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by Scott Bay

March 5, 2024

These flags aren't just for decoration

At all competition pools, spectators notice colored flags strung across the pool at each end. To the casual observer, they can appear quite festive. As festive as they are, however, swimmers know what they’re really for: avoiding painful encounters with the wall when swimming backstroke.

If you arrive at a pool that’s new to you, be sure the flags have been installed before you jump in and swim backstroke. Many swimmers have made this mistake at an unfamiliar pool, either because it isn’t set up for competition or it’s early and the pool staff hasn’t gotten to it yet.

How to Use Backstroke Flags

When you’re swimming backstroke, it’s impossible to see how close you are to the wall without craning your neck around to look for it. This is obviously not a good thing to do— you’ll bring your momentum to a halt, not to mention probably strain your neck. Backstroke flags provide a level of safety for your as you’re approaching the wall. Here are a few tips for making the best use of these flags.

  • The flags are 5 yards or meters from the wall. If you’re in a short course yards pool, the flags are 5 yards from each wall. If you’re in a short course or long course meters pool, they’re 5 meters from each wall. This is standard for all pools, to make the distances predictable so that swimmers can practice in any like pool and know how many strokes they need before they turn or finish at the wall.
  • How many strokes? How many strokes you take between the flags and the wall depends on multiple factors, including velocity and stroke efficiency. Your body geometry in terms of height and arm length also play a part. To find out how many strokes are right for you, start in the middle of the pool and swim backstroke toward the wall with your normal backstroke. Once you pass under the flags, take two strokes only, stopping with one arm extended above your head. When you stop moving gauge how far away from the wall you are. Repeat the process and add a stroke. Keep doing so until you’re at the wall. That is your stroke count for finishing at the wall. Repeat this exercise to determine how many strokes you need before flipping to your front and executing a flip turn—the stroke count may be different from a finish. Ask your coach or a friend watch, and even video your attempts to help you determine what works best for you.
  • Will my stroke count change even if I swim in the same course or pool? Yes, it will! As you become more proficient in the stroke and get stronger, your stroke count will change. Keep in mind that your stroke count will be different for finishes, turns, yards vs meters, and top race speed vs lazy warm-up speed. Practice and repetition in each scenario are key to finding out what works best for you at each wall.
  • Will my stroke count change if I swim a different course or pool? Yes, it will! Meters are about 10 percent longer than yards, so your stroke count for meters pool will be different. Other factors can affect your stroke count, such as the way the flags are strung. Over time or because of improper installation, flags can sag and move around too much, throwing your stroke count off, especially in the middle lanes. Be sure to check these things when you go to a new pool.

When You Get to a Meet

One of the most important competition training tips for all aspects of swimming: When you go to a competition, always make time for the warm-up in the competition pool, not the sometimes-separate warm-up pool. This is when you’ll test your normal training in a new environment.

Maybe you rarely get a chance to practice in a meters pool. If you’re swimming backstroke in a different course length than you’re used to at a meet, you’ll want to practice as much as possible during the warm-up. Or maybe you normally swim indoors and aren’t used to squinting through the sun at flags blowing in the wind. During the warm-up, figure out what’s different from your home pool and adapt.

Although great effort is made to standardize competition courses, many things can seem strange at new pools, especially if you’re going from indoors to outdoors or the reverse. Sometimes the walls are slipperier, there are unfamiliar pool markings, the blocks are different, etc. Get to the meet in time for the warm-up and practice it all.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke