How To: Understand Lane Swimming etiquette

Following a previous rant on the subject of lane swimming, I decided to do a quick explanation of lane swimming etiquette. None of this is original to me, these are the rules that club and lane swimmers around the world follow, but which seem a mystery to everyone else. The result is the site’s most popular article, and since is predominantly about open water swimming, the irony isn’t lost on me. Non-, and beginner swimmers are sometimes appalled to discover that faster swimmers should have the right of way. Anger by slower swimmers to faster swimmers cause at least as much anger as faster swimmers feeling they are being deliberately impeded by slower swimmers.

Lane direction signs

Rule 1: Never get in an occupied lane if another is empty.

Rule 2: Never get into an occupied land without letting the person/people already swimming know you are entering.Do this by dangling your legs into the water or standing to the side at the end of the lane when they are turning.

Rule 3: If there is only one other person in the lane, the lane can be split with each person taking half the lane. But you *must* explicitly agree this. Otherwise assume lane/circle swimming.

Rule 4: Once a third person joins, circle swimming must start. Make sure both people know you are joining.

Rule 5: Circle swimming is dictated by the fastest person present, not the slowest, biggest, or first in. Take note of the swimmer’s speeds before you enter. Direction is often pool specific. Check for direction signs or ask.

Rule 6: Do NOT turn or push off in front of faster swimmers. Faster swimmers should allow slower swimmers as much time as possible before starting.

Rule 7: Tap feet to pass. The person whose feet are being tapped moves out of the way to the corner at the lane end. Do NOT speed up if you are being passed.

Rule 8: The slower swimmer in front must move to the side of the lane end to allow faster swimmers to pass. Allow them to turn at the centre of the lane wall. if there are more than one, allow all faster swimmers behind you to pass.

Rule 9: Do NOT start swimming immediately behind another swimmer. They will not know you are there when they are turning. Injuries will result.

Rule 10: Swimmers resting at lane end should stay as far to the side of the lane as possible.

Rule 11: If the lane has a few swimmers doing long-axis strokes (front crawl, back stroke) do NOT do short axis strokes (Breastroke, ‘fly)

Rule 12: Be polite. Communicate. Do your best to explain the etiquette. Remember most lifeguards don’t seem to know these. Most pools don’t have them posted.


I realise this is a long list though, and may be impractical.

Giving it some thought, I wondered what would be an effective but much shorter list of Three Essential Rules?

One: Never get into an occupied land without letting the person/people already swimming know you are entering. Do this by dangling your legs into the water or standing to the side at the end of the lane when they are turning. Never stand in the centre of a lane.

Two: Fastest person present has right of way. Note other swimmer’s speeds before you enter. Direction is usually pool AND lane specific.

Three: Do NOT start, turn or push off in front of faster swimmers. Faster swimmers should allow slower swimmers as much time as possible before starting. Don’t turn into oncoming swimmers.

But is even that brief enough?

Surely we can have a Golden Rule of Lane Swimming.

I propose:

Be aware of and adapt to what is going on around you.



37 thoughts on “How To: Understand Lane Swimming etiquette

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  6. Your rules are intelligent and allow everybody to get on with what they want to do, but I’d make a plea for your readers to remember: as well as efficiency, remember kindness/leniency for people’s weaknesses. You can forget them if you swim alone, but you are likely sharing a leisure facility (not a workplace) with other people, people who no doubt are there to enjoy themselves and the freedom that swimming gives them. They are amateur, not professional swimmers and no doubt want to act like such. It’s their hobby. Don’t become an officious swimmer. Spread a bit of good feeling by adding forbearance when you react to that idiot who has no courtesy whatsoever, etc., etc.. It’s about sharing.

    • Excellent points. Of course the reciprocal also applies, and is probably what irritates most swimmers, that we take the time to learn what we are doing and act appropriately so everyone can share, so why isn’t the same consideration given back? I think most of us actually do tolerate those you mention, but that weakness you mention can apply on a bad day when you are doing everything you can to share, and the other person isn’t co-operating.

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  9. I have been lane swimming in London for nearly 25 years. Many pools closed in the eighties and some have reopened but we are still short. The largest pool in central London (nearly Olympic) was privatised about 10 years ago. Pools in private gyms are usually too small for lane swimming, so this leaves serious swimmers to use public pools which are now managed by BETTER for all 32 boroughs in London.

    If you join a gym at BETTER you have to carry out a gym induction but there is no induction for lane swimming so it is free for all and the lanes are in absolute chaos, life guards are not proactive in organising them due to verbal abuse.

