Masters Swimming 101 – An Introduction/Primer to Masters Swimming

If you’ve found this story online then presumably you have heard something about Masters Swimming, but maybe you really don’t know what it means to be a master’s swimmer. The easiest way to look at it is that anyone that is a swimmer and has graduated from high school is a master’s swimmer, or in simple terms anyone ages 18 and older.

In the United States the sports federation that runs all the official masters’ programs in the country is U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS), founded in 1970. It is a nonprofit membership national governing body for masters swimming, an organized program of swimming for adults. Where you live there might be a Local Masters Swim Club (LMSC), which are listed on the USMS website, where you can join and swim with their program.

Now you may be asking yourself, is swimming with a master’s swim group something that I can do, or is appropriate for me and the type of swimmer I am? In a masters swimming group, you will find people of all ages, who swim for many different reasons, with one common thread, they can swim laps in a pool “to some degree.” Whenever you see air quotes around a statement you have to wonder what that means, which I’ll cover next.

A master’s swimmer can be:

  • An ex-age group, high school, or college level swimmer who is training for competitive swim events, in pools, open water, or in a triathlon
  • Non-age group swimmers or adults that didn’t learn to swim as children and have never swum competitively, who also may want to compete in the above-mentioned events
  • Fitness level swimmers, i.e., those that just like to come to a pool and swim to stay in shape, encouraged by swimming with other like-minded swimmers, with the help of a coach
  • Any kind of swimmer who wants to learn how to swim better, or faster, or to learn all the different types of swim strokes (freestyle, butterfly, breast stroke, back stroke)

You see there’s a common thread here, which answers the question of what “to some degree” means; people that join a master’s program already know how to swim. Meaning they can get in a pool and swim laps back and forth without stopping, while being able to breathe with their heads down in the water, using one kind of swim stroke or the other. How many laps they can swim non-stop, how fast they are, and how efficient they are in the water is another debate, so suffice it to say someone that wants to join a master’s swim program needs to be able to swim laps in a pool at some speed.

In the master’s pool itself the swimmers swim in a lane based on their swimming speed. For someone that is swimming during “open lap” times at a pool, where the lanes are marked as Slow, Medium, Fast, Very Fast, or Kicking, a masters pool works just like that, except that the lanes are marked by time, called the Lane Base or LB.

In the Glossary of Terms below I refer to LB as follows:

  • 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.

Confused by that and the nomenclature? Most people are, but within a few trips to the pool, working with the on-deck coach and the people in your lane, you will become familiar with what LB means, what your LB is, and over time how to navigate within each lane itself.

For example, I swim in a seven-lane pool and in the past the lane bases were as follows: 1:25, 1:30, 1:35, 1:40, 1:50, 2:00, 2:15 (or 2:00+). The times between the fastest lanes changes by 5 seconds/100, while in the slower lanes it changes by 10 seconds. A person who has never timed themselves over a 100 yards or meters in a pool will likely begin in the 2:00+ lane, in the back of the lane, and then see from there if they’re faster than the people in front of them in the lane and move in front of them over time. Or if they’re too fast for everyone in the lane they can potentially move “up” (to a faster lane, moving “down” is to a slower lane), in this case the 2:00 lane.

Still confused? Not to worry, it makes sense when you’re there in person, and again, the coaches and people in the lane, many who have been swimming together for years and literally decades, will help. People in a lane over time bond, we know the other swimmers’ habits, weaknesses, and strengths, and we know that the sets in a pool (the instructions given out by the coaches), work better when everyone in the lane works as a unit, with a good and communicative lane leader, and swimmers that follow the basic rules.

To help with the basic rules I’ve included Pool Etiquette, Do’s and Don’ts below. They are in no particular order but they do spell out that swimming with a master’s program is structured, by days in the week, by upcoming events on the swimming calendar, and by the parts of the sets given each day. A typical set will have a Warm-Up period (with some kicking and drilling to work on technique), a Main Set (focusing on distance, threshold work, sprinting, technique, or other strokes, depending on the day of the week), and then when time allows, a Cool Down.

People that come to a master’s program that have never swam with any kind of purpose can find this daunting, exhausting even. Over time, with the encouragement and coaching from the coaches, and from your lane mates, you will learn how to work your way through a whole set and not feel exhausted or frustrated, and hopefully over time your swimming efficiency and speed will increase.

