What everyone should know about lap swimming etiquette

Swim cap and goggles

With the cold weather settling in, many folks are starting to think about moving their workouts indoors. For me, when I think of indoor winter sports, I think of swimming. Odd, right? But swim season in high school was always in the winter. There’s a part of me that will always associate freezing cold winter mornings with swim practice.

Swimming is a great workout. Not only does it build cardiovascular fitness and lean muscle, it is a low impact exercise that’s a great complement to the high impact activities we do other times during the year like running. This can help aid in muscle recovery and injury prevention. Plus, I love the way I feel after a great swim workout.

But, I admit, getting in the pool during lap swim hours can be intimidating. It may seem like swimmers have their own code of conduct and rules. Well, we do.

Here are some basic etiquette tips for lap swimming.

Swimming is a great workout. Not only does it build cardiovascular fitness and lean muscle, it's a low impact exercise that complements high impact activities like running. But, getting in the pool during lap swim hours can be intimidating. Here's everything you need to know about lap swimming etiquette.

1. Find a lane for you
When you first walk out on the pool deck, watch the pool for a few minutes. Are the lanes pre-assigned according to speed – Slow, Medium, Fast? Are there free lanes available? Who’s swimming fast? Who’s swimming slowly? Don’t be afraid to ask the lifeguard for advice as well. They are often familiar with the swimmers and can give you pointers as to who is just starting their workout and who’s close to finishing. Pick a lane with a swimmer who is swimming at a pace similar to your pace. If there’s an open lane, take it!

2. Getting into a lane
After you’ve picked a lane, sit at the wall towards one side of the lane and dangle your feet in the water. This lets the swimmer in the water know that you are there and are going to join them in the lane. Let the swimmer swim a lap or two to make sure that they’ve seen you. Most swimmers will stop and acknowledge that you are entering the lane, even if it’s a quick head nod, and discuss how you want to split the lane. Once the swimmer pushes off again, it’s OK to enter. When you do, make sure you give the swimmer ahead of you adequate space. You don’t want to push off right onto their heels. Also, don’t jump in and start swimming just as the swimmer in the water is approaching the wall. That’s just annoying.

3. Circle swim or split the lane?
If there are only two people in a lane, you have the option of splitting the lane down the middle or circle swimming. Discuss this with your lane partner. If you split the lane, you will swim up and down the lane on the same side of the black lane line.

If there are three or more people in a lane, you must circle swim, meaning that you swim in a counter-clockwise direction. As you swim, always stay to the right side of the black lane line. As you approach the wall, aim for the left side of the wall for your turn.

4. Passing and being passed
If you catch-up to the swimmer ahead of you, lightly tap their foot one or two times. That’s the signal that you would like to pass. The slower swimmer then stops when they reach the wall to let the faster swimmer turn and pass them. You could pass mid-lane but you need to be super careful of what’s going on around you. It’s like passing another car on a two-lane road. You don’t want to swim head on into another swimmer coming the other direction.

5. Stopping
Everybody needs to stop and rest. Don’t do it in the middle of the pool (unless you absolutely have to) or hog the entire wall so that other swimmers have no place to turn. When you do stop at the wall, try to tuck yourself towards the corner of the lane line and the wall, preferably on the right side.

Finally, aqua-jogging and water walking are also great forms of exercise. However, please be mindful of doing either of these during lap swim hours unless there is a designated lane.

Do you have another etiquette tips to add? Do you have any lap swimming pet peeves?

Ready to jump in the pool with your new knowledge about swim etiquette? Here’s a great swim workout to try out!


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    • admin says

      The 14th Y has a great indoor pool as does the Chelsea rec center on W 25th between 9th and 10th Avenues. Not sure if either of those are too far from you. And I think that Stuyvesant’s pool is open to the public too? Might have to pay a fee? Hope that helps!

  1. says

    This was very helpful! I started swimming last summer and I had to switch gyms because no one would share lanes! (That and I was afraid to ask) So now I get up super early to get a lane at 5am before the pool gets busy. These are great tips for when it’s busy though! Thanks.
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    • admin says

      I think that it’s crazy when swimmers don’t share lanes or expect to have a lane to themselves. Of course we would all like to have a lane to ourselves but if you’re at a gym or the Y, it’s communal space!

    • admin says

      The pool can definitely can be intimidating and I wanted to post this to hopefully help people feel a little bit more comfortable walking out onto the pool deck.

  2. says

    I’m glad you posted these! I searched swimming etiquette before my first swim a few years ago… I was intimidated by the serious swimmers and sure I would do something wrong and offend them all. :) Swimming is an awesome indoor workout… unfortunately, our Y’s pool is outdoors which makes me less likely to get out there in the winter, although it does remain open.
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    • admin says

      I kind of wish I had an outdoor pool to swim in! All the pools in NYC are typically about 3 stories underground in some dark basement. :-)

    • admin says

      I try to cross after the swimmer has turned and pushed away from the wall where I’m waiting. Then sneak under the lane line and quickly cross the lane and wait at the next corner for it to be clear to cross the next lane. Obviously, if the swimmer is at the other end of the pool or you have a lot of clearance, then you can just cross. I think that it’s just a matter of being mindful of fellow swimmer and showing general courtesy. Most people appreciate that.

  3. says

    I had serious anxiety about exactly this when I decided to give swimming a try last year. I had no idea what was appropriate or ‘standard’ for letting someone know you wanted to swim in their lane. The first time, I looked in the pool, saw all the lanes were full and was too apprehensive to ask anyone (lifeguard included) what to do so I sat in the locker room until a lane was free. This post would have helped me a TON. Thanks for posting!!
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    • admin says

      It’s super intimidating!! I also think it has something to do with the cap and goggles but swimmers can seem like an unfriendly bunch sometimes. So many people I know have done the same thing – sat in the locker room and waited for an open lane. I’m glad that this was helpful.

    • admin says

      Thanks Mary! I’m glad that the post was helpful and I hope that it helps people feel a little bit more comfortable going to the pool. I know that it’s an intimidating environment nonetheless.

  4. says

    This is great! It never fails to amaze me how few swimmers are clued in on etiquette. My simple request from them all–let me know if you are getting into the lane! I am happy to share, but let’s decide on how we’re going to do it together!!
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    • admin says

      That drives me crazy too. That and when someone literally jumps in the water as I’m approaching the wall. Now that’s one way to let me know you’re entering the lane.

    • admin says

      It can be intimidating but you’re right, it just takes practice. Just like with all the etiquette rules we take for granted as runners too i.e. at race start as you mentioned before.

  5. Adam Davis says

    I grew up swimming on a year round team from the time I was 9 years old.

    My biggest pet peeve is not moving to the left at the wall when you stop. Swimmers like to finish to the wall, the same way that runners like to finish to the finish line. When you come in and just stop, the swimmer behind you has to find a place to finish. If you come over and move to the left once you hit the wall, the swimmer behind can finish.

    As far as getting in the water, in California where I grew up swimming on my year round team, all of our pools are outdoors. If you want to wait to introduce yourself, hop in the pool, and just move to the left hand side of the wall. No need to wait out in the cold.

    PS I hate splitting the lane.

    • admin says

      Thanks Adam for sharing your tips and pet peeves. I too hate when swimmers don’t move out of the way. Living on the East Coast, I wish that I got to swim in an outdoor pool more often!

  6. says

    Yeah this definitely needs to be posted at my gym. I love swimming! The only time I’ve really been irritated was in a 3 lane pool and I tried to jump in and share and the guy stopped and told me to get out and wait. He hated sharing and he waited for an empty lane so I should do the same. The swimmers in the other lanes were really slow, so I didn’t feel like it would be fair for me to get in their lanes. And I was so embarrassed I just left. Mostly I’ve found swimmers to be friendly and helpful with their rules,
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    • admin says

      OMG!! I can’t believe that he told you to get out and wait! That’s so ridiculous. If you’re at the gym, it’s a communal space. If you want a lane all to yourself, go to a pool that allows you to reserve a lane or build your own pool! Yes, we’d all love to have our own lane but we have to learn to share.

  7. says

    As a swimmer, I have a lot of pet peeves when it comes to the pool. It seems as though a lot of people just don’t know the etiquette!

    When I was going to the community pool it was really crowded and there were lots of newbies. It was a must to circle swim. Now that I’m at a nicer pool that’s let crowded it’s rare that it’s necessary to circle swim!

    My biggest pet peeve is the people who don’t pay attention to lane speeds. Even if it’s not marked, it is pretty obvious which lane is the fast lane! It baffles my mind when slow swimmers get in the fast lane.
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    • admin says

      It’s definitely nice not to have to share a lane or circle swim but you’re right, we should all know how to handle those situations when they do come up. Oh it drives me crazy when people don’t pay attention to lane speeds either or when folks jump in the fast lane and exclusively breaststroke. It would be one thing if they were Ryan Lochte or Michael Phelps but they’re not.

  8. says

    I started swimming a bunch last winter and it took me forever to get the guts to share a lane. Once I did I was much happier splitting a lane than circle swimming. I’d wait to find a slower person and split it with them. I had this one horribly traumatic experience with this swimmer (who I know… she blogs) and she got in with me when I was sharing and wanted to circle swim. I asked her not to (there were lanes with faster people) and she just took off swimming. I was in her way quickly and she basically grabbed my foot and swam over me. So I just got out of the pool and left. I seriously refused to go to the gym in the morning after that for like…months.
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    • admin says

      OMG!!! That’s horrible! I wouldn’t go to the gym for months afterwards too. I don’t understand behavior like that. I’m so sorry that happened to you. The pool is intimidating enough as it is. There’s no need for swimmers to be mean as well.

  9. says

    Love this post! The foot tap thing is new to me, but I’m unlikely to use it as I really, really don’t like circle-swimming and if it is in the cards, I will turn around and head to the hot tub or just go home. I really, really don’t like in-water collisions. Somewhat ironically, I once got certified as a lifeguard!

    That said, I really hoped you’d have some nugget that could explain to me why some lap swimmers are simply jerks. I went to a nearby Olympic-size outdoor pool -on a gorgeous day- at a local Y and waited at the end of the one available lane to sort things out with the person I had to share the lane with. We agreed to split the lane, but as I came back on my second length, the guy was swimming right at me in my lane! It scared me to death. When I finished that length, I was nearly in tears. I got out of the pool and went home.
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    • admin says

      Oh Arah! That is scary and has happened to me before too. I don’t know what some lap swimmers are jerks. I don’t know if it’s like a hazing thing but it almost feels like that sometimes. I would much rather spend a few minutes explaining some of the rules to someone, especially if it’s clear that they are a new swimmer than make them feel like they aren’t welcome in the pool. The pool is a great place and swimmers are a fun bunch. Maybe people feel like they take on an alternate personality once they don a cap and goggles?

      • says

        I love the alternate personality bit. Swimmers are a lot more naked, but still wearing a type of mask! Funny. I’ll be spending a bit more time in the pool, this month, as a nurse a sore foot. Maybe I’ll get more comfortable? Or at least, make some new friends!
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  10. says

    Interesting. I’m a fairly new swimmer, just started last winter. At my gym, there is no lane sharing (although I’ve seen walkers do it as they chit chat)… so all of this is quite foreign to me. We sign up in advance (reserve) our lanes and that’s that. Our lane is ours for 20 or 40 minutes. No open swim. I can’t imagine sharing a lane… I’ve found the swimmers at my gym to be quite an unfriendly bunch & it kinda put me off from swimming. In fact, after my first tri was done, I don’t think I ever got back in the water again. Hoping to do so this winter though…
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    • admin says

      I want to join your gym! I’d LOVE to be able to reserve a lane. I do hope that you get back in the water this winter. It’s interesting to hear everyone’s perception of swimmers and yes, I agree, we can be an intimidating bunch for sure. But I think that it’s the same when you walk into any new activity – it can be intimidating being the newbie.

  11. Renee says

    I have been a swimmer for most of my life and I have to say I never knew you could split a lane with another swimmer and swim in a circle?! Wouldn’t that make it hard for others to join your lane? The rest of these are spot on. Also if you are using equipment (hand paddles, kickboards or leg bouies) my gym asks you to use a different lane than the lap swimmers since you will be stopping more to swap equipment.
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    • admin says

      Thanks Renee for pointing that out – I guess I wasn’t clear in what I wrote. I meant splitting the lane and basically staying on your side of the lane swimming up and down. Does that make sense? Swim up with the lane line on your right and swim down with the lane line on your left. My pool doesn’t typically ask people to use different lanes if they’re using equipment since most people are doing sets but that’s an interesting idea.

      • says

        Yes that makes sense how I was all confused like how does that work! I had never seen them ask to switch lanes either but I think the people who were using them were slowing down the lane so the lifeguard thought it would clear out some congestion and complains :) Great Post!
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  12. says

    I had a plan to write a pool-etiquette post at some point. I’m too shy to share my lane with anyone but hubs, but I was shocked when I started doing my research, and learned about the foot-tapping thing. I would have been super creeped if someone tapped my foot while swimming! (Because I wouldn’t have known what it meant!) Thankfully, it’s never happened before, and now I know what it means.
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  13. says

    Great post Christine! I have some questions. First, what happens when you want to join a lane where swimmers have decided to split the lane and not circle swim? I’ve had a situation where the swimmers were reluctant to start circle swimming (even though pool rules prohibited splitting lanes and required circle swimming). How do you deal with that? Second, how do you handle a situation where, you’ve picked a lane (not the fast lane) and no one else is swimming in that lane. Someone joins you and starts swimming much faster than you and is tapping your feet to pass you multiple times, causing you to have to stop and wait for them to pass more than once. This happened to me and I was annoyed because: 1.) I was here first, darn it! and 2.) It threw off my pace. At the same time, I didn’t really feel I could ask her to leave.
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    • says

      Those are great questions.

      With regard to the split lanes, I usually sit at the edge of the pool with my feet/toes in the water so that see me and then make sure to ask both swimmers if they mind circle swimming. I try to ask nicely and even say sorry sometimes and may point out that there are no other open lanes. I have had people be reluctant to do it but end up doing it. They may be huffy but everyone has a right to swim during lap swim times (and I’m assuming that you’re not jumping into their lane when there are other lanes free). You have every right to ask to join their lane.

      As for the second situation, that’s kind of rude of the other swimmer. You can’t ask her to leave but could you have split the lane in this instance? If I’m the faster swimmer and I find that I’m always catching up, I do stop and try to make sure there’s a decent distance between me and the other swimmer, even waiting until they are almost back at the wall where I’m waiting before taking off again so that I’m ahead of them. At the same time, when I’m the slower swimmer, I try to be super aware. If I know that someone is catching up to me or will catch up to me after I turn at the wall, I will stop at the wall and let them pass. If the pace levels are totally different in my lane, I also try to watch and see when someone else leaves another lane and I will switch to it.

      Neither case is ideal. It’s hard when we’re all thrown into a pool together and we all have different experience/pace levels but we are sharing a small space together. I think that the thing that bothers me most in the pool is when people are just disrespectful of others in the pool and assume that they have the right of way regardless (not saying that you are doing this at all).

      Not sure if that’s entirely helpful?
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