Should slow swimmers have the right of way in lane swimming? Really?

A long time ago I wrote a couple of posts about lane swimming and lane etiquette. They regularly pick up ongoing viewers and have been read and maybe even used by a share of swimmers.

Furious BobRecently Simon Griffiths, editor of H2Open magazine, dropped the links into H2Open’s weekly email newsletter. He shortly received a Mr Angry from Tunbridge Wells type response. From Bob. Bob is furious. We know he’s furious because he says so right at the start. Bob is furious at H2Open. Bob is furious at me. Bob is even furious at you by default. Furious Bob.

H2Open was attacked for not catering for ordinary or slow swimmers just because it linked my posts. It should be noted, no comments were left here on my blog where the articles appear.

Anyway, Furious Bob’s letter is worth reading with the insults before I get to my response. There’s no option for me to comment over there by the way.

Furious Bob fails dramatically on a few points.

At no point have I ever claimed to be a fast swimmer. Regular and even irregular readers will know I describe myself as an average swimmer. With training, and doing it as a time trial, I can do 1k in 14:30 to 15:00 minutes, on the right day. I’ve hit 3k in 45 minutes and never hit 4k in an hour (but I got close). Hardly ocean-shattering performance. Respectable. I’m not a teenager and I’ve put in my miles and my years to even get as far as I have. What performance or ability I have comes, like all swimmers, at the cost of training and time. I’m not stopping Bob or others doing the same. In fact, as you will see, Furious Bob would surely improve if he embraced some of the most common precepts of swimming.

It’s useful here to understand both my speed and Furious Bob’s for context: A world class distance swimmer like Chris Bryan or Trent Grimsey swims five thousand metres per hour. I swim about three thousand six hundred. Furious Bob swims two kilometres per hour. The point isn’t to embarrass Furious Bob but to contextualise this properly before progressing. In swimming there is always someone better than us. Always.

Since he makes that invalid assumption about my speed, he implies that I’m advocating that everyone moves out of the way for me. But I apply those rules to myself also. As every experienced swimmer does.

I get out of the way for faster swimmers.

I/we can swim comfortably with swimmers of all speeds who understand basic lane etiquette. Furious Bob equates driving a car to lane swimming, and says they are virtually identical. Of course it’s a false assertion. Driving a car is a civil matter bounded by legal rules and laws, optimised for the efficient and safe running of everyone doing so in what is a potentially lethal environment. Swimming though, is a sport.

A better analogy is to compare swimming therefore to other sports.  If you are playing golf, and someone joins you who is using a baseball bat instead of golf clubs, Furious Bob’s analogy would be that you allow them to play with you. Or maybe a baseball bat is too extreme. Maybe they just have a putting club/thing (whatever they’re called, I don’t play golf!). But hey, that’s ok, we’ll all just use our putting club. And maybe you’d do that. Most wouldn’t. You can substitute almost any sport as more relevant analogy than Furious Bob’s assertion that lane swimming is like driving a car.

The fact is that most people try to recognise a shared set of sporting rules for every sport. It doesn’t mean you agree with them all, but you stick to them. I didn’t invent lane swimming etiquette, nor a single one of the guidelines, I just wrote them down that way (as others have done, and others will do). (In fact, I instigated a discussion of those etiquette guidelines on a swim forum with about 5,000 members before writing the article. Swimmers of all levels agreed).

Eetiquette cartoonFurious Bob is furious because he want to play with Furious Bob’s Special House Rules. In Furious Bob’s Special House Rules, you check over your shoulder and look behind you five metres from the end of the pool! Then you make an immediate assessment of relative speeds and vectors, during this instant, before deciding on the next action. Furious Bob considers this a reasonable request! Less ludicrous than allowing a faster swimmer to pass by at a turn!  

Do you think Furious Bob has done a lot of lane swimming based on this? Or in fact, any? The problems with this are so obvious that I can’t understand how anyone with any swimming experience would think them more workable than simple universal lane etiquette.