If you’ve read through all of this and are still not sure if you would be able to either keep up in a lane, or whether you think you swim well enough to even belong in the lane, then consider taking a beginner’s swim class or get a private lesson from a coach or swim instructor to help guide your decision. Even if you think you could make it in the masters group, but would like some help beforehand, some masters programs offer beginner clinics and in some pools they have lanes set aside specifically for new swimmers to start in before jumping in a lane with other people, which if you’ve never circle swum in a lane, or swam with 3-10+ people in a lane, you have to get with the program pretty quickly or you’ll find yourself not enjoying the process.

For anyone that really doesn’t think they swimming is good enough, USMS also has a Adult-Learn-to-Swim program that might be available in your area, or in a nearby town. This is typically a 1-2 day class where people are taken though the steps of learning to swim, or it may be a more advanced program that includes time in the masters pool, possibly in separate lanes, to work on getting you familiar with their program. Be advised that most, if not all, ALTS programs include people that don’t know how to swim at all, some that are afraid of the water, some that are fearful, most that have never had any kind of formal swim coaching or training. Check with the local group hosting these events to see if you, someone that can “kind of swim” is suited for this class or if they have any other suggestions.

I would suggest searching for you LMSC online and then I would call or email them asking for more information on how they would suggest if you, with whatever swimming skills you have, are suitable for their program, and do they work with people of all levels, and then decide how to proceed.

Fred Maggiore

USMS Level 2 Swim Coach (Level 3 soon…)

USMS ALTS Certified Swim Instructor

YMCA Certified Swim Instructor

YMCA Certified Lifeguard

P.S. Helpful Links

Masters Swimming 101 – Pool Etiquette, Do’s and Don’ts

The following is a simple list, in no particular order, of the Do’s and Don’ts on how to join in a master’s group swim workout, what the protocols are for swimming in a large group of swimmers, general pool rules for the safety and wellbeing of everyone in the pool, and how to make the best use of your time in each workout.


  • Introduce yourself to the Coach on deck if you are new to the pool
  • Swim in a lane where you can make the intervals
    • The slowest person in the lane should be able to make the interval with some rest
  • Enter the water feet first This is mandatory for all Masters swimmers
  • Dive only from the starting blocks, when instructed by your coach
  • Circle swim, staying always to the right of the lane, only moving toward the center when ready to turn at the wall
  • Leave the pool if unable to continue swimming, or step out of the way of incoming swimmers
  • Scoot to the corner of the lane while standing or holding onto the wall
  • Tap a swimmer’s toes in front of you, indicating that you wish to pass at the next turn or ask them at the next break in the set if you can go ahead
  • Allow 10 seconds between swimmers, 5 seconds when the pool is crowded
  • Listen to the coach while the set in being given, and clarify any misunderstandings with the coach and not other swimmers in the lane if you are confused
  • Learn the names of the swimmers in your lane
  • Learn to read the pace clock, know both your time and the interval
  • Stay on the interval and help others stay on the interval
  • Count your laps and stop at the appropriate number
  • Get the right order in your lane (Fastest to slowest)
  • Turn at the wall in the middle of the lane (Like the shape of the tip of a giant football)
  • If you about to get lapped, stop at the next wall and let others pass you
  • Be aware of where others are in the lane, anticipate when they’ll catch you and pull over
  • Finish swims to the wall and move to the left to allow others to finish to the wall
  • If unable to do a particular skill, do a drill or swim that is about the same speed
  • If you are leading a set, make sure your lane mates are aware of when you intend to leave
  • If you need a breather in the middle of a set, please be mindful of your lane mates and allow them adequate space to do flip turns.  Do not crowd the wall


  • Dive into the pool
  • Use the starting blocks independently without a coach’s instruction
  • Swim down the middle of a lane
  • Remain stationary in the lane, except at the wall
  • Stand or hold onto the wall in the middle of the lane
  • Grab another swimmer
  • Push off the wall immediately before or after another swimmer – no tailgating
  • Do your own thing in a lane where your lane mates are following a prescribed set or workout
  • Change the interval without conferring with lane-mates
  • “Borrow” your lane mate’s fins/kickboard/pull buoy without asking
  • Try not to kick or swing your arms over the center of your lane or into another lane, especially if using paddles

Additional Tips

  • Encourage others in practice
  • Count strokes when asked
  • Descend swims when asked
  • Negative split swims when asked
  • Even split swims when not given special instructions
  • Start, turn, & finish with legal push offs and touches
  • Finish fast swims with strong legs and limited breathing
  • Finish all swims with an underwater touch

Masters Swimming 101 – Glossary of Terms

The following is a list of the most common terms used during a master’s swim workout. Some are common sense and easy to understand, while others might require a bit of thinking and maybe just being in the water with the other swimmers to see how it all works out. Don’t worry if you don’t know them all or can remember each one, because just like learning how to swim, it takes time and practice.

