Encouraging More Adults to Swim
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Technique and Training

Masters Swimming 101

What are the basics of pool etiquette?

Jim Harper | December 3, 2012

This article is part of the Masters Swimming 101 series

Safety always comes first, and swimming's first rule is never to swim alone. Because you will always be swimming with other people, offer them the type of respect you wish to receive. Swim friendly. Also, always follow the directions of lifeguards and pool staff, as they can see and anticipate things that you cannot.

If you know how to drive, then you know how to swim within floating lane lines. Swimmers tend to self-organize into lanes by speed, and you'll want to seek a lane according to your speed and ability. If you need to stop swimming during the workout, “pull over” at the wall. Move out of the way of other swimmers by sliding into a corner. Don't hang onto the lane line—you will get a parking ticket.

Circle swimming is the norm at most organized Masters workouts. Notice in the diagram that it is not a true circle, but you get the point. Outdoor pools are different than indoor pools, and old pools are different than new pools, but they tend to follow a basic design that serves their intended users: black lines on the bottom indicate the center of each lane, and black crosses mark each wall. Use these markings in the pool just as drivers use them on the road.

Here are some of the major no-nos and yes-yeses of swim practice.


  • Dive 
  • Use the starting blocks independently
  • Swim down the middle of a lane
  • Remain stationary in the lane, except at the wall
  • Stand or hold onto the wall in the middle of the lane
  • Grab another swimmer
  • Push off the wall immediately before or after another swimmer—no tailgating!
  • Do your own thing in a lane that is following a prescribed set or workout.


  • Enter the water feet first. This is mandatory for all Masters swimmers
  • Dive only from the starting blocks, when instructed by your coach
  • Circle swim, staying always to the right of the lane, only moving toward the center when ready to turn at the wall
  • Leave the pool if unable to continue swimming
  • Scoot to the corner of the lane while standing or holding onto the wall
  • Tap a swimmer's toes in front of you, indicating that you wish to pass at the next turn
  • Allow 5 seconds between swimmers.

Other cultural norms of swimming are best understood by experience, especially in terms of competition, and each club creates its own microculture.

Masters Swimming 101 Article Series

How to start swim practice as an adult
Swimming is great exercise, but practicing with a group can seem mysterious to...
What equipment do I need?
Not much! The beauty of swimming is that the water provides all the resistance...
What are the basics of pool etiquette?
Safety always comes first, and swimming's first rule is never to swim alone....
What is a typical workout?
Like a good play, a good workout develops in three main acts: the warm-up, the...
Yards and meters
Coaches will give instructions mainly in terms of distance (or yardage) and...
How do I use the pace clock?
A related question would be: Why are swimmers so obsessed with time? You'll...
More lingo you're likely to hear at practice
Here are a few more terms you'll likely hear at swim practice. Some of them...
How do I learn the four strokes? Why do I want to?
Some swimmers and many triathletes only want to swim freestyle, the fastest...
USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Jim Harper

Jim Harper is an All-American Masters swimmer and coach in Miami who writes about health and nature. He is a frequent contributor to SWIMMER magazine, a columnist for the Biscayne Times, and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. 

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