Etiquette that has been written about by Mauritio Emily, Evan and some well-known others. By breaking away from this etiquette, which works when everyone adheres to it, Furious Bob is essentially saying that instead the slower swimmers get to dictate how swimming session should be organised. lane-racing postcard Let me give an example. I’ve written about the long pool sessions that take place in Source Pool in Cork, which started the year I was training for the Channel with the rest of The Magnificent Seven. We would also be joined by other local distance and actually fast swimmers such as Eddie Irwin, Ned Dennison, Carol Cashell, etc as well as a range of other speeds and abilities. Source keeps two lanes open at all times, a fast and slow lane. These 10k to 20k sessions still occur if someone organises one.  The group ranges from 3k per hour to 4k+ per hour and we all swim in the fast lane. Carol, Eddie, Liam or Ned lead out so we are not in their way. We try to hang on to each other in descending speed order. Then Furious Bob joins. We never stop swimmers like Furious Bob joining, we just continue on, after all he must be able to assess speed from simply watching us for a few seconds, right? Furious Bob will soon have two to six swimmers completely disrupted. Everyone will be looking behind them right at the point where other swimmers are breaking out from a turn.

What effect do you think “simply looking behind you” will have in a multiple swimmers situation? Especially on everyone holding a straight line? Have you ever “simply looked behind you“?  Some swimmers will have to decide which side they are turning on. Chaos. Furious Bob however will assuredly be happy. Until he is not, because then he’ll likely come up with another of Furious Bob’s Special House Rules for when his first ones don’t work. Why should that one swimmer have the power to dictate everyone else’s swim? Which is exactly what Furious Bob wants; the power to disrupt everyone else even if it’s not an overt statement or even conscious desire.

My title is editorialised, Furious Bob isn’t directly calling for slow swimmers to have the right of way. But that’s the consequence of his proposals. There’s a hint of his disdain for swimmers when Furious Bob says that “fast swimmers can cause major problems in lanes if they are swimming “sets” because every time they stop, they break the pattern. In other words, in Furious Bob’s view, not swimming up and down at two kilometres per hour is somehow wrong. Furious Bob doesn’t seem to know that all swimmers should be swimming intervals. He did say he was a swimmer, right? Furious Bob (he’s like an avatar of the swimmers who can’t understand all this) says that for a slower swimmer to have to pull over for the faster swimmer is sheer arrogance, conceit, ignorance and utter selfishness by those of us who who try to communicate correct lane etiquette.

Furious Bob says that slower swimmers are just as entitled to their workout. No-one has ever said otherwise. (Once again I’d point you to the fact that is a speed-agnostic site. I write for swimmer’s of all abilities, except those really fast swimmers!). Furious Bob seems to entirely miss the logical point that one slower swimmer has a far more negative effect by disrupting multiple faster swimmers, than visa versa. In fact on the day that I write this, to use Furious Bob’s own driving analogy, United Kingdom police have announced the introduction of penalties (point and fines) … for drivers going too slow on motorways

Furious Bob also mentions driving on a single track road, (what we call a Primary or Secondary road in Ireland). If I’m driving slowly on one of those (I’m a slow driver funnily enough), what I actually do is try to move over the side just so those faster vehicles can pass. I don’t want to disrupt others because I drive slowly. I suspect Furious Bob’s driving awareness and swimming awareness and sense of entitlement are on a par. I don’t have to pull over, but then I never said a slower swimmer has to “pull over”, only that they let faster swimmers by on the turn. 

As I said, I reject the analogy even if it does actually suit me better than it does Furious Bob.

Faster swimmers generally don’t get into lanes of slow granny-stroke swimmers. I certainly don’t. But one person in lane tootling up and down? Sure. One thing is not the same as the other. But even if a swimmer was to do this? Lane etiquette still applies.

Swimmers regardless of speed who understand this etiquette aren’t making up their own rules. They are implementing rules developed and understood by competent swimmers around the world. It’s a global and communal and indeed often unspoken set of guidelines, which is why I and others I wrote them down in the hope that they would help some people.

I’d respectfully suggest that some more time swimming with a swimming or Master’s group would help Furious Bob’s (and of course other’s) appreciate of why and how lane swimming etiquette works.