Aerobic Longer distance, moderate intensity, short rest period swimming sets that focus on building endurance
Air KickingWhen a freestyle swimmer’s feet are coming way out of the water as they kick, making loud splashing noises, which is very inefficient
AnaerobicShorter distance, high intensity, long rest period swimming sets that focus on building power
AscendingGetting slower (i.e., the time taken increases)
Bicycle KickingKicking with bent knees and not a straighter leg with pointed toes.  Bent knee kicking is very inefficient, leading to poor drive, dropped hips, and the feeling that you are dragging your body through the water, not gliding on top of it
Bilateral BreathingBreathing on both your left and right sides, e.g., 3 strokes breathe left, 3 strokes breathe right. This promotes balance in the water, symmetry, and is useful in open water swimming to swim away from waves and chop.
BPMBeats Per Minute (Heart Rate)
BRBreaststroke sometimes also BS or Breast
BSCan be Breaststroke or Backstroke – check context!
BuildTo progressively get faster during a lap, starting out slow, building to fast
Catch-upDrill where on Freestyle one hand stays at full stretch ahead until the other comes all the way forward, it then the forward hand begins the stroke
Circle SwimCircle swimming is a way for multiple swimmers to swim laps in a single lane. The main keys to circle swimming are to stay on the right side of the lane and to be mindful of your lane mates.
Crossing OverWhere a swimmer’s hand enters the water and continues forward over the centerline of their bodies. This causes most swimmers to “drop their elbows” when they initiate the catch and pull, minimizing the amount of surface area you use in the pull stroke
DescendingGetting faster (i.e., the time taken reduces)
Dive StartDiving entry from the blocks in the deep end (usually either a grab start or a track start)
DOBISLDolphin kicking On Back In Streamline
Dolphin KickSimultaneous leg kick used in Butterfly
DPSDistance Per Stroke, maximize the distance that each arm can propel the body
DrillA controlled form of stroke designed to draw attention to a particular aspect of that stroke, e.g., Catch-Up, Drag, High Elbows, Zipper, etc.
Early Vertical ForearmA freestyle technique that focuses on getting your forearm into a vertical position during the “catch” phase of your stroke as soon as your arm enters the water
EasyUsually swim down or warm up, a slow easy stroke focusing on stretching out the stroke and warming up or down.
Even SplitSwim at the same speed on the first and second half of a repeat
FinsAlso called flippers, these are swim accessories you wear on your feet to improve your technique and performance, particularly useful during kick and drill sets
Fingertip DragDrill where on Freestyle fingertips drag through the water on the recovery, and your hand continues straight out from your shoulder
Fist DrillA freestyle drill where you form your hand into a fist to swim, reducing the surface area of the pull, so you learn to use your hand and forearm together to pull
Flip turnThe flip (somersault style) turn used for Freestyle and Backstroke
FlyThe Butterfly stroke, occasionally BF
FRFreestyle or Free (normally Freestyle, but any stroke will do as long as you can maintain speed)
FreeFreestyle – normally Freestyle, but any stroke will do as long as you can maintain speed
FreestyleAny stroke will do as long as you can maintain speed
Full Catch-UpSee Catch Up
Grab StartA type of Dive Start.  Can also refer to starting from in the pool holding onto the side
Head Down, Hips UpA common phrase to describe a freestyle swimmer’s body position while they swim. By keeping your head down and rolling to breathe, not lifting your head up to breathe, your hips stay at or near the surface of the water, offering a more streamlined position with less drag
HawabEZHAlfWay And Back EZ
High ElbowsDrill where on Freestyle you keep the elbows bent and high out of the water on the recovery
HRHeart rate
IMIndividual Medley (all four strokes together in order: Butterfly, Backstroke, Breaststroke and Freestyle)
KickLegs only (no pulling)
KickboardA flat float used for doing kick sets
KDSKick, Drill, Swim, the order in which to perform a set, e.g., 75 KDS = 25 kick, 25 drill, 25 swim
LactateLactic acid is produced in the muscles during anaerobic sets.  Swim down and stretching help disperse lactate.
Lane BaseLane 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.
LBLane Base
