Vocabulary for Swimming Workouts


Are you struggling to make sense of the workout posted for your lane on the first day with the Masters swim club or wondering what your child’s coach meant when he asked you to work the bullpen at the next swim meet? Competitive swimming has a language of its own that can be confusing to the novice swimmer or budding fan. During swim workouts, coaches use terminology to refer to training for that day as well as events at an upcoming meet, so even if you don't plan to compete, it's helpful to understand the basic terms.

Your coach cares about splits and the recorded time of each length or lap, in addition to your overall time in a swimming event.
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Competitive swimming events consist of four strokes, or styles, of swimming: freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly. Each has its own pull, meaning how you use your arms to move through the water, as well as its own kick, meaning how the legs are used in any given stroke. For each stroke, there are specific starts, or how you enter the water.

The levels at which swimmers compete are determined by age and achievement. Most children begin with age group swimming, where practice groups are determined by ability and age. Later, these children move on to senior swimming, which usually happens in high school and college unless the swimmer has the talent to move on to elite swimming, in which athletes compete to represent their country in international competitions, including the Olympics. Masters swimming is for adults, and the U.S. Masters Swimming website notes that its nearly 60,000 members have opportunities to compete.

During practice, swimmers break down workout sets by length, from one end of the pool to the other, by lap, which equals two lengths, or by distances divisible by 25 yards or meters. When a swimmer gets to the wall, he does a turn.

Meets, or competitions, are made up of events -- individual races of specific strokes and distances. Distances are broken down by yards or meters. A competitor can swim the fly, back, breast and free, the shortened stroke terms most swimmers and coaches use, consecutively in events known as the individual medley, or IM. When the stokes are swum consecutively as a relay, the event is known as the medley relay.

Rather than sitting with family, and so they are together and ready when it is time for their heat in a given event, swimmers usually wait in a designated staging area called the bullpen. A heat is a single group of swimmers who compete at the same time during an event. There can be several heats of any given event, and each swimmer is assigned to a heat based on his seed time, or record personal best time. In some competitions, you must meet a minimum time standard to qualify or make the cut in order to to participate in an event, USA Swimming explains.

When swimmers enter the water at the beginning of a race, it's called a start; if a swimmer moves or falls into the water before the race officially begins, it's known as a false start. A swimmer's error can result in a disqualification, or DQ.

Swimming pools are either short course -- 25 yards or meters -- or long course -- 50 meters -- and they are divided into lanes, separated by lane ropes. Backstroke flags hang over each end of the pool at set marks so swimmers know when they are getting close to the wall. Pace clocks and stopwatches are used for timing events, taking splits -- the times for each leg of a competition -- and to let a swimmer know during a workout when it's time to start swimming another set. Kickboards work only the legs, and pull buoys keep the legs afloat while a swimmer works her arms.

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