All of this is of course illustrative of different mindsets. I get the pool to train and since there is no local Master’s club training happens during public lane swimming. The original online discussion of and subsequent posting of those guidelines, lead to pretty universal agreement from swimmers.

call these characters the Who the f*ck do you think you are Brigade. Because when you try to either help them out with stroke or training in a polite unobtrusive way, or point out that maybe not turning just in front of a faster swimmer would help both of you, that’s sometimes a response.

(I’d also point out, that I’ve never once had that response from a woman. and thanks to the Who the f*ck do you think you are Brigade, I long ago stopped offering help to anyone). You have got to loneswimmer.com for it. Furious Bob came to this blog, then decided on his Who the f*ck do you think you are Brigade response.

I’ve previously said that lane swimming could be condensed to one golden rule; that you should be aware of what’s going around you. If you are an experienced swimmer, you’ll have noticed how the Furious Bob’s seem to dismiss this simple fact. We’ve all been stuck behind the person who is doing head-up granny-stroke, and is pretending to be utterly oblivious to you trying to turn and avoid them, yet they are sometimes actively trying to impede you.

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. Furious Bob, should you be in the fast lane? Furious Bob, did you miss the last point on this list?:

  • You think that when someone faster than you passes you, they’re being rude.

Finally, I’d like to say thanks and no hard feelings to Furious Bob, he gave me something to write about. I find it an strange viewpoint, one I don’t understand. I might change my name for the Who the f*ck do you think you are Brigade to The Furious Bobs.

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26 thoughts on “Should slow swimmers have the right of way in lane swimming? Really?

  1. Pingback: Advice for New Year Swimming Resolutionistas, whether for exercise, swimming improvement or weight loss | LoneSwimmer

  2. I’m curious if anyone has advise on how to handle Furious Bob when he deliberately puts himself in the way and screams at you for the resulting collision … Especially if you are a woman? My husband wants him charged with assault the next time he does it. I looked it up, it meets the criminal code definition… Especially since he wouldn’t pull that with another guy. I wrote an email to the pool Supervisor. My husband plans to accompany me to the pool in the future.

    • Actually I do know of a similar incident that happened to a guy. A complaint was immediately lodged with the pool, along with a demand that the pool take action, which they prevaricated about. A letter was written outlining the incident to the Management Committee. The significant question that was asked was: what if the local Furious Bob assaulted a woman next (or any other person)? Especially now that there was a record of his temperament. So an initial meeting was held with local police, then that meeting was reported back to the pool, who finally acted. I hope this helps and sorry to hear that this has happened to you.

  3. Do you have any pool etiquette recommendations for the furious bobs out there that want to keep the pool temperature 85-88 degrees, or really anything above 82 really?

    I have made a lot of friends giving technique advice and asking people to join me for minisets, but occasionally, I have encountered the newly coined “furious bobs brigade.” However, most of the time the pool is so empty where I am at, I’ve only rarely had to share lanes. Only on teams or with team practices have I had to share with enough people to circle swim. When I swim in a lane with another person, we just split the lane half and half. Although, when I hit up a stretch of butterfly, I intruded a little.

    • Hey Sean, of all the challenges I have had when training, pool temperatures set too high was one of the most insurmountable, you have my sympathies. I can train up to about 31C (88) (though it’s difficult once it’s over 86. My pool would occasionally go to up to 33C (91F). Not just uncomfortable, but impossible for swimmers and dangerous for others. My local pool is not set for 29 (84) and that’s normal for me. Any other pool that is cooler is heaven.

      Yes, I’m also luuky that I often don’t have to share lanes, and for the majority of those I do share with, I have trained them all to split the lane.

      It saddens me that Furious Bob may never know he has given a new term to the swimming world, we owe him that at least!

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  5. I think I understand some of where Furious Bob is coming from – he’s completely wrong of course – but I do understand him a little.

    I’m pretty much a novice swimmer – I’ve learned to swim properly in the last year so I’m good enough to get in the slow lane and do lengths, but I’m fully aware that I’m slow and can’t do the distances that experienced swimmer can. I’m fine with that.

