Unpacking What Makes a “Fast Pool”

As swimmers, we’ve grown accustomed to talking about pools. Some pools are “meh,” while others are “slow” — and every so often, we arrive at our taper meets to race in a pool that is “fast.”

But what exactly constitutes a fast pool? Is it any different from any other pool? It’s not like the water in the pool is moving or propelling swimmers in any specific direction.

Today, we’ll take a look at what makes some of our favorite pools to race in so unique and above the rest. I’ve been fortunate enough to race in some pretty fast pools, and trust me — you can differentiate a fast pool from a slow pool quite easily.

#1: Double Lane Lines

I see this more often in short course pools, but any competition pool with double lane lines means serious business. They’ve invested double the amount of time and effort into installing extra lane lines, ensuring that the wake created by any one swimmer is less likely to affect the swimmers racing in adjacent lanes.

At larger meets, you can argue that having double lane lines also makes it easier for race winners to celebrate on the lane line. I’ve never gotten up on the lane line to celebrate, though I’ve always been fascinated by how swimmers manage to balance themselves on the