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Triathlon Tips: The Pool Swim

The Pool Swim

If the though of a pool swim in a triathlon seems scary or daunting, here are a few words that might help you feel better about it.

Getting A Good Seed

When you register for a pool swim race, you are likely to be asked for your expected swim time.   The reason they ask for your expected swim time is to “seed” you in the proper position.

Each athlete begins the swim in series, one after the other. Otherwise, a mass start would be total chaos (funny to watch, but very unfair for the athletes).  Now, imagine if athletes were assigned starting times randomly.  The fastest swimmer could end up behind ten slow swimmers.  That’s not fair to any of the athletes with all the passing and narrow lanes.  The most fair solution is to provide as much free water as possible for each athlete and the only way to do that is to start with the fastest swimmers and proceed all the way to the slowest swimmers.

Here’s the catch:  You have to read the registration instructions carefully, because some races ask you for your 100 yard time and others will ask you for your 250 yard time (or whatever distance they expect you to swim).   It’s not uncommon to see a novice starting up front with the speedsters because he didn’t enter a good estimate.   That’s very intimidating to the novice and an obstacle to the speedy athletes coming after.

Because pool swims are short (around 250 to 350 yards/meters), it should be pretty easy to estimate whatever time they want at a practice session several weeks ahead of the race.  It’s even easier to estimate if they only want your 100 yard/meter time.

Go With The Flow

The general pattern of swimming in a pool for a triathlon is to “snake” back and forth down the lanes until you get out.  For a short swim, each lane may be restricted to one direction.  Once you reach the wall after your first length, you turn around and move over to the next lane and swim until you reach the next wall and repeat the process.

single directional swim lanes

On shorter races, each lane can be used to swim in a single direction.

On longer pool swims, the lanes become bidirectional which can get somewhat crowded.  The same rules apply, but the lane changing only occurs on one end of the pool.

bidirectional swim lanes

Some races split the lanes so athletes go both directions between the lane dividers.


As with any sport, competition can get ugly.  On the other hand, athletes can be quite courteous and even considerate to each other. Unless you are Michael Phelps, you will likely be sharing the pool lanes with other athletes.  This means you may have to pass or be passed.  Even the best seed time estimates are just estimates.  It is generally accepted that if you feel an athlete swimming on your feet, you should stop at the pool wall and allow the faster athlete to pass. You may lose 2 seconds.  No big deal.

If you’re in the other position, and the person in front of you won’t pull over, you can take a chance on passing if you have the swim strength to do so.

Speed Tips

Here are two really simple things I do that I believe make me a faster swimmer.  The key word here is “believe”

  1. Wear a swim cap.  Anyone with long hair is likely to do this anyway, but I do it because I don’t like my ears flapping in the water.  Does it make me go faster?  Who knows? Who cares?  It looks faster.  That’s what counts when I’m standing around the pool trying to impress my wife!

  2. Don’t use the ladder to get out of the pool.  This one has been a time saver for me.  Often, I’m able to climb out of the pool edge faster than other swimmers who use the ladders.

One Last Bit Of Advice

If a pool swim triathlon seems a bit scary or daunting, consider training with a masters swim group and competing in a masters swim meet at least once before your triathlon.  This sounds like overkill, but the benefits are tremendous for your confidence and swim performance.

See you at the races

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