    But when you’re a lot slower than others in the lane, it’s hard to get a rhythm going – too much of your focus goes into constantly monitoring where you are relative to everyone else. You’re pace is also erratic because you are conscious that you are holding up faster swimmers behind you so you rush to get to the wall to let them pass. Maybe it’s just a lack of experience on my part. I try and go at quiet times but it’s hard to predict when it’s going to get busy.

    What do you do when you’re too slow for the slow lane? :)

    Also, someone else suggested that lane swimming etiquette should be posted in pools – I think this is a fantastic idea. In very large print. On the bottom of the pool!

    • Thanks Mike. I’d be worried if I couldn’t also muster enough sympathy to try to empathise with Bob or others who feel so put upon. My pet abiding hatred in life is bullying, and from Bob’s point of view, we are all bullies. But in this case that perception stems from a lack of understanding. If Bob integrated common lane swimming etiquette, his swimming life would actually improve, his blood pressure would reduce and he’d enjoy his swimming more.

      I got lane etiquette rules posted in my local pool about 5 or 6 years ago. They lasted maybe 8 weeks before the non-swimmers took them down. It wasn’t until this year after a court case last year and an assault by a novice swimmer on another that they agreed to put them up again. They put abbreviated rules on the far war, at the deep end, on a A4 sheet, at the bottom of the wall…

      For years I misunderstood the nature of pool management. I thought an understanding of swimming would be a prerequisite, (as it is when running a gym for example). But that is often not the case. In fact you can have an pool staff without any swimming experience or understanding between them all. Trying to shift pool managers and staff to understanding the optimal running of a pool can be a long and upstream task.

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  7. Hi Donal,
    Just to pick up on your note about not being able to leave any comment at H2Open; it’s not intentional. We recently switched our website hosting provider and somehow the comments module got lost on the way. We haven’t re-installed it because we’ll be doing a total website rebuild over the next couple of months.
    On the subject of Pool Etiquette, I feel like we’ve been caught in a cross-fire and the best thing to do is probably to run for cover.
    David Harley makes a fair observation though – swimming pools (at least the ones I know in the UK) usually don’t do a very good job of managing swimmers or providing information about their expectations for people who are trying to train in public sessions. Lifeguards don’t think it’s their job to advise people what lane to swim in or to explain good lane sharing habits and pool managers don’t seem interested. There are exceptions of course and a pro-active, thoughtful lifeguard can do wonders to keep harmony in the pool.
    Rather than having fellow swimmers lecturing each other about lane discipline and escalating divisions between us we should perhaps be working together and directing our energies towards pool managers and bringing about improvements in the way public sessions are managed to cater for all swimmers.
    Perhaps a topic for your next blog post.
    Best wishes
    Simon

    • Hey Simon.

      Nothing was meant by that about not being able to comment. It was just an explanation of why I was inflicting my usual stuff on them! :-) Though I think since Bob said that stuff you should link this back again!

      I don’t have any problem with the discussion, anything that gives me something to write about is good is some way. In fact, instead of it being a case of just laying out a bunch of rules, the utility of this whole debate has been to show the polar opposites. I’d say what is obvious to me, given the comments on this and the previous posts and the messages & emails is that the overwhelming majority of swimmers are agreed on pool etiquette and frustrated by both pool’s unwillingness to implement them properly or at all, or by other swimmer’s unwillingness to think they could apply to them (Bob is a case in point). Therefore I’m certain that Bob is out of step in his understanding of it, not that I’m saying anything new or radical.

      I point out again that the golden rule precept of awareness that serves everyone well.

      As for your point about pools, yes I agree. I’ve spent literally years trying to get my own to do so. But in the entire cardre of pool employees, only one has any swimming experience. It’s been a long road. But where do they get the etiquette? From the swimmer who know how. If we don’t set out an agreed set of rules, how can we convince them?