LB+10The time to swim a set based on your Lane Base plus 10 seconds. E.g., 4 x 100 on LB+10 means swim 4 100’s on your Lane Base plus an extra 10 seconds for each repeat in the set. Lane base “plus” sets of +5, +10, +15 are common based on the type of workout prescribed for the day.
Long CourseA 50-meter pool, think Olympic distance size
MastersName used for our category of adult swimming at Meets, for anyone 18 years and older
MedleyAll four strokes swum in a specified order, see IM
Medley OrderButterfly, Back, Breast, Free. Note, medley relay order is: Back, Breast, Fly, Free
MetersOur Long Course training pools are generally 50 meters in length
Negative SplitGo faster for the second half of the set distance than the first half
Open TurnThe two-handed touch turn completed for Breaststroke and Butterfly
PaddlesHand paddles are swim accessories we put on our hands to develop upper body strength as they work the muscles in the back, chest, arms and shoulders by providing a larger surface area to pull with
PADSSwim a set with Paddles, typically with a Pull Buoy, but also with Fins
PBPersonal Best – this is your best time to date for a particular stroke and distance, remember that long course (50m) times will be slower than short course (25m) so you will have pb’s for each
PercentagesUsually refers to the effort or pace being completed for that swim set. I.e., 80% is pretty hard but not maximum effort or sprint.
PullArms only (no kicking)
Pull BuoyThe figure eight style float that goes between your legs for pull sets
RecoveryOn Freestyle when the arm is out of the water being brought back up for the next stroke.  Can also be a recovery swim when you slow down to bring the HRT down after a high intensity set
RIRest Interval – How much rest (usually in seconds) you get after a set swim E.g., 8 x 50m FR RI 20s (20 seconds rest after each 50 meters Freestyle) – sometimes also called simply Interval
SetA self-contained part of the swimming session as ‘set’ by the coach e.g., a ‘main set’ might be 10 x 100m free
Short CourseA 25-yard pool in the United States, for the rest of the world the pools are 25 meters long
Single SwitchPrimarily a kicking drill, where you do 6-10 kicks on your side and then do a single pull stroke on one side, while the other arm is extended and remains out in front. For a more challenging drill the “other arm” is kept at your side as your kick and then do a single stroke, rolling to breathe.
SprintAll out as fast as you can go, breathing as little as you can.
SteadySwimming at a pace which is easily maintained (not easy or too hard, aiming for consistency of pace)
StreamlineUnderwater body position after diving or pushing off the wall which maximizes swim speed and efficiency
Stroke CountNumber of strokes per 25m or 50m (Freestyle and BC every 2 arm pulls – a cycle – BR and Fly every stroke) abbreviated as SC
Stroke RateNumber of strokes per minute (measured by stopwatch or calculation) abbreviated as SR
Swim DownSwimming slowly and steadily at the end of the session to warm down
SWOLFSWim gOLF – Swim Golf. Count your strokes for 50m, add it to your time for 50m, that is your total. Then try to lower that number by using less strokes, by going faster, or both
Tarzan DrillSwim freestyle with your head out of the water, looking forward as if you were sighting a buoy or landmark in open water
Third PersonAlso 3rd Person, referring to when the lane leader leaves the wall during a set, usually during the warm-up set. The leader waits for the “3rd” person to finish, instead of using a timed interval (the leader is the 1st person)
Track StartA type of Dive Start 
Triple SwitchSimilar to the Single Switch drill, but now you do three pull strokes so that you wind up switching breathing sides, focusing on rolling to breathe, while keeping your hips up by not lifting your head
Tumble turnSee Flip Turn
Underwater RecoveryA Freestyle drill where the recovery stroke is done underwater, imitating a breaststroke recovery
U/WUnderwater (usually refers to kicking, using Dolphin kick)
YardsOur Short Course training pools in the United States are 25 yards in length
Zipper DrillSimilar to the Fingertip Drag drill, where instead of dragging your fingers through the water you run your fingertips up the length of your body, from your hip to your shoulder, before extending it straight out in front of your shoulder to promote the start of a better entry into the water and catch, so you don’t “cross-over” the center line of your body

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