How to Share a Lane

I swim in a pool where I often have my own lane. It is a great thing. There are pools where you almost always have to share a lane, maybe with several people circle-swimming; there are pools where there are no lanes, which is another kind of experience altogether. My pool is relatively easy: at times when we have two people in a lane, we usually split it down the middle.

If I walk onto the deck and the pool is empty, I always get in lane 3; my reasoning is that in any race where I’m the only swimmer, I’m the first seed. In a six-lane pool, that’s lane 3. If there is someone in 3, I take another open middle lane—2, 4, or 5. Lane 6 is my last choice; it’s against the wall.

I have recently given up on trying to swim in lane 1. Not long ago I asked to swim with someone else when lane 1 was open; she said, “That lane is open,” pointing at it. I explained to her that I can’t swim in lane 1: on one end, steps and a rail stick out into the water; on the other, the wall has no cross, so it’s hard to figure out when to flip turn. If I swim in lane 1, I mangle myself either running into the rail on the near side or misjudging the turn on the far side. The other swimmer looked unimpressed. She said she would swim in lane 1. So I got lane 2, and she got lane 1, and I thought it was a good deal. She wasn’t doing flip turns or swimming fast enough to accidentally hit the rail anyway.

On the other hand, just last week, I got in to share a lane with my friend K (who counts laps infallibly) instead of swimming alone in lane 1, and he didn’t say a darn thing. I appreciated that. He’s good at sharing a lane. It’s true that when K and I hit each other, it’s like a Mack truck hitting a Mini–and I’m the Mini. But we both know what we’re doing, and we don’t hit each other much. I’d rather take my chances with him than spend the workout negotiating the obstacle course in lane 1.

If I walk onto the deck and all the lanes have someone in them, I have to start making decisions. There are several factors to consider when deciding which person you should ask to share: size, speed, relationship, competency. Ideally I want a small person about the same speed as me, swimming straight. Practically I just want someone who will stay out of my way as I do my best to stay out of hers.

On Thursday, there was only one lane that didn’t have two people in it, so I asked the man in that lane if we could share. He said yes. He warned me that he wasn’t wearing his glasses. Our problem, though, had nothing to do with his eyesight; it was that we swam at very different speeds. It’s hard to share a lane if the two swimmers are not going similar speeds; one of you is going to be trying to pass the other one all the time. I was passing this guy every other lap.

Here’s how you pass someone: as fast and as smoothly as you can. You don’t want to be swimming side by side for long. If the slower person slows down and the faster person speeds up, the process is easier on everyone.

Not long ago I was sharing with a friend who is a little slower than me, but not by much. And I was swimming slowly–I was not feeling well and I was doing a long warm-up–while he was swimming fast doing sprints. Ordinarily, it’s good to share with a person about the same speed as you. But if one of you is swimming a long distance steadily and the other is swimming short sprints with rests in between, you will be out of sync. You’ll keep leapfrogging each other.

The first time he came up behind me to pass, I slowed down so that it would be easier, like a good lane-sharing swimmer should. But I was not happy; I don’t like letting others pass me, and I knew I could take him. He stopped at the wall, and I caught up and was ahead after the turn. And then he started coming up behind me again. I said to myself, “I give up,” and kicked it into gear. I couldn’t let him pass me twice, not even when I was sick, not even when I was warming up. That was not good lane-sharing behavior. But as I’ve said before, I was trained in my swim team years to never let a boy pass me without a race, and it’s hard to overcome that kind of conditioning.

The man I shared with on Thursday was very nice about sharing, and I was too; I passed him quickly and carefully, and he didn’t fight me. We got on well. When he got out, he told me it was an honor to swim with me. I hope I see him around again.

Besides courteous passing, another piece of lane etiquette is to swim straight and stay to your side of the lane. Backstroke is trouble because you can’t see where you’re going. Breaststroke and butterfly are trouble because you are wider in the lane. Once I was swimming breaststroke while sharing a lane with the university president; in my desire to avoid kicking him, I stayed close to my lane rope and ended up kicking a woman in the next lane. It would have been better to avoid breaststroke altogether.

Butterfly is even worse than breaststroke: it is both wide and turbulent. You take up a lot of space, and you make a lot of waves. If I swim butterfly in the same lane as you, that means one of two things: either I hold you in high esteem and I trust you know what you are doing and I believe that our relationship can handle a few hits or I don’t care whether I hit you.

I didn’t know the man I was swimming with early on Thursday; I didn’t think he would be able to handle my swimming butterfly, and I didn’t want to hit him. So I was waiting till he got out to start swimming IMs. Unfortunately, as soon as he left, the Man in the Black Suit joined me. I like the Man in the Black Suit, and I didn’t want to hit him either, so I waited some more. I waited a long time. Meanwhile the two guys in the lane next to us were entering into their second hour of aquatic line dancing (or whatever they were doing). I was running out of time. I decided the Man in the Black Suit would forgive a few IMs.

I did one 100 IM, and mercifully the line dancers got out.

I said, out loud, “Thank goodness!” The Man in the Black Suit said back, “Thank goodness!” He grabbed the free lane. I swam IMs as fast as I could for the rest of my workout. We remain friendly.

Sometimes the most important skill in sharing a lane is figuring out how to get out of it.

There are lots of guides to lane-sharing etiquette online; they tend to pop up around New Year’s, as pools get busy with New Year’s resolution athletes. Busy Pool? Lap Swim Etiquette for Sharing Lanes from is written for new swimmers. Don’t Be a Fool at the Pool is an oldie but a goodie.

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