    I never ever seem to be able to swim comfortably as co swimmers have no idea as where to rest or return. Or know nothing about etiquette.

    The advise given is to return in the middle of the lane or in the lane you about to swim in. I am correct in thinking then anyone wishing to REST should do so in the lane they have just swam in. Time and time again people rest in such in a way as to not allow this to happen.

    I have spoken to BETTER about this on countless occasions but because they lease the centres from the local authority it would appear their hands are tied about making decisions. I swim in 4 or 5 local authority pools in London, depends where I am in London and they are all in chaos.

    People swimming in the wrong direction
    People resting/chatting at shallow end leaving no space for a return
    Complete lack of observation from co swimmers relating to not allowing a fast swimmer to return whilst they break into a doggy paddle
    Slow swimmers in any lane they please and not actually using a proper stroke (should these people be allowed to lane swim? and moved to a casual swimming lane?)
    Lanes put out so they are twice their normal size (because thats what the local authority want)


  10. One tip: If all lanes have two people splitting the lane, don’t just hop in a lane with swimmers who are faster than you, and ask them to circle swim–it is getting in the way of their workout, because they will have to pass you time and time again, and it will also save you some embarrasment and stink eyes.

    Same goes for getting in a lane with an individual where no lanes are being shared–get in the lane that is most appropriate for your speed. When one has to share a lane, they should share with someone close to their speed whenever possible.

    I had a similar experience a couple of weeks ago. I was doing 10 x 100, alternating freestyle on 1:10, and IM on 1:20, and there were three others in the pool with me at the same time, who weren’t quite this fast; maybe all between 1:45-2:00/100. Next, some guy wearing swim trunks hops in my lane, and attempts butterfly down the middle of the lane. He then swam freestyle, stopping every 50 yards, and swimming at about 2:00/100 yards. He didn’t even ask to share a lane. I was a little upset–couldn’t the guy have just got in a lane with someone closer to his speed? Don’t be like this guy. I’m always more than happy to share a lane with another, provided that the lane I’m in is the most appropriate for them (which this guy was not), and that they ask before getting in.

  11. Useful post thanks.
    The two that astound me are ‘women who walk’ (side by side in the lane talking) and those men who use their arms like cricket bats and seem to have no awareness of anyone else in the lane.
    I haven’t met toe tapping at my club, Whose toes are being tapped and with or on what?

    • Hi Tessa, if you want to pass the person on front, you tap their feet. Alternatively if someone taps your feet, you pull over a the lane end. Since this tends to freak non-swimmers out, it’s mostly used amongst swimmers, who don’t really need these rules explained as much.

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  13. Hi Donal! I just came across your blog right now (I was looking for paddle reviews and you convinced me to get the Finis Agility ones ;) ), and I can only say, amen to what you have to say about lane swimming and the Furious Bobs of this world. At my local pool it’s mostly fine during the winter because the fast lane is in the outdoor pool, so numbers dwindle when it gets cold. But in the summer it is positively awful. Last year I had a discussion with the lifeguard about this and he told me he didn’t want to get shouted at if he told people to get off the fast lane, because they generally feel they have a right to be there, even if they can barely swim.
    Also, I can’t help but notice that some men REALLY cannot stand being overtaken by a woman. And as a result won’t let you, no matter how nicely you tap their feet or how obviously slower they are. I can’t even count the number of times this has happened to me. It’s never happened with other women though! (On a side note, this ludicrous behaviour also applies to bike commuting. I can’t count the number of times I’ve overtaken a guy only to have him overtake me, panting and about to have a heart attack, a moment later.)

    • Thanks Bettina. I agree that men are often too egotiscal to listen. On the blog I call those like that the “who the hell do you think you are” brigade. Substitute hell for another word. Swimmers know to listen, other men, especially those who come from field games into the pool, well, not so much. It’s wet and we wear Speedoes, it must be easy, right?

    • Oh god yes. I’m not a fast swimmer by any means, but I can comfortably keep up in the medium lane. The number of men who assume they’re fast swimmers and can go ahead of me, when in reality they’re like giant Swimming Action Man,is astonishing.

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  15. Hi Donal. Loved your Furious Bobs piece. And like this at the end of that:
    “…Every pool has a Furious Bob. Every swimmer has encountered someone similar. We bite our lips, try to swim around them, and get on with our own stuff. After-all they’ll usually be gone in a few minutes.” That last bit is exactly right. The more they trash about – furious or not – the faster they seem to leave.

    To be clear, although I prefer to swim in a lane section by myself for my swimming meditation (that’s what swimming is for me at this point), I’m fine doing circles with others who are as experienced as I. Unfortunately, in my current location, the “swimmers” (not sure I can even call them that) are all over the board from elementary backstrokers to water joggers. That’s when things fall apart.

    And I had my own Furious Bob experience recently. I was sharing a (25-yard) lane with someone I knew when Bob shows up in the shallow end. At least he had the smarts (or luck) to announce his presence, I’ll give him that one. So this Bob stands by watching as we two go through at least 2-3 cycles of laps. I’m assuming he’s watching closely and judging our relative speeds so that he can enter the flow the right way. Nope! What does he do but wait until I am literally flip-turning at the wall when he decides to start his dog paddle. I mean right in front of me! Can any adult in their 40s possibly be that stupid or unaware? Yes, they can; they certainly can.

    Maybe some day I’ll come across the pond to swim with you.

    • Thanks for this. It was a therapeutic post for me, as is this whole page. I am training for a 5k charity swim. This morning, as I approached the wall I saw someone resting (whom I had passed twice already). I turned and found that she had pushed off nanoseconds ahead of me and I landed on top of her. Apparently she thought I was about to have a rest. She complained about me, and the pool management’s approach is that if someone complains, you did something wrong. The staff who understand lane etiquette are not managers. I want to find a different pool, but the same organisation runs all the pools in the city.

      • Thank you. I think it helps to know we are not alone in this, swimmers the world over suffer the depredations f others who don’t know what they are doing. I’ve just come from a lunchtime swim, where I had almost exactly the same conversation yet again, with another swimmer. I don’t think most pools are any different either, for what it’s worth!

  16. Very nice summary of lane etiquette. But I have a comment about Rule 4 (“Once a third person joins, circle swimming must start…”)…

    I’ll be blunt: Circle swimming DOES NOT WORK when people are of different speeds or abilities. Sounds harsh, I know, but I’ve been swimming for 50+ years, and I’ve seen it all. When a person enters a lane of adult swimmers of varying abilities (already swimming side-by-side) they are, in effect, forcing themselves onto these existing swimmers and completely disrupting the swims of those two swimmers. There is another option: Do not join the lane. Simply wait until someone leaves (that lane or another). That’s what I do. And, in fact, if someone forces their way into my lane, I usually quit and leave because it’s not worth the hassle. Of course, if you know the other two swimmers well AND you are all at roughly the same ability and speed, and/or there are many lanes to group different speeds, it is possible to make circle swimming work (as it does in competitive team workouts, which I used to do a lot of), but my experience with “civilian swimmers” (normal adults of varying abilities) is that circle swimming is a waste of my time so I do not do it. And most adults where I swim feel the same and also simply “wait their turn” to swim.

    • Thanks Harald. I don’t disagree entirely. I wouldn’t get into a lane with more than one swimmer I didn’t know.

      But as you point out the problem also results when others, the Furious Bobs, join a lane in which people are already swimming. I am not going to forego a workout because someone who doesn’t have a clue joins. Of course, in a way much of this discussion is academic, because we both know that any two or even more experienced swimmers of different speeds can swim in the same lane. The problem arises with people who have no idea, and of course, those people will never check just what they should and shouldn’t do.

    • My nearest pool (Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh) puts signs up – slow, medium, fast. I don’t see the point of having lanes and not specifying who should be in them, otherwise chaos is inevitable.

    • 1) One pool I swim at has 3 very wide lanes that accommodate three swimmers in their own lane. I am pretty aware of things around me such as arrival of new swimmers, and swimmers leaving etc. I even note those swimmers that have a wide recovery or a giant kick off to one side,(I know those wide kicks don’t seem so big but that’s a different topic!) However, I was swimming alone, minding my own business when I CRASHED head on with another swimmer. I immediately thought, “were the hell did you come from?” It turns this guy was swimming figure 8’s, he was alternating outside lanes…. I thought I have seen everything, but apparently not

      2) If I have time and I arrive at a pool where it’s full and everyone has their own lane, I will simply wait. I love sharing lanes when I know everyone and when they know how to swim in a group and everyone has the same speed level. Otherwise I wait at the side of the pool and hang a note around my neck that says: Does Not Play Well with the Other Kids

      • Ah, the head-on crash. Never boring! Wide kicks? I occasionally have to share the lane with a person whose kick is so wide he burst the eardrum of another swimmer (elite level) when he kicked him in the head.

        I like your note!

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