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Welcome to Swim Team

Here’s an email that I received from a Masters swimmer… and my reply. Although the reply is addressed to an adult swimmer, the same information would apply to age-group swimmers who are new to swim team.

I have been swimming for many years, but have only recently joined a Masters team. I am clueless about the pace clock, and all the swimmer lingo about sets and sendoffs. I’m also not sure about the etiquette. I’m used to swimming by myself in a lane, and now there are sometimes 5 of us. Help! — Anita

Dear Anita,
You’re not alone. Joining a team is a big step for most swimmers, and the experience can be a bit daunting, especially if you’re used to swimming laps at your own pace, in your own lane. Here are some guidelines to help you understand the pace clock, and what your coach is asking you to do. At the end, you’ll find some tips on lane etiquette that should help you fit in, no matter how many people are in your lane.

PACE CLOCK 101
Most pools have two pace clocks … one at each end of the pool … and they should be synchronized so that you can get your time at each end of the pool. The pace clock is like a big stopwatch, except that it runs continuously. It’s used to time your swims, to time your rest intervals, and to keep you separated from the other swimmers in your lane.

A pace clock has two hands: a black hand that sweeps the dial every hour; and a red hand that sweeps the dial every 60 seconds. The face of the clock is divided into 60 seconds, marked as 5, 10, 15, and so on.

Your coach might give you a set to do (we’ll explain "set" later), and say "We’ll go on the top" or "We’ll go on the 60." This means that the first person in the lane will push off and start the set when the red hand is on the 60. If coach says "We’ll go on the bottom," the first person will push off on the 30. Unless coach says otherwise, the next person in the lane should push off 5 seconds after the first swimmer, and so on, until everyone in the lane has pushed off 5 seconds apart. Sometimes coach will say "We’ll go 10 seconds apart," which means everyone is separated by 10 seconds. In the etiquette section we’ll explain what happens if you catch up with the person in front of you, or if you get caught.

If you are the first swimmer in your lane, it’s easy to get your time when you finish a swim, especially if you pushed off on the 60… on the top. Let’s say you swam a 50 free, you left on the top, and you swam it in 45 seconds. The red hand will be on the 45 when you finish your swim. If you are not the first person in the lane, you have to do some arithmetic to get your time. Let’s say you swam a 50 free, you left on the 5 (because you are the second swimmer in the lane), and you swam just as fast as the first person in the lane. The red hand will be on the 50 when you finish your swim. To get your time, you must subtract 5 seconds from the finish time on the clock. If you were the third swimmer in the lane, you would have to subtract 10 seconds from the finish time on the clock to get your TRUE time. Your math skills will definitely improve as a Masters swimmer!

When you swim 25s and 50s, it’s relatively easy to get your time. When you swim 100s, 200s, and more, it becomes a bit more complicated to get your time, because you may not be sure how many times that red hand has swept the dial before you finish, and it’s sometimes hard to read the black hand, the minute hand. In time, you’ll just KNOW that you swim your 100s in about X number of minutes and X seconds. You’ll just KNOW that you swim your 200s in XX minutes and X seconds. Start with the assumption that your time for a 100 will be about twice your time for a 50, and so on.

You should try to get your time at the end of each swim. This will help you know whether you are swimming at a consistent pace. If your times are getting slower, you may need to take more rest between swims, or you may need to focus more on your technique. If your times are getting faster, that’s good!

SETS AND SENDOFFS
If your coach gives you something to do, such as ten 50s freestyle, this is called a "set," and each of the 50s is called a "repeat." Coach might say something like, "ten 50s freestyle on a 1-minute sendoff or interval." On the chalkboard, the set would look like this:

10 X 50 free on 1:00

This means that every minute, you will push off and swim 50 yards or meters of freestyle. If you finish the 50 in 45 seconds, you’ll get 15 seconds rest. If you finish in 55 seconds, you will get 5 seconds rest. If you finish in 65 seconds, you will have "missed the sendoff" and you are probably in a lane of swimmers that are a lot faster than you. In this case you can tough it out, and swim the ten 50s as a continuous swim with no rest (not really advisable), or you can ask coach to move you to a slower lane where the sendoff might be 1:15 or even 1:30. Another solution would be to skip a 50 whenever you miss your sendoff. Just rest until the next 50 begins.

If you are on a large team, with swimmers of varying ability and speed, your coach will have divided you into lanes according to your speed (usually for freestyle). On a large team, coach might assign the above set by saying "10 X 50 free on 1:00 for lane 1 [the fastest lane], 1:15 for lane 2, 1:30 for lane 3, and 2:00 for lane 4." If you are in lane 2 and you know that your usual time for a 50 free is 1:15, you will have trouble making the set. It will be a continuous swim for you. If this is the case, you should ask coach if you can switch to a lane with a slower sendoff, one that will give you adequate rest between 50s. "Adequate" is relative. Speedy swimmers often feel that 5 seconds is adequate rest between repeats. Less speedy swimmers will feel that 5 seconds is far from adequate. Typically, slower swimmers will need 10 to 20, or even 30, seconds rest between repeats. Get the rest that you need to accomplish the set your coach has assigned.

Another way that coach might assign the above set is to write

10 X 50 free on :15 RI

Here, RI stands for Rest Interval. Coach is saying that, no matter how fast or slow you swim each 50, you should take 15 seconds rest between each 50. To do this, you need to glance at the clock when you finish each 50, calculate your time, and push off 15 seconds later. Coach might also tell you to take 5 deep breaths or "bobs" between each 50 as your rest interval.

