How To Swim Laps & Look Like You Know What You’re Doing

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Swimming laps in a pool is the ideal cardio workout for people who hate running or using machines. It's easy on your joints, works your heart, and builds strength because the water adds extra resistance, according to the American Council on Exercise. But diving into a lap pool can be intimidating if you don't really know what you're doing, and experience-wise, most of us are somewhere between a kid with arm floaties and the CGI shark that raced Michael Phelps.
"At the end of the day it's simple: You get in, swim around, and you'll figure it out quickly," says Katie Meili, a two-time Olympic medalist and Team Speedo athlete. That said, there are a few important etiquette tips that you should keep in mind as a courtesy to other swimmers.
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The most important tip? Remember that you can do it. "I hope people aren't discouraged to go swimming because they feel like they don't know what they're doing," Meili says. "The pool is one of those most peaceful places to be." Ahead, Meili explains exactly what to do when you swim laps in a pool — and you don't have to be an Olympian (or a shark) to keep up.
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Although you might zone out when you're in the water, try to stay focused on where your body is in space, Meili says. "Sometimes people get in the water and think, I'm totally here by myself," she says. "Just like when you're on land in a crowded room, you have to be aware, not bump into people, and look around." Be cognizant of what the other people in your lane are doing, and how fast they're moving compared to your speed.
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Pool lanes will often be labeled based on the speed people should swim there, whether fast, moderate, or slow. "Know what your speed is, because sometimes people think they're faster or slower than they are," she says. If you have no clue how fast you are, just ask the lifeguard on duty what they think you should do, or pick the lane that has the least amount of people, Meili says. If you feel like you have to pass people, or you're feeling rushed by them, it's normal to move over to a different lane.
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When there are three or more people in a lane, you should circle swim, Meili says, which is like driving down and back on a two-way street. "Circle swimming just means that you literally swim in a circle around the lane," she says. You'll swim down on the right side, and then back on the other side.
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Most lap pools are divided by a black line on the bottom of the pool, Meili says. Stay on the right side, just like you would when you're driving, she says. Don't swim directly over the black line, because then other people won't be able to use the lane, she says. "Stay to the right side of the lane, close to the lane rope."
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It's important to give people space to pass you in the lane, Meili says. In general, the rule is to pass people on the lefthand side. If someone is passing you at the end of a lane, give them time to push off and start before you jump back in.
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If you need a break at any point, wait until you're at a wall to rest, Meili says. "Don't ever rest in the middle of the pool, hanging onto the rope, because you'll be in the way," she says. You don't have to completely exit the pool, but you should move into the corner or wall so you can catch your breath, and people can still turn around you, she says.
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Swimming laps is a sort of a solitary sport, but communicating with those around you can really help. "Sometimes people get in and don't talk to each other, so then people get pressured," she says. If you're swimming faster than the other person, just ask them if you can go ahead. You can say something like, "I might pass you on this, don't mind me — just keep doing what you're doing," she suggests.
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If you have to pass someone, tap their feet to let them know that you're behind them, Meili says. "That's a really good way to say, I'm literally right behind you, please move over so I can pass you." But stick to a gentle brush on the person's foot or lower leg, don't grab them or get more physical than that, Meili says.
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