  8. Furious Bob might be outraged to find that there now is an entire Code of Conduct that’s been articulated (codified) on oceanswims.com by our Cobber, John Bamberry. It’s The Bambi Code, and it’s based on practices already observed by regular swimmers by convention. It’s aimed primarily at the ocean. On oceanswims.com, we also run our Thoughts of the Day, a big section of which is Pool Etiquette. A key point is picking your lane according to relative speed. It’s not a matter of elitism; it’s more a question of public safety. Slow swimmers in the fast lane not only disrupt other swimmers, but they force unnecessary risks such as overtaking, with the risk of head-on collisions. It’s also a matter of common courtesy.

    Every pool has its Furious Bobs. In Sydney, we have Garth, who wrote to the local newspaper complaining of “lane Nazis”. Some swimmers get a bit like this (Nazis), of course, and they’re just as dangerous as Garth and Furious Bob jumping indignantly into the fast lane. The bottom line is that all of us require commonsense and courtesy, and everything else flows from that.

    It’s a matter of a potentially anarchic society ordering itself. It’s called “civilisation”.

  9. As a bit of a contrarian, my solo workouts tend to be things like 3 x 1800 yards Freestyle, so I positively hate it when circle swimming with a faster swimmer doing sets, because I never know when they are going to stop. I’ll check at each turn where they are and make a judgment call about whether they are likely to catch me on the next length. If I think it likely I’ll pull over to let them pass, but then Sod’s law will ensure that was the end of that particular repeat and now you are both waiting :(

    There is a population of people who use the pool like an aquatic treadmill. They get in and do their 15-30 minutes of continuous swimming and get out. If they wanted to get better at swimming they should probably look at doing sets (I know I should be doing more), but that may not be their goal. I think an argument could be made that the statement “all swimmers should be swimming intervals” could be construed as elitist :)

    That all said, I agree with the bulk of your article.

    • Thanks David. Furious Bob did open up the debate from simple continuous lap swimming by mentioning his own swimming credentials. AND then the fact that he was looking for a different set of rules than the generally accepted existing lane etiquette. Had it just been a simple lap swimmer, I’d have ignored it. I’d point out the golden rule of awareness and the other David’s comment abut being checking the other swimmer when doing a turn. It doesn’t take any extra time for that simple check, and helps minimise time lost.

      Back to the constraint that both Furious Bob & I are operating under, (and possibly you); of having to swim in public lanes. How are the two of us to be reconciled? Am I to abandon my sets for basic up & down? Sometimes I also do sets of 1ks, 1500, or 2ks, usually either for time or for long sessions. All the rules still apply if there’s someone else doing 100s or 50s.

      As for the elitist view, I’d partially accept that as I think in some cases like these, someone has to set the lead. Asying that actually someone needs to improve their understanding in the shared environment of a pool public lane then gets re-interpreted into “who do you think you are”, as I said? Otherwise the Furious Bobs dictate what we all do through sheer invective and accusations. Why honestly should I give up what I’ve learned, as have most swimmers?

  10. Great article, Donal. I swim with slower and faster swimmers in club sessions all the time and there’s never a problem – we know the system and we stick to it. In public sessions, however, I have huge issues. Here, I encounter incredible ignorance during almost every session: slower swimmers refusing to take note of what’s going on around them and never stopping at the wall to leave faster swimmers past, more congregating at the end of the lane for a chat and refusing to move as you come in to turn and, best of all, those who push off into head-up breaststroke just as you initiate the tumble! My experience only differs from yours in that I’ve found no distinction on the grounds of gender – I’ve found [some] women to be every bit as rude as [some] men when it comes to lane etiquette.

    • Thanks Owen. I though this article would sneak out on a Friday and no-one would care. I should know from experience that swimming etiquette posts are always popular. You getting some miles in over the weekend?

      • I would like to add that I only started to swim formally about a year ago. By formally, I mean doing laps in a pool. I grew up on the coast in South Africa so am a fairly competent swimmer but had no formal training. I was clueless as to pool etiquette and the world of lane swimming is quite intimidating for a newbie. There is almost no literature at pools on etiquette and most swimmers are either too busy on their own sets or too afraid of a negative reaction to point out the etiquette. I was left to find out on sites like this about the correct etiquette. I actually read your original post a while back and since then have stuck to those principals and swimming in lanes became massively better. Pools really should do more to advertise etiquette. It would improve the swimming and possibly even the attendance.

      • Just doing Garnish (5 km) tomorrow and club training on Sunday. I’ve 34 km done so far this week so the weekend should bring my to 40+ km in total. Same again next week and can taper a bit then – still have to do my 6-hour though…

        • Good mileage. I’ve been on 30 k the last few weeks, dropping down to low 20s this week.

          13 to 14 in Clonea yesterday evening. Even offshore it was still about 12 & 12 to 13 in T-bay this evening but really choppy & hard work with a SE wind. Would have liked to do Garnish but it’s a) too far & too late in the day and b) I’m broke. I’ll just have to entertain myself. Enjoy it!

  11. I can see where he’s coming from a little. Much like a public road, nobody owns the road, it’s a shared environment and we need to respect one another and be considerate. Fast swimmers need to be respectful of the slower swimmers and vice versa. If there is a slip up in what is perceived as the proper action, its important not to take it personally, and get aggressive or defensive. I totally agree that a little more consideration of the other guy would resolve most if not all of the concerns in a lane.

    This subject is another reason why I prefer open water. It solves the problem entirely. All of the complexities of proper lane etiquette are removed once those walls and restrictions of lane lines are gone, only to be replaced in many cases by an even more critical subject: proper swimmer/boater etiquette. I’m a furious Bob when it comes to crazed lunatic boaters in open water.

    • The thing is Gords, we can all appreciate the difficulty of lane swimming. I agree 100% that co-operation makes it lane swimming work, that’s what I was trying to get at. I’ve made my mistakes, I learned my lane swimming from others, like we all do. I did say that when presented with a Furious Bob, while I may get annoyed, (depending on their actions and level of deliberate obstruction), I put up with it until it’s over. Furious Bob though decided that trying to explain how it was works makes me conceited, arrogant etc and that his has these great NEW rules that we should all adopt. You’re fast, therefore you know that using lane etiquette and awareness, as you say, eliminates problems even before they arise.

      Agreed on boats. When everyone is worrying about sharks or jellyfish, it’s the jet-ski guys especially who both terrify and enrage me.

  12. I’m at about 3km/hour which is about right in the middle. When I’m at a pool with lanes I think it’s pretty straight forward. When there is a faster swimmer behind be, the sooner I allow him/her past the quicker I can go back to doing my thing. You always know when someone is coming uo behind you because you see them gaining on you on each turn. So you estimate which lap they will catch you and move over. Normally receiving a quick ‘thank you’ from the faster swimmer unless they tumble. When I’m coming up behind a slower swimmer, I tap their feet just before the end of the lap and then move to the open side and turn. I do find some people so self-absorbed that they wouldn’t notice a great white swimming alongside but that’s why you tap their feet. Poor Bob is the type of person who complains at eveything obviously and nothing will keep him happy. He suggestion that you look back 5m before the end of the lane leads me to believe he swims head up without googles. (not that there is anything wrong with that but that;s the only way he would be able to look back mid-stroke). the average swimmer has goggles on and would literally have to stop to look back. Fortunately, most pppl are a litle bit more respectful than Bob and he probably needs to chill a bit… I’d hate to know what his blood pressure is.

    • I agree David. You caught exactly how awareness of other’s speeds and location works from turning works. When a faster swimmer comes up behind, you know when to pull over, and time lost is kept to a bare minimum. I admit though I’ll only tap the toes of someone whom I’m pretty certain understands that action. It’s great when someone does, but generally I’d need to know them, because it can cause ructions otherwise.

  13. Can’t comment on the lane thing, I pretty much never swim in a pool so luckily I can file that one in the “other people’s problem” category but I would like to say that in a universe where all things are relative, you may consider yourself an average swimmer at “almost” 4k/hour, but in my universe that is pretty fast :-)

    • Phil, there’s such a huge difference between “almost” 4k an hour, and actually 4k an hour, when you are swimming with one of them! (And that almost 4k an hour was very good day!

      • Well I am “almost” 3k/h (2.7 for 10K) so “almost” 4k/h still sounds pretty good to me :-)

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