Sometimes a set will be composed of "rounds." Here’s an example of a set that coach might write on the board:

5 Rounds of :
1 X 100
2 X 75
3 X 50
4 X 25

Round #1: freestyle
Round #2: backstroke
Round #3: breaststroke
Rounds 4 + 5: freestyle

This means you will swim one 100, two 75s, three 50s, and four 25s freestyle. That’s round #1. Round #2 is all backstroke, and so on. OK, coach, but what are the sendoffs? "Everything is on a 30-second base per 25," coach might say. Or "a 35-second base or 40-second base, depending on which lane you are in."  If it’s a 30-second base, this means that the 100 is on a 2-minute sendoff (30 seconds X four 25s), the 75s are on a 1:30 sendoff, the 50s are on a 1-minute sendoff, and the 25s are on a 30-second sendoff. If you are in a slower lane and coach says to go on a 40-second base per 25, your 100 will be on a 3:40 sendoff, etc. It can all be a little confusing at first, and simple addition seems like calculus when your heart is pumping overtime, but you’ll get the hang of it. The real fun begins when coach asks you to count your strokes per lap on top of all this!

Coach might also ask you to do a "descend set." On the chalkboard, you might see

6 X 50 freestyle on 1:00, descend 1 to 3 and 4 to 6.

This means that you should swim at an easy pace on the first 50, then swim faster on the second 50, and swim faster still on the third 50. Go back to an easy pace on the fourth 50, get faster on the fifth, and faster still on the sixth.

Coach might also ask you to do a "build set." On the chalkboard, it would be

6 X 50 freestyle on 1:00, build

This means that you start each 50 at an easy pace, and then build speed until you are going FAST near the end of each 50.

There’s more swimming lingo to learn, and different coaches and teams have slightly different ways of saying the same thing, but this should give you the basics. Now on to the etiquette.

LANE ETIQUETTE
Whenever you share a lane with someone, there are certain rules of etiquette that you need to follow. Lane etiquette is important to keep good friends from knocking each other’s goggles off, bashing their heads together, and twisting their arms off at the shoulder socket. Lane etiquette helps practice run more smoothly. It helps you swim better, and it makes coach happy. Here are ten rules of the road:

#1. Circle Swim. In most pools, this means swimming on the right-hand side of the lane. If you swim down the middle, you can bonk someone’s head… or injure your shoulder… or mess up someone’s concentration.

#2. Just before you reach the wall, if there’s room, you can move to the center of the lane to do your turn, but make sure you push off along the right-hand side of the lane. Don’t push off in the middle of the lane.

#3. Don’t stop in the middle of a lap! If you do this, you can cause a pileup behind you. Try to keep going to the end of the lap.

#4. If someone catches up to you, don’t stop in the middle of the lap to let them pass. Swim to the end of the lap and immediately get over to the far right so they can pass. Push off after they’ve finished their pushoff.

#5. If you’re the one who wants to pass, be patient. Don’t swim over top of the person, or try to speed around them. You could injure yourself or someone coming the other way. When you want to pass, gently tap or tag the toes of the person in front. This is the sign that they should stop at the end of the lap and let you pass.

#6. Don’t tailgate! Wait 5 seconds before you push off behind someone. Then, if you catch the swimmer ahead of you, tap their feet and go ahead of them at the end of the lap. It’s annoying if you stay right at their feet and don’t signal to pass. Or, worse yet, you keep hitting their feet every time you take a stroke.

#7. No pulling on the lane lines! Fuggetaboutit. Just don’t do this, OK?

#8. Start and finish each swim at the wall. If you finish by stopping two yards from the wall, you prevent the people BEHIND you from finishing at the wall. Also, chances are good that you’ll lose a lot of races. Swim races are won and lost by hundredths of a second. Practice a strong finish, right to the wall, every time you swim, and strong, fast finishes will be automatic when you race.

#9. Be aware of the others in your lane! Let your lane-mates finish their swims at the wall! Even if you have eight people in your lane, the last person has the same rights as the first person. Everyone should be able to finish at the wall and finish strong. So get out of the way after you finish! If you’re first in the lane, make sure everyone else gets out of the way for the final swimmers.

#10. If you are leading your lane, you have responsibilities! Be a leader! That means you should have your goggles on and be ready to push off when coach says,  "Ready, GO!" It means you have to know the sendoff. You have to keep track of how many laps you’ve done. This is easy if you’re doing 25s or 50s or 100s, but you have to be more aware on those 200s, 400s, and 500s! You have to keep track of how many swims you’ve done. This can be a challenge if you’re doing, say, 20 X 25 or 10 X 50. One trick is to get your lane-mates to help. Do a group countdown. Get everyone involved in keeping track. You have to make sure everyone in your lane has a chance to finish at the wall. You need to encourage your lane-mates. Be a leader. Be aware of how others are doing. You need to set the example for speed and perfect technique, then help others along by encouraging them. You need to start the high-fives at the end of a tough set and at the end of each practice.

It may seem that life was a lot simpler when you were just swimming laps on your own, but there are HUGE advantages to practicing with a team, so it’s worth all the effort it takes to learn the lingo and master the basics. Your coach and teammates (and that darn pace clock) will push you toward being a faster, stronger, more competent swimmer. You’ll make tons of friends who will encourage you and keep you headed toward your goals. And your new math skills will astound you. Just be patient and stick with it.