottom of the pool, going both directions, you will create a circle (well, an elongated loop, anyway) in your lane. This allows multiple people to train in the same lane without head-on collisions.
Inevitably, passing will occur in any swimming lane with circle swimming. The request to pass is signified by a gentle tap on the feet and the slower swimmer always yields. Yielding does not mean stopping. It means what it means on the road: “give way.” Stay to the very right side of the lane if you feel a tap on your feet. Slow down a slight amount, let the faster swimmer go by (she might have to swim close to you if swimmers are coming in the other direction) and then resume your pace. If you are passing another athlete, always look up and forward for oncoming traffic before you move to the middle of the lane.
Hanging on the Wall
Be aware of other athletes between intervals and between sets. While you are resting, other people are still training. The correct place to rest is in the corner of your lane or out of the water on the ledge. Experienced swimmers prefer the left corner (as perceived by oncoming traffic). This puts you out of the way of the circle. It is important to be aware of your actions immediately after you stop at the wall. The swimmer directly behind will be expecting you to continue swimming, so move to the left as soon as possible.
Pushing Off the Wall
My motto here is: “Look before you leap!” Judge the pace of the oncoming swimmer. Is she going to be turning at the same time you push off? Just like in the “passing” section above, the swimmer on the wall must yield to the swimmer in action. Adjust your send-off time a few seconds and start your next interval early or late. Do not push off directly into the face of another swimmer.
One more motto: “When in Rome…” The sport of triathlon can take you to some awesome locations around the world. Whether it is a world championship competition or just a destination race, observe the local routine before starting your workout. In countries where they drive on the left-hand side of the road, they swim on the left-hand side of the lane. Be aware of this when training in Australia and New Zealand. Some European countries, including England, have adopted a way to reduce injuries from hitting swimmers in adjacent lanes by alternating the circle direction across the pool.
Think of the pool as a mini highway. If you act just like you are driving a two-ton SUV at 60 mph down a crowded road, you should have no problems in the pool. The No. 1 guideline in both situations is be aware. Accidents happen when you zone out, close your eyes and don’t know what the people around you are doing. Also, remember that courtesy begets more courtesy; if you start bringing etiquette to the pool, everyone else will catch on quickly.
Sara McLarty is a professional triathlete living in Clermont, Fla. In her spare time, she leads triathlon camps at the National Training Center, www.usantc.com.