Log in

Coached Swimming 101

If you haven't joined a coached swim session before, you are likely unfamiliar with the pool etiquette and specialized vocabulary we use. If you swam in college or with any other Masters program, you'll likely feel quickly at home.

What happens at Swim?

  • Masters Swim session with GGTC are coached, meaning that we all swim a workout plan under the direction of a coach. You cannot swim your own plan - if you join us for a coached session, you must join us for the coached set. 
  • Which swim lane you swim on is determined by speed - to make swimming a more pleasant experience for everyone, we try to put swimmers of equal speed on the same lane. Speed is determined by "base pace" (see the dictionary below for a definition of base pace). Our coach will call out the base pace and tell you which lane to go into. If you don't know your base pace, we'll talk to you and will recommend base pace to start with.
  • Then, our coach will tell you a swim set, divided up into "Warmup", "Main Set", and "Cooldown". Please see the dictionary below for definitions.

Pool Etiquette

Circle swimming vs. splitting the lane

Before you get in a lane with someone, they will ask if you want to “circle swim” or “split the lane.” Splitting the lane means each swimmer picks one side of the lane to swim on and sticks to that side. That means the closest lane line will be on your right side in one direction and the same lane line will be on your left side going the other direction.

Circle swimming means every person swims in a circle within the lane - the lane line will always be to your right. If there are more than two people in a lane, you will need to circle swim. Common etiquette is to leave five seconds behind the swimmer in front of you when circle swimming.

The benefit to splitting a lane is each swimmer is completely independent of the other - swimmers with different paces and workouts can easily share one lane. When circle swimming, especially if there are more than three swimmers in the lane, try to touch the wall and then move left to give swimmers behind you room to finish at the wall.

Where to stop at the wall

If you need extra time at the wall (if you miss an interval, get a cramp, or simply need a break) - try to move over to the left side of the lane so that swimmers behind you can still turn on the wall without hitting you. If there are multiple people stopped at the wall, move to the sides and leave the middle (the cross on the wall) open.

If someone is stopped on the wall at an unexpected time, you do not need to stop. If you’re worried about them, of course feel free to stop and ask if they are okay, but it is normal to continue your workout without them.

Overtaking a swimmer

When passing a swimmer, it’s common courtesy to first tap them lightly on the toes, then move to the middle of the lane and pass them on the left.

Likewise, if someone taps you on the toes or begins to swim next to you, it’s common courtesy to stay to the right and let them pass you.

What to do if you miss an interval

If you miss an interval, that is okay! It happens to even the fastest swimmers. Sometimes intervals are designed to be tight. If you miss the interval by a few seconds, it’s probably best to just touch the wall and jump right into the next part of the set. If you are missing all of the intervals in a set, it might be best to re-evaluate your base interval and move lanes. If you’re somewhere in between, say you are making most of the intervals but you miss the hard ones, you will have to make a judgement call. If you’re almost done with the set, just keep going. If you are mid-set and the lead swimmer in the lane is coming into the wall, stop and let them flip-turn, and jump in whenever there is a break in swimmers.

Swim Lingo Dictionary

Base Pace

In swimming, “base” is the 100yd interval you can hold comfortably at a 70% effort for the duration of your swim. In other words, you should be able to swim between 8 and 10 100yd intervals at your base pace without getting tired. It should be fairly easy -- the equivalent of a comfortable jog. At GGTC, each lane at our swim session will swim one base pace. A faster lane might swim at a base pace of 1m20s, a slower lane at 2m0s. All intervals are usually given relative to base pace: If the swim plan asks for 200yd at "base minus 5", the faster 1m20s lane in our example would have 2m30s to finish the set, while the slower 2m0s lane would have 3m50s.


This is the first part of your practice. It will typically include some free swim and some specific sets to get your body and mind ready for the main set. This may include kicking, pulling, speed work, and/or stroke work.

Main set

This is the primary focus of the practice. You want to pay attention to what the coach says and try to match your effort to the set. For example, if you are supposed to descend 5x100s, do not go as fast as you can for the first one. If you are supposed to give a hard effort with lots of rest, don’t take advantage of the longer interval and swim slowly.

Cool down

Cool down is essential for recovery. Lactic acid will build up in your muscles during the main set, and the cool down helps reduce the amount of lactic acid by decreasing your heart rate and circulation. Even just a 200 easy at the end of a workout will help reduce muscle soreness and fatigue, and help you recover more quickly.

"On the top" / "On the bottom"

  • “On the top” means you should leave the wall and start swimming when the second hand is at the top of the clock or on a digital clock reads :00
  • “On the bottom” refers to the second hand being at the bottom of the clock or on a digital clock reads :30

Laps vs lengths

For all intents and purposes, laps and lengths are synonymous in swimming. Yes it’s stupid, no it doesn't make any sense. Most people just say “laps.”

"10x100s on the 1:45, leave on the top"

  • 1x100 means one rep of 100 yards. Typical pools are 25 yards, so 1x100 is four laps.
  • 10x100s means you do 4 laps 10 times.
  • The interval is 1:45 which means you get 1 minute and 45 seconds to do each 100.
  • The first one is “on the top” so you leave at :00. The second one is 1:45 later, so you leave on the :45, and so on, until you’ve done 10.

How to convert yards to laps/tips and tricks of lap counting

Sets will typically be given to you in yards. One lap is usually 25 yards, so to know how many laps you need to swim, divide the given yards by 25. Once you have been swimming for a while, it’s easier to remember that a 100 is 4 laps, a 200 is 8 laps, a 500 is 20 laps, etc.

Alternatively, you can skip converting and simply count as you go by 25. For example, on the first lap you can think in your head “this is a 25” and then after you turn you think “this is the 50” and so on.


Kicking is when you ONLY use your legs to propel yourself through the water. Some people use a kickboard and kick on their stomach with their head out of the water. Some people kick on their back with their arms above their heads in a streamline position.

There are multiple types of kicking including flutter kick, dolphin kick, and breastroke kick. For beginners, it is best to stick with flutter kick, also called scissor kick. This is the type of kick used in freestyle and backstroke, so you probably already know how to do it!


Pulling is when you ONLY use your arms to propel yourself through the water. To keep your legs afloat without kicking, you use a pull buoy.

Pulling is great for increasing strength and getting a better feel for the water.

To further increase the benefits of pulling, you can use paddles on your hands in conjunction with a pull buoy.


Sculling is a drill that involves using your hands and arms to make small, horizontal movements in the water to maintain balance and control. It helps with body position and lets swimmers isolate specific parts of the catch to work on. It is pretty slow, so don’t worry if you feel like you’re not moving very quickly!


IM stands for Individual Medley, meaning one person swims all four strokes. It is also used colloquially to mean “any stroke other than free” or “let’s add some non-free to this set.”

Threshold pace

Threshold pace or base pace is a comfortable pace you can hold for a long time. It is not “easy” but you should not be out of breath. You should be able to do 10x100s on your base interval without much effort but without getting too much (over :10) rest.

With much love from Aimee Dewante, Bryan Steele, and Felix Rieseberg

Golden Gate Triathlon Club is a 501(c)7 non-profit organization.

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software