Spartan Swimming 101

You don’t drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.
- Edwin Louis Cole

How much swimming are you incorporating into your training? Maybe it’s time to step outside of your comfort zone and try something new?

Whether you want to actively recover from your normal routine, or introduce yourself to the full-body workout that swimming can be, consider looking for a pool when at a gym or workout facility.

Regardless, of your motives, during a Spartan Race you might find a deep appreciation for your experience in the water.


by Erica Smith, Elite Open Water Swimmer and Coach

Swimmer here.  I’m here to break the unfortunate news to you that swimmers (as we call ourselves–those of us who have the distinction of having been competitive swimmers in high school and/or college), are holding you in judgment for the suit you wear, the goggles you wear, and the way you conduct yourself at the local YMCA or community pool. As soon as we see you coming, we’ll start sprinting butterfly or doing extra-splashy flip turns to discourage you from sharing our lane. It’s not just swimmers behaving badly–I swear runners have taunted me in similar ways when I venture out of my territory and onto land.

Fortunately, there are ways that you can work out in peace without being taunted or judged by swimmers. First off, don’t ever show up wearing a scuba mask or ancient-looking goggles. I like Blue Seventy goggles–all models make excellent open water goggles, and you can wear them to the pool. Don’t wear swim trunks or a triathlon suit–you’re going to have to get yourself a real swimsuit made for pool swimming. Now, emerge from the locker room and walk across deck with confidence. If the lap lanes have speed designations (Slow-Medium-Fast), make sure you don’t overestimate yourself. Using fins doesn’t count towards your perceived speed. It’s taboo among swimmers to wear fins for an entire workout, and everyone knows WHY you’d be doing that.

Once you choose the appropriate lane, there are a few basic but very important rules you must follow:

1. If you are joining a lane with one swimmer, you must alert that person to your presence before you begin swimming, and ask whether your new lanemate prefers to “circle swim” or “split the lane.” Using proper swimming lingo will earn you points. Circle swimming means that you will swim counterclockwise, always hugging the laneline to your right. Splitting the lane means that you and your lanemate will each choose one side of the lane, and you will hug the same laneline going up and down.

2. Never, ever, ever veer into the middle of the lane for any reason. Pay attention to where you are in the lane at all times. Now is not the time to practice eyes-closed navigation drills. No one wants to get a concussion during a swim workout.

3. If joining a lane with multiple swimmers who are already circle swimming, you need not alert anyone to your presence, but you must join the lane in a way that does not interrupt anyone else’s workout (see guidelines below). If you join a lane with two swimmers who are splitting the lane, you must ASK both swimmers whether they will circle swim to let you join, BEFORE you begin swimming in that lane.

4. Never push off the wall right in front of a swimmer who is approaching the wall to make a turn. This is exactly the same as if you were running on a narrow track, and a slower runner stepped in front of you and forced you to stop.

5. Never push off the wall RIGHT on the feet of the swimmer right ahead of you. Always wait at least five seconds or until the swimmer ahead is past the flags.

6. Never touch the feet of the swimmer in front of you for any reason. It’s your fault for either pushing off the wall too soon, or not choosing the right lane. If you are doing a faster workout, you’re going to have to stop at the wall, wait until there’s enough space in between the two of you, and then start again. No one is looking for a negotiation about accommodating your workout.

7. If you do accidentally make contact while swimming, pick your head up to apologize. Or wait to apologize at the wall, whenever both of you stop.

8. If you are stopped at the wall to rest, make sure that you stay off to the side so that the end of the lane is clear for other swimmers to make turns. If you are blocking the wall with your body, don’t be surprised if a swimmer flip turns and their feet fly mere centimeters from your face. You’re not supposed to be there.

9. Hand paddles can be helpful for learning proper catch position in freestyle, but you should avoid using them in a crowded lap swim lane because of the likelihood of contact with other swimmers. It IS possible to break fingers or cause bloody gashes through contact with hand paddles.

Following these guidelines should ensure that you have a pleasant and fruitful experience at your local pool. Your new swimmer friends will appreciate your efforts!


Erica Smith was a NCAA All-American swimmer and is now an open water swimmer, writer, and professional swim coach specializing in open water training and racing.  She can be contacted at



12 Responses

  1. avatar

    I’m a swimmer & I understand the rules, however, IF a new swimmer these all sound intimidating…being a bit sensitive to someone willing to move out of comfort zone could use encouragement. We all were newbees & had to take the first steps. Be that person who encourages & teaches….patience as they learn.

  2. avatar

    Thanks! I’m just starting out training for my first (mini)Tri and any hints help. :)

  3. avatar

    I appreciate that someone wrote these rules down. They tend to go unspoken, but they really are important to an enjoyable workout in the water.

  4. avatar

    No swim trunks??? That mean I got to busy out a speedo??? Uh, that ain’t happening. Just looking to add to my work outs, not become a full fledge swimmer with speedo and swim cap.

  5. avatar

    Love the circle swimming rule. Always ask if people are willing to do it, or wait until the swimmers are done with split lane swimming!

  6. avatar

    Swimmer and Ironman finisher here, please
    If all the seems stressful seek out your local US Masters swim
    Club, you will learn every thing get a great work out
    And learn all you need to to become a swimmer Even
    Compete at meets. Triathlon swimming is different – the mass starts and wet suits

  7. avatar

    Interesting — never knew all these lap rules. Guess that’s why I swim late at night with no one else there. I think the title is a bit misleading though, as I was really looking for the basics and some tips for lap swimming.

  8. avatar

    When I was apart of a swim team these rules helped keep sanity and tensions low.

  9. avatar

    don’t forget to pee in the pool only when the other swimmer is at the other end of the pool. then brush your hands back and forth under the water to disseminate the urine, so they don’t see it when they swim back to where you just pissed.

  10. avatar

    Circle swimming can get difficult when one person is much slower than the other two (or one), and I prefer to just split the lane. Being a self-declared swimmer myself, I know how irritating it can get when a new person comes into the pool and doesn’t know the rules! These are great for beginners, but taking a swimming class of some sort will get these rules hammered into a newbie’s head. My favorite rule on this, though, is the one about not overestimating your ability. I have seen many people who are fast runners or lift a lot get into a faster lane and then gas out after one length of the pool. The pacing is much different from running because water is something like 40 times denser than water. I’ve been swimming my whole life, but it wasn’t until I got into my swimming conditioning class (because I was never a competitive swimmer) did I really understand pacing and how to not kill my arms and legs before I get done with a 100.

  11. avatar

    Anyone have any tips on how to swim a straight line without colliding with the lane line and ping ponging back and forth across the lane? This seems to be my big problem.

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