Masters Swimming Basics & Etiquette

masters swimThe first time I heard this quote, “To be the best triathlete you can be, you have to swim with the best swimmers, ride with the best cyclists, and run with the best runners”, it was from a guest speaker at a SB Tri Club meeting some eight years ago. At the time is sounded self-evident, yet as I looked around the room I realized that very few people were actually doing that. I saw this quote again just the other day and had to think the same thing, why aren’t more people challenging themselves by working out with better athletes?

I think this is particularly true when it comes to improving your swimming, so we polled people on our website to see where they were swimming; swimming with a Masters Swim group was near the bottom. I dug deeper and asked people why and they came up with the usual answers, it costs too much or they’re already paying for a club, it’s too far away, they like swimming with their friends, and that they were intimidated by them. I can agree with most of these reasons, but I want to try and dispel the myth that swimming with a Masters group should be intimidating. Hopefully by answering the following questions you’ll see that Masters swimmers are just like the rest of us, pulling on their swimsuits one leg at a time, and that the benefits of a structured, coached workout should be obvious.

I’ll start with the basics, so veteran Masters swimmers might want to scroll down to some of the etiquette issues as a reminder.

Question: Aren’t the Masters Swim groups only for the faster swimmers?

Answer: No, masters swimming is open to anyone post-high school, from beginners to past Olympians. The swimmers are separated into lanes based on their lane base (more on that in a second), from the very fast down to the people that started out never having swam much beyond a couple hundred meters.

Q: What does lane base mean and how do I determine mine?

A: Lane base is a time in minutes:seconds, i.e., 1:30, 2:00, used to define the pace of the sets for each lane. A 2:00 lane base (LB) means that for a set of 100’s (meters or yards), you swim 100m and whatever time under the 2:00 LB you finish, is your rest time before you start the next 100. For example, in the 2:00 LB, if you swim 100m in 1:45 you get 15 seconds rest, while if you swim it in 1:55 you only get 5 seconds rest.

Typically athletes swim in a lane where they can do a set of 5×100 (five times 100 meters/yards) and get 5-10 seconds rest, so they can complete the set. If you can’t do that then you should swim down in a slower lane. You can determine your LB by doing a set of 5×100 on a time base that you think allows you that kind of rest. If you’re getting 15-20 seconds rest then you should try using a 10 second faster LB, and if you’re getting less than 5 seconds rest then you should try one that is 10 seconds slower.

Q: How do I know which lane to swim in?

A: When you come on deck talk to the coach and find out what the lane bases are for the different lanes. Hopefully you’ll have an idea of what your LB is and you can start from there. Note, if your LB is based on yards, add about 10% to that if you’re moving to a meters pool. The 50m pool here in Santa Barbara has seven lanes and the lane bases are: 1:25, 1:30, 1:40, 1:50, 2:00, 2:15 and 2:30+.

Q: Do I have to swim the “other” strokes, i.e. fly, back, and breast stroke?

A: Triathletes are typically adverse to do these other strokes, referred to as IM strokes for Individual Medley, a 200 or 400m event where you swim one of each of the four different strokes. We don’t swim IM strokes to race, so why bother learning them? Well adding a little diversity to your training never hurt, but no, in most cases IM nights or IM sets can be “avoided” and you can swim mostly freestyle.

Q: How many meters do they swim each day?

A: This of course varies on your LB, faster swimmers able to squeeze in more meters in each hour, but a typical set, including warm up, some drills (including kicking, something triathletes always complain about!), the main set (1500-2400m) and cool down, adds up to 2500-4000 meters. That sounds like a lot to most non-masters swimmers, but swimming about two miles, 2-3 times a week really helps your endurance for the longer distance triathlons.

Q: How do I know where I should be swimming within the lane?

A: Let me diverge here for a moment and explain something about the people that swim masters. Many of us have been swimming at the same pools with the same people if not for many years, but possibly multiple decades. This may seem intimidating to a newbie, but realize that swimming is something you can do your entire life so we get people that have been doing it since they were young adults, who come and go at the pool as their lives evolve. People start out by moving up the lanes in speed and then eventually back down as time moves on and our fitness drops. So appreciate that most of the people in the lane know each other, know how fast they all swim, who likes to lead, who likes to follow, etc., so you just have to be patient and find your place in the lane, which may take more than one or two swims to figure out.

So, having said that, where should you start in a lane? At the back! Without knowing anything about the people in the lane, you should never presume that you’re a faster swimmer than anyone else. Start at the back, and as it becomes obvious to you and the person in front of you that you’re faster, you can work your way up in the lane until you find a spot where you’re not catching the person in front of you or getting caught by the person behind you.

Q: How do I move up in a lane?

A: I’ve seen this answered by saying you should touch the person’s feet in front of you if you catch them, but I think this is the worst way to do it. Start first by asking them at the wall when you’re stopped if you can move in front, and they’ll usually say sure, as no one likes a faster swimmer crowding them from behind. If there’s a large gap in front of them during a long set, you can stop before reaching the wall and jump across, giving them plenty of room, that’s also okay.

Q: How much time should I give the person in front of me, 5 seconds or 10 seconds?

A: This is an ongoing issue in any pool, especially when they get crowded. In a perfect scenario the answer is 10 seconds, so that you’re not drafting the person in front and getting any advantage and so you’re working just as hard as everyone else.

When the lane gets crowded (more than 4 people in a 25 yard pool and 7 people in a 50 meter pool), this gets complicated during longer sets of 200-400 meters, when the lead swimmers can start catching the slower swimmers in the lane. Under these conditions the first couple of swimmers should still wait 10 seconds and then the rest can go 5 seconds apart. Realize that at 5 seconds intervals people can easily catch up to the person if front, so try and pace yourself and not get too close.

The reality is though that most people like to go 5 seconds back to stay in touch with the person in front of them, to get a slight draft, and to save some energy. Realize that not everyone is in the pool to improve and get faster, some are just out for a nice workout, and they know how to go 5 seconds behind without interfering with the person in front of them, especially not crowding them as they come to the wall to do a flip turn. Nothing is more annoying than flipping off the wall and having the next person right in your face, so don’t do that!

And to anyone that says that drafting is legal in triathlons during the swim, so that’s why they only give 5 seconds (or less!), to practice drafting, save that for your open water swims. You’re swimming in a pool, you’re not racing a triathlon, and no awards will be given at the end of the set.

Q: Can I wear my flippers or use my paddles and pull buoys when I get tired?

A: This is typically what many people do when they can’t make the lane base during a set; grab a pull buoy and/or their paddles. I would like to see this trend reversed, so that if you’re tired and you can’t make the set, either move back in the lane so you’re not holding up other swimmers, or sit out 100m to get some rest and try to get back into the set. If you think about what you do as a cyclist or runner, when the group you’re in picks up the pace and you can’t hang with them, you just fall back and continue on your own, sometimes getting dropped. So why do we do anything different in the pool?

The problem is that people begin to use their “toys” as a crutch, eventually reaching for them whenever they “think” that the set is going to be too hard to finish without them, versus actually just trying to swim the set as designed. Are we not in the pool to become better swimmers? Yes, and swimming aids are great tools for helping us do that, but they should be using sparingly as called out by the coaches, and not relied on to make the sets.

Q: So can I use my flippers to swim in the pool or not?

A: Sorry to tell all you “flipper people” out there, but I say no. US Masters Swimming does not have a rule against this and most coaches might frown on their use, but they usually rely on the individuals and their lane mates to work this out. The thing is I have never understood is why these seemingly normal people think it’s’ okay for them to swim with flippers, a.k.a. cheaters, during the whole set, while everyone else is working hard to swim it?

The bottom line is, if you can’t swim the set on the lane base in your lane without swimming aids, you need to move down a lane and try swimming there without them.

One final word on triathletes versus swimmers; when you step onto the pool deck you’re a swimmer, not a triathlete. As such you should refrain from complaining about how tired you are from your lunch/morning/last night’s workout. Some swimmers swim 5-7 days a week, working just as hard as triathletes, so we’re not special; suck it up and swim!

If you can figure out where you should be swimming in the pool, and work hard and honestly to become a better swimmer, with the help of the Masters coach on deck, I promise you that your swimming will improve compared to doing your own thing during open swims or with your friends. The structure of the sets, swimming with people at your ability and just beyond, will help you to stay focused, swim harder longer, and drop your times during your races.

You might also find yourself a new group of friends to hang out with, join them for a drink and some food after wards, as you and they share the enjoyment of swimming, a lifetime sport.

3 thoughts on “Masters Swimming Basics & Etiquette

  1. Fred,

    This is good stuff, keep it coming. This was a very informative post– I’ve been swimming masters fairly regularly for more than 2 years now and everyone assumes that you arrive on deck knowing all of this, definitely not always the case.

    I mentioned on Wednesday some ideas about posts – I’m sure you have a list but a couple came to mind on rides this week:

    Idea One: “Replacements”:

    Tires. We often let them go to long without replacing. This means a higher likelihood of flats and frankly if it happens to someone else in the group on the hard ride coming up the coast at mile 50 I’m happy for the break while it’s fixed. Still, if we all replaced tires when we should it would keep the pace line moving better. More importantly (and cross my fingers, I’ve never seen this), replacing tires seems like an important safety issue. On Monday I planned a holiday ride up OSM. My front tire was probably okay but I’ve been watching it, a couple nick or two. I had a new tire ready to go but wanted to get going, then thought for a second, do I really want to fly down OSM with a front tire I am not 110% sure of? Any tips on when to replace?

    Idea Two: Pace Lines.

    I think I mentioned that Kyle disciplined all of us last week into a 30 second per rotation pace line starting at the lake and coming all the way home. With 6 of us, we ended up going almost a 0.5 miles an hour faster that I usually do around the lake AND did not feel nearly as whipped as usual. I think the pace line, (1) puts you at the head for as much time but not for as long so you don’t get as fatigued; and (2) forces you to sit back at the end of the pace line, No. 5 or No. 6 is a much easier ride than No. 2, even if you are not the one pushing the pace. Why don’t triathletes do a better job with pace lines? Seems like everyone likens a ride to a race, where there’s no pacing but is that really the right approach?

    Another ride tomorrow, I may have more thoughts. Thanks for all the time you put into this, it’s great.


  2. Well said Fred, straight forward and I think you hit all the points. I feel adequately rebuked on a few points and I appreciate it. Thankfully I haven’t used my paddles lately. I do have a preference for Joe’s bubbles but that’s because I get a good draft, so I need to refrain on that one. Lastly, since all my swims are a part of a double for the day, I will arrive as a swimmer to swim the best I can and any other workout will go unmentioned. You are a great Coach Fred. Everything you say always goes straight to my head and heart! Thank you for taking the time to share all the important details!

    • Rest assured that when I wrote this piece I knew that some of my lane mates and fellow swimmers would think that I was taking shots at them, but that is not the case. I have in the past been guilty of all the things I called triathletes out for EXCEPT swimming the whole set with flippers. I’m proud to say that generally whatever lane I swim in is Flipper Free! For the other tri geek call outs, if you think about why we’re swimming, to become better swimmers and athletes, then I think they make sense and to not take them personally. Thanks for the comment!

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