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For many adult-onset triathletes, swimming is the most challenging discipline of triathlon. Swimming does not come as easily as running or biking, can be fear inducing, and can also be intimidating when you first start pool swimming. Working with a coach is the best way to make improvements as a swimmer. However, to become more comfortable in the pool and make swimming more enjoyable, it is helpful to understand the different markings of a pool.


There are two distances for competitive swimming pools; short course and long course. The standard short course pool is 25 yards (or 25 meters) long and has 6-10 lanes. Short course pools are most commonly found in public swimming locations and high schools. Long course pools are 50 meters long with 8-10 lanes and normally found on college campuses and higher-end swimming facilities. Although the length of pools vary, the markings in and around the pool do not. Lane lines, backstroke flags, swimming lines, and turn targets are the four symbols that can help you in your training.

Lane lines are the small plastic buoys connected to each other by a wire cable that separate each lane. In both short and long course pools, the floats will change color at approximately 15 feet from the wall, alerting you that the wall is getting near This is particularly helpful for breast stroke and butterfly since your head is consistently coming above the water line in these strokes. If you know how many strokes it takes to get to the wall from 15 feet out then you can keep your head down and focus on your stroke instead of looking up to make sure you don’t hit the wall.

Likewise, backstroke flags are positioned above the water 15 feet from the wall so that you don’t need to look behind your shoulder as you approach the wall. If you know how many strokes it takes to get to the wall from 15 feet out, then you can count the number of strokes at 15 feet out, allowing yourself to stay more streamlined and focused.

But unless you are planning to swim backstroke, breast stroke, or butterfly in your next triathlon, then you will be spending much of your time looking at the swimming line (or black line) on the bottom of your lane. If you are sharing the lane with another swimmer, then this lane can be used to divide equally. If you are planning to join a lane that already has a swimmer, please don’t just jump in and start swimming. Sit down on your butt and dangle both legs in the lane, off to the side near the rope. If they don’t acknowledge you, then get all the way into the water and stand in the corner of the lane. Only start once they notice you.


And if you are sharing the lane with multiple swimmers, then you can swim in a rotating, counter clockwise pattern. Essentially keeping to the right of black line. Enter the pool in the same way and if you feel another swimmer tap your foot while swimming, it is a sign that they want to poss. Simply pull into the corner of the lane when you reach the wall and let them pass.


If you are lucky enough to have the lane by yourself, then you can use the black line to help you swim in a straight line and even to work on improving your stroke. For example, if you have a tendency to cross over your body with your arm, then make sure your hand enters the water and pulls back without crossing the black line. And if you have a tendency to not swim in a straight line in open water, then you can work on that by starting above the black line, closing your eyes, and taking 5-6 strokes before opening your eyes again. Each time working to stay on top of that black line.


Turn Targets and the “T” at the end of each black line are meant to help you gauge the distance to the end of the pool during freestyle. Each “T” stops about 5 feet from the wall, alerting you to take 1-2 more strokes before beginning your turn. And Turn Targets are especially helpful in doing flip turns as they provide a mark for your feet as you initiate your flip turn.


Knowing how to use the markings in and around the pool (plus following polite, pool etiquette) can make swimming an enjoyable and help you improve as a swimmer.

Coach Jim Rowe is a Playtri Level 3 and USAT Level 1 Coach. He coaches age group athletes of all ability levels from first time finishers to IRONMAN World Championship qualifiers. Learn more about Jim at

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