Skip to main content

Swimming: Terms to Know

New to Sports Guides: swimming hero image


The starting block; the area from which a swimmer dives into the pool to begin a race.


Latex or lycra head covering used during a race or workout to protect a swimmer's hair from the effects of chlorine; also serves to eliminate drag from a swimmer's hair.

Catch phase

The beginning part of the stroke where the arms and hands start to propel the body.


On the long whistle from the referee, swimmers step onto the starting platform or, in the case of the backstroke and medley relay races, enter the water. On the starter's command - "take your mark" - swimmers immediately take a starting position, with at least one foot at the front of the starting platform. When all swimmers are stationary, the starter gives the starting signal.

Dolphin kick

Used in the butterfly, and during underwater portions of freestyle and backstroke races, where the thrust of the kick comes from the hips, and the feet and legs are held together.


A maneuver in which one swimmer is just behind another in an adjacent lane and uses the fast-moving water generated by their opponent to overtake the competitor. A memorable example of drafting is Jason Lezak's anchor leg in the men's 4x100m freestyle relay from the 2008 Beijing Games.

Drag suit

A second, loose-fitting suit worn in workouts and warm-ups to add weight and resistance. The concept is similar to a baseball player swinging two or three bats in the on-deck circle.


Occurs during relays when one swimmer touches the wall and the next swimmer dives in. Relay exchanges are often where false starts occur, as swimmers on the blocks are looking for an edge and accidentally dive in before the previous swimmer actually touches the wall. A swimmer can leave the blocks up to .03 of a second before the previous swimmer touches the wall, but the team is disqualified if a swimmer leaves any time earlier that.

False start

Occurs when a swimmer either leaves the starting block or is moving on the block before the starter officially starts the race. Since 1998, there has been no warning false start. Any swimmer starting before the starting signal will be disqualified. If the starting signal sounds before the disqualification is declared, the race will continue and the swimmer(s) will be disqualified upon completion of the race.


The Federation Internationale de Natation is the world governing body for aquatic sports including swimming, diving, water polo, and synchronized swimming. FINA sets qualifying standards and the rules for aquatic sports at the Games.


The last race of an event and the one in which medalists are determined; typically, a final comprises the eight fastest swimmers from two preceding, semifinal races.


Backstroke flags placed five meters from the end of the pool. They enable backstrokers to execute a backstroke turn more efficiently by providing a mark by which to count their strokes.

Flat start

Refers the start of a race, where the swimmer stands still on the blocks and waits for the starter's signal, as opposed to a relay start via an exchange. A flat start is considerably slower than a relay start.

Flip turn

Used in freestyle and backstroke races, where swimmers somersault before reaching the wall and push off with their feet, never touching the wall with their hands.


Eyewear worn in the pool to protect swimmers' eyes from the effects of chlorine. In the past, swimmers used saliva or wiped a cigarette on the inside of their goggles to prevent them from fogging up mid-race. Today's goggles are fogless, fit better and even come with polarized lenses to cut down on outdoor glare; this innovation is particularly helpful to backstrokers, who used to go "sun blind" swimming outdoors.

Gravity wave

Wave action caused by the bodies moving through the water. Gravity waves move down and forward from the swimmer, bounce off the bottom of the pool and return to the surface in the form of turbulence.


The area at the edges of the pool into which water overflows during a race; the water is then re-circulated into the pool. Deep gutters catch surface waves and don't allow them to wash back into the pool and affect the race.


Abbreviated term for individual medley, an event in which the swimmer uses all four competitive strokes in the following order

butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle.

Lane lines

The dividers used to create lanes. These are made of individual finned discs that are strung on a cable and rotate when hit by a wave. The rotating discs dissipate surface-tension waves in a competitive pool.


A term used to describe a pool in which one length measures 50 meters. The Olympic Games are conducted at long-course venues.

Negative split

A race strategy in which a competitor swims the second half faster than the first.


A judge on the deck of the pool. Various judges watch the swimmers' strokes, turns and finishes. Some officials are timers.


Short for preliminaries, which describes the round of races in which competitors try to qualify for the semifinals (or final, in events without semifinals). Also called heats.

Pullout or pulldown

The beginning of a breaststroke start or turn, where a swimmer is allowed one long pull down to their waist, during which a single butterfly kick is permitted, followed by a breaststroke kick.

Raccoon eyes

Circular marks left in one's face by goggles.

Reaction time

The time it takes for a swimmer to leave the blocks after the starter gives the signal. Modern timing systems are equipped with sensors that mark the time elapsed, which is generally less than one second. In relays, reaction time for the second, third and fourth legs are measured from when the swimmer in the water touches the wall to when the next swimmer leaves the blocks.

Relay start

Refers to the second, third and fourth swimmers in a relay, where they dive in when the previous swimmer touches the wall. Relay starts are faster than flat starts, because swimmers are able to anticipate when they can dive in, and they are allowed to leave the blocks up to .03 of a second before the previous swimmer touches.

Recovery phase

The conclusion of the stroke where the hand and arms finish pulling and set up to start the next stroke cycle.


To move on the starting blocks prior to the starting signal. A roll usually is caught by the starter and called a false start, but swimmers often will try to guess the starter's cadence and get a good start. Similar to illegal procedure in football.


To withdraw from an event in a competition.


To cut down on resistance and provide a feeling of slipperiness in water, a swimmer shaves his/her entire body before big meets. The physical effects are minor, but the mental factor often is enormous.


A term used to describe a pool in which one length measures 25 meters (or 25 yards). Most college pools are short-course yards, and most events during the winter are held at short-course venues. The Olympics are held in long-course (50m) pools.


The time registered by a swimmer when he or she finishes each length of the pool. Splits can be used to show which segment of a race a swimmer covered in noteworthy time, to indicate rank order after each 50m increment, and to convey whether a swimmer is matching a notable record's pace.


Refers to short intense swims of usually not more than 100 meters.


The gradual process of resting in preparation for competition. During the middle of the swimming season, a swimmer might work out 10,000 to 15,000 meters (8 to 10 miles) each day. As a major competition draws near, the swimmer will "taper" off the distances each day. A perfectly designed taper will enable the swimmer to compete at the peak of his/her ability.


The finish of the race.


The area at the end of each lane in the pool where a swimmer's time is registered and electronically sent to the timing system, which sends the time to the scoreboard.

Track start

Position on the starting blocks where the swimmer places one foot at the front of the block and one foot farther back.


The number of times a swimmer's arms turn over (cycle) in a given distance or time during a race.


Additional swimming or activity used by a swimmer to rid the body of excess lactic acid generated during a race. Also called "cool-down."


Additional swimming or activity used by a swimmer in preparation shortly before a race.

Sports in this article


Tags in this article

New to Sports Parent SportsEngine