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by Terry Heggy

February 7, 2023

Nerves before your first race are perfectly fine

If you’ve never swum in a meet before, you might be intimidated by your own thoughts and expectations. Whether it’s fear of being too slow, feeling clueless, or just generally being intimidated by more experienced athletes, it’s easy to talk yourself into thinking you don’t belong there and won’t know how to fit in.

Well, rest easy, my friend, because there are few places as welcoming and fun as a U.S. Masters Swimming swim meet!

Oh sure, you’ll be exposed to new terminology, procedures, and logistical challenges. But every single person you’ll see at a meet has been through exactly what you’re experiencing, and friendly people will be delighted to help you understand that what appears chaotic at first is well-organized and navigable. You’ll make new friends, learn your way around quickly, and find that you fit in with this great group of like-minded people enjoying themselves while sharing their love of swimming.

First Things First: Relax and Get Ready to Have Fun!

Here are some things to consider as you begin to think about participating in a meet:

  • USMS meets are open to swimmers of ALL cultures, backgrounds, and ability levels. Regardless of your speed or current skill, it’s your participation and willingness to try that matter.
  • You can always attend a meet as a spectator first. Whatever your experience, you’ll see other swimmers like yourself trying new things even though they may have initially been anxious. Be sure to notice their gigantic smiles after they finish their swims.
  • Although there are rules for starts, turns, and strokes, you aren’t expected to use and immediately master every technique you see when you watch elite swimmers on TV. For example, no one is required to dive off the starting blocks; you may start from the edge of the pool, or even from within the water. Flip turns are not required, and you can legally hang on the edge of the wall as long as you need to. And if you do make a mistake that violates a rule (such as not touching the wall with two hands during butterfly or breaststroke), it becomes a learning experience for next time when the official who spotted the infraction gently explains what you should do instead.

Your coach and seasoned teammates are your best resources to ensure your first meet is a great experience. Ask them for help and remember that there are no dumb questions. In the meantime, here are some additional hints and guidelines to help mitigate anxiety as you prepare for your first meet.

How Does a Masters Meet Work?

USMS offers several different types of events, from open water races to virtual events you can swim at your own pool. The pool-based swim meets we’re discussing here are just one of the offerings.

The Facility

When you attend a Masters swim meet, you can expect to see these things:

  • A competition pool that is a standard length (25 yards, 25 meters, or 50 meters), containing lane lines, backstroke flags, and starting blocks. Timers are positioned behind the starting blocks, which is where the swimmers report before their event. Most meets will include an electronic timing system (touchpads on the finish wall of each competition lane and a stand with the starter’s equipment).
  • Areas set aside for meet management. These typically include an admin table for managing the timing system and tables for check-in, T-shirt distribution, and awards. There are walls or tables where heat sheets and results are posted. There may be a sound system and a meet announcer as well.
  • Seating areas for athletes and spectators, as well as restrooms, locker rooms, drinking fountains, and sometimes concessions.

Before the meet begins, the competition pool will be open for warm-up. There may also be warm-up lanes to the sides or in other nearby pools where you can warm up any time during the meet. All entry into warm-up lanes must be done feet first—no diving! The only exception is when the meet referee (the official in charge of the meet) opens designated start lanes (sometimes called sprint lanes), in which diving from the wall or starting blocks is allowed. These lanes are one-way only—dive in, swim to the other end, and exit the pool.

The Events

The competition is divided into events, which designate the stroke and distance to be swum and heats, which contain the swimmers who will swim together. For example, Event 1 might be the 800 freestyle and Event 3 the 50 butterfly. The order of events is selected and published in advance by the host of the meet, and the swimmers select which events they want to swim and enter with a predicted (seed) time. Most meets have a limit on the number of individual and relay events a swimmer can enter and that’s posted in the meet information.

After the entries are closed and all swimmers are registered, the meet managers seed (arrange) the heats based on the entry times. Some meets also seed by gender and/or age group. It’s common, however, to seed men and women of different ages together if they’re close in speed. This ensures that athletes who swim together in a heat will be reasonably well matched. Heats may be seeded fastest to slowest or slowest to fastest. Most short- and medium-distance events run slow to fast. The number of swimmers in each heat depends on the number of lanes available and the number of athletes entered in each event.

Once the heats are seeded, heat sheets showing the heat and lane assignments are distributed. Most meets will make the heat sheets available electronically before the meet so you can print your own copy. The meet managers also post printed heat sheets in visible locations around the pool during the meet. Heat sheets look something like this:

Sample Heat Sheet 

A few minutes before the scheduled start of the events, the competition pool will be closed so the meet officials can ensure that the personnel and equipment are ready. There may be an opening ceremony (such as the performance of the National Anthem.) Then the announcer will call Event 1, Heat 1 to the starting blocks.

All swimmers are responsible for being behind the starting blocks and ready to swim when their heat begins. As each heat finishes, the next heat should be ready to go. The starter has the option to start the next heat before the swimmers from the previous heat have exited the pool, though this isn’t common at Masters meets. There may be designated breaks during the meet, at the discretion of the meet director.

Championship-level meets may have dozens of heats for each event (especially the short and popular events such as the 50 freestyle). But local meets may have only one or two heats, especially in the less popular events such as the 400 IM and 200 butterfly. Therefore, it’s always important to pay attention to what’s happening in the pool if you want to be ready when your next event arrives.


General meet information

When contemplating your participation in a meet, the first step is to review the meet entry information. In the U.S., there are three types of competition pools, and each type has a designated competition season. Most meets for each pool type fall within those seasons:

  • Short course yards (25-yard pool) (winter/spring)
  • Long course meters (50-meter pool) (summer)
  • Short course meters (25-meter pool) (fall/winter)

The meet info will also note the pool location, warm-up times, order of events, and special considerations such as number of events you’re allowed to enter each day. Your coach can help with selecting events to swim or determining entry times.

The more you know about the meet venue, the more comfortable you’ll be when you arrive. Review online maps and photos from the facility’s website so you can visualize yourself being there. Here are some of the things you’ll see at a typical competition venue.

Sample Pool 

A:    Continuous warm-up/cool-down lanes

B.    Bulkhead containing starting blocks, timers, and on-deck heating area

C.    Main competition pool (larger meets may have multiple competition pools)

D.    Turn-wall bulkhead (used to divide a long pool into segments based on meet requirements). In this example, this area would also be where lap counters would be located during distance events (events that are 500 yards or longer, 400 meters or longer in a short course meters pool, or events that are 800 meters or longer in a long course meters pool)

E.    Possible location of heat sheets and results (taped to the wall)

F.    Scoreboard (event/heat numbers, race time readouts)

G.    Backstroke flags. (In this sample, there are also backstroke flags in the warm-up area (A).

NOTE: Areas immediately surrounding the competition pool (including bulkheads, gutters, front of starting blocks, etc.) must remain unobstructed to allow continual access for meet officials.

Your swims

Once the heat sheets are available, you should make note of each of your swims, including event number, heat number, and lane number. Effective ways to track this include highlighting your name and lane assignments on the heat sheet, keeping a separate note card listing each event, heat, and lane, or writing the event/heat/lane numbers in permanent marker on your forearm, wrist, or hand. Be sure to include relays in these reminders.

What to bring

Plan your fueling and hydration strategy. Bring water bottles and a container with food you know is easy to digest and won’t become a problem for you when you swim. (For example, bananas are a great food, but I tend to notice their aftertaste when I swim and find it distracting. For me, plain bagels with peanut butter, crackers, and apples and oranges seem to work best.) Many meets are all-day events, and there may be hours between your swims, so plan your primary and recovery eating and drinking so that your digestion and energy stores ensure that your muscles are fully fueled for each race.

Bring chairs to sit in and layered clothing (parka, jackets, pants, and a few towels) for your comfort between events. Make sure you stay warm between swims—it’s good to err on the side of bringing too many clothes, especially since everything tends to get wet. If applicable, don’t forget hats, sunscreen, toothbrushes/toothpaste, glasses cases, scheduled medications, etc. You’ll probably be walking around a lot, so it’s good to have waterproof sandals you can leave behind the blocks while you swim and then slip on easily when you’re finished. Extra goggles and an extra suit are also a good idea. If you want to take splits or make notes, bring a pen and paper, and maybe even a book or magazine to read (though you’ll probably be talking to your friends and watching swimmers enough to stay thoroughly engaged throughout the event). Many swimmers also enjoy taking photos and posting about the meet on social media.

Things to do

Plan to arrive with adequate time to take care of parking, walking from parking lot to the pool, and dealing with any check-in or access procedures. Some pools offer locker facilities, though you usually must provide your own lock. Most teams choose a spot to sit together, and there may be a visible team banner to guide you to that spot.

Encourage your friends and family to come with you. It’s great to have your own cheering section, and they can help carry chairs, towels, etc. You may even want someone to record your split times, help with picking up awards, and help you keep track of your events.

Above all else, remember this time-tested axiom for any type of competition: Don’t try anything new on race day. That means that you don’t test out a new style of goggles or a swimsuit you’ve never worn before. Don’t try eating new foods the night before or the morning of your swim. Don’t change your sleep routine, try a new energy drink, or perform stretching for the first time. Stick with what you know works—you can always try new things after the meet ends.

When You Get to the Pool

Warm up

Make sure you warm up in the main pool you’ll be swimming in. Slide in feet first and maybe even warm up in one of the lanes that you will be swimming in for one of your events.

If you plan to dive off the blocks, be sure you practice those during warm-up in the one-way lanes designated for start practice. Warm-ups get crowded, so you might want to just swim enough to get used to the pool and then finish warming up in the noncompetition pool. It’s up to you whether you warm up separately before each swim in addition to the designated warm-up time—though it’s almost always best to cool down and stretch out after each race if you can. You may need to try a few different things at different meets to find out what works best for you.

Pay attention to the details of the pool as it will be different from your workout pool. Some multi-use pools have additional markings on the bottom of the pool for other course layouts or aquatic competitions. These can be quite distracting, so figure out how you’ll ignore all markings except those that help you judge when to turn and finish. Some pools also make strange noises, have weird lighting or odd walls, or feature unexpected depth changes—you’ll need to adapt to all these during warm-up.

Meters are slightly longer than yards, so your stroke counts will vary between yards and meters courses. Also, the backstroke flags are slightly farther from the wall in meters, so you may need one additional stroke between the flags and the end of the pool. This may especially affect backstroke turns, so be sure you practice any stroke you’ll be swimming that day during the warm-up period, and dial in your flags-to-wall stroke count.

Examine the pool layout and wall design. Pool gutter depths vary, as do the materials of the walls, starting blocks, and touchpads. Some surfaces can be slippery or shaped differently than your pool, making open turns challenging. Some starting blocks could have unfamiliar designs or require adjustments. Bulkheads may not extend to the bottom of the pool, so you might see open space under what your brain tells you should be a solid continuous wall. None of these issues is difficult to overcome, but it helps to be aware of them before your race begins.

As your event approaches

Distance events allow for lap counters. The meet staff will usually provide lap counter cards which can be lowered into the water so swimmers can see how many lengths they’ve swum. If you’re in a distance event, find someone to count laps for you and state your preferences for counter card position and depth. If you’re not in the distance event, consider volunteering to count for one of your teammates.

If you want splits or special feedback from a coach, ask for it before you head to the starting area. If you have clothing, glasses, or jewelry to shed, make sure you have a safe place to store them while you swim. Remember to apply any necessary anti-fog treatment or rinse to your goggles and be prepared to have your cap (if you wear one) and goggles securely in place before your heat is called to the starting block.

Heats go much faster for short events, so pay attention to which event and heat is swimming so you’ll know when you should make your way to the starting area. The scoreboard will help, but don’t count on being able to hear announcements. Some teams will provide individual event and relay wranglers to help athletes know when they should prepare to swim, but you are ultimately responsible for showing up for your event. Make sure you’re lined up behind the correct block at least several minutes ahead of when you will be swimming. The timers have sheets showing the swimmers assigned to their lane, so check with the timer to ensure you’re in the correct heat and lane in plenty of time to adapt if needed.

If you decide to skip an event you entered, you can always scratch (drop out of) it by simply not showing up when it’s your time to swim. The lane will just remain empty as the rest of your heat competes. If being tired is the reason you wish to scratch, though, remember that you can consider doing it anyway, just to get a good warm-up for your next event just by swimming easy, and you might even score some points for your team!

Your turn to swim

When the heat before yours finishes, the official will blow a whistle for several short blasts to signify that your heat should be positioned behind the starting blocks. A few seconds later, the official will blow one long blast, which is your cue to step up on the blocks or move to your chosen starting location (on the deck next to the blocks or in the water). In backstroke events, there are two long whistles: one to enter the water, and a second to grab the backstroke handles and place your feet on the wall. After the long whistle, the starter will give the command “Take your mark,” and pause briefly while swimmers quickly assume a steady and motionless starting position. If anyone isn’t holding steady in the start position, the starter may command the heat to stand up to reinitiate and repeat the starting sequence properly.

When satisfied with swimmer positions, the starter then initiates the start, which consists of a flashing light and an audio signal (usually an electronic horn). NOTE: There is no “get set” command, only “take your mark,” followed by the starting signal.

If anyone initiates their start by moving before the horn sounds, that person is disqualified for committing a false start. If you’re unable to prevent yourself from initiating an early start, go ahead and perform the best start you can. If it’s a false start, you’ll be disqualified, but you’ll learn from it.

At the end of your race, be sure to touch the pad firmly on its vertical surface (the wall). If you finish by putting your hand on top of the wall or in the gutter, your time may not be recorded, so make sure you hit the face of the touchpad.

When you finish your event, you may get out of the pool in your lane only, unless directed otherwise by an official. If the edge is too high and you need to cross other lanes to get out, you must wait for the permission of an official. This means you must wait for all other swimmers to finish so that you do not cross the lane of a swimmer who’s still competing. Relay swimmers can stay in the water after their swim, but must NOT touch the pad again or encroach into any other lane.

The officials are there to help you swim your best and to help you correct mistakes. If you get disqualified (DQd), don’t be discouraged; look at it as a learning experience. Listen to what the official tells you, talk to your coach about it, and remember it for the future.

Common DQ issues are false starts, one-hand touches in butterfly or breaststroke, non-continuous turns in backstroke, early take-offs in relay exchanges, and illegal kick in butterfly or breaststroke. If you have any questions about any of the rules, ask your coach or a meet official.

Between events

If there are continuous warm-up/cool-down lanes, you’ll probably recover best if you visit those lanes immediately after your race for a relaxing swim to allow your muscles to recover. Once you feel good and relaxed, continue to follow your post-race plan, including hydration, refueling, massage, visualizing and warming up for your next race—whatever helps you be ready to swim your best at your next opportunity.

During the entire meet, multiple officials will be roaming the deck, and they need to have both physical access to the edge of the pool and visibility of all lanes, so don’t clog the pathways and pool edges. Otherwise, you’re free to wander around, make new friends, watch other athletes swim, take naps, etc., and thoroughly enjoy yourself.

Preparing to compete causes some swimmers to experience differences in the way they feel, such as experiencing additional thirst and the need for more frequent bathroom breaks. Many venues don’t have an overabundance of toilets, so try to take care of such issues well before your event. Remember to also re-adjust your suit before you swim and keep track of your goggles!

Don’t Forget to Have Fun!

Coaches are there to answer any questions you have, and your teammates are there to support you and cheer for you. But don’t be afraid to explore the facility and introduce yourself to folks from other clubs; some competitors will become lifelong friends. Watch the good swimmers and figure out what they’re doing that makes them fast. Enjoy the camaraderie, the joy of swimming, and the opportunity to challenge yourself. And above all HAVE FUN!