Swimming Etiquette

April is Adult Learn to Swim month, as organized by the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation. Through my Masters group, this is my second year as a volunteer instructor and I can’t speak highly enough of the overall experience! The lessons are primarily one-on-one, meaning each student gets a lesson tailored to their individual needs while taking their particular history with swimming and the water into account.

Last year I mostly worked with people who had never learned to swim, but this year my first lessons were with people who were looking to improve their skills and take swimming from something they could do on a basic level to something they could do for exercise and possibly even as part of an organized group.

As I was wrapping up a lesson, the student asked about general pool etiquette and I thought that was such a great question – it’s certainly not always intuitive and it can be so hard to jump in if you aren’t sure you know the rules of what you’re jumping into! So I thought I would write up some of the basics – terms and practices that new swimmers are likely to encounter. This definitely isn’t an exhaustive list! And it’s based only on my experience, so I’d love to hear what the norms are for other people.

Let’s dive in, shall we?



Length: From one end of the pool to the other. In a 25-yard pool, one length is 25 yards; in a 50-meter pool, one length is 50 meters; etc.

Lap: To the other end of the pool and back. In a 25-yard pool, one lap is 50 yards; in a 50-meter pool, one lap is 100 meters; etc.

Usually, organized practices will list distances in yards/meters instead of laps or lengths – you’re more likely to hear “400 yards” than you are “8 laps.” If you’re talking about “base pace” that is likely the amount of time (in minutes:seconds) it takes to swim 100 yards or meters (there are conversions to take your base from yards to meters or meters to yards, as needed), but that isn’t really something you need to worry about when you’re just starting out; if you do eventually join a team or more organized group, it’s something you can figure out there.


Choosing a lane

Lanes are usually labeled as slow, medium, or fast. Try to be realistic about your ability, but also understand that the different speed designations are relative and can depend on different variables, including who else is in the pool on a given day; eg, you may generally be fast, but if, when you get to the pool, the people in your usual lane are faster, you might be more suited to the medium lane for the day. Switching strokes can also make a difference; if you generally swim breaststroke, but you’re a rockstar at backstroke, you may move up if you intend to do mostly backstroke on a given day. Additionally, the coach/lifeguard/deck manager may move you based on things they observe (eg, purely related to speed, partially related to numbers in each lane…). It really isn’t a big deal to drop down or move up and it doesn’t mean anything in terms of where you’ll be next time! It isn’t a perfect science and, truly, everything in swimming is fluid.


Splitting the lane

If you are one of two people in a lane, you can split it, ie, each of you will stay to one side of the lane. If, going down, you have the lane line on your right, on the way back it will be on your left and you never cross to the other side of the lane (in most pools this will mean never crossing to the other side of the line along the bottom). If you can’t have your own lane (luxury!) this is, in my humble opinion, the next best thing. If I’m the first person in a lane, I usually start off staying to one side so I don’t need to be interrupted when a second person gets in. If I’m joining another person who is already swimming, I usually get in and just stand on the side of the lane I hope to take until the other person has done their turn at the wall. They may stop and say hi, or they may just keep swimming, but as long as they’ve passed by me standing there, I assume they have seen me and I proceed with swimming on my side.


Circle swimming

If more than two people are in a lane, you can circle swim. In the US, this means swimming counter-clockwise, staying to the right of the lane at all times; the lane line will always be closest to your right arm. In the UK, circle swimming goes the opposite way: clockwise, on the left, and with the lane line closest to your left arm.

As an aside, I spent my whole grad school year in the UK with a bruise on my left elbow. I was so focused on staying to the left and not drifting toward the middle, that I was constantly overcorrecting and slamming my left arm into the lane line during freestyle. Hitting the lane line is the in-water equivalent of stepping on a pile of Legos. Try to avoid.

Anyway. If people are already circle swimming when you arrive feel free to just jump in when there is a space and start swimming. If two people are splitting the lane, you need to make sure they see you and know that the lane will now be circle swimming before you just start (otherwise, that’s how head-on collisions happen). If neither of the people swimming see me waiting on the side, I just sit on the edge with my legs in the water or hop in and stand in the corner of the lane and wait until one finishes their next lap. There might be an easier way of getting their attention, but this usually works. Once one person stops they can help get the other person’s attention and then once you all agree to circle swim you’re good to go!

As a note, in my experience people can be weirdly, overly opposed to circle swimming. That does not matter. Nor does it matter how early they got there; the lane does not belong to them and if there are enough people in the pool that circle swimming is necessary, they need to go with it. I think it can be really intimidating when first starting out as a lap swimmer to just get into a lane and ask the people already there to change what they are doing. Further, I think some people take advantage of that to try and resist making the change. Seriously don’t worry about it and feel free to ignore any overly dramatic sighing that may ensue as they do what they absolutely know they should be doing! I have no patience for this and, since I usually swim in the mornings/before coffee, no delicacy in resolving it. If at all possible I highly recommend adopting the same mentality.



Along with circle swimming comes the occasional need to pass or be passed. If you need to pass someone, lightly tap their foot and they should pull over at the end of the length and let you go. If someone taps your foot, it is on you to pull over at the end of the length and let them go. Please don’t try to speed up and outswim them if your foot is tapped – you’ll likely just tire yourself out and the other swimmer will still need to pass you. If you tap someone and they stop for you, please don’t refuse to go and then continue to swim on top of them. Along the same lines, general pool courtesy is that you leave about 5 seconds in between swimmers; don’t go immediately after the person in front of you when starting a lap/set. Ideally, if you’re swimming with people who are about the same speed as you, that means you will maintain that five second gap throughout the entire lap, keeping things from feeling overcrowded.


MOST importantly

Have fun!!! I know it can be intimidating to join a new activity and I can definitely understand how new swimmers can feel out of their element, since swimming literally takes places in a different one. As much as possible, please don’t worry! There will always be people who don’t want to share a lane or who refuse to let you pass (also, please don’t be that person!), but that is certainly not the majority. For the most part, swimmers are incredibly welcoming and happy to answer questions or share enthusiasm about the sport they know and love. There’s a special comradery that comes from willingly spending time in cold water and going back and forth in an enclosed space for fun! If that sounds even a little bit appealing to you, you’re already one of us, so you may as well come say hi. You won’t regret it!

New swimmers: Is there anything you want to know more about? Leave a comment or get in touch! I’m mentally in the water approximately 103% percent of the time and always happy to talk about it.

Experienced swimmers: Any other advice? Stories? Insider tips and tricks? #Swimmerproblems you would like to commiserate about? Let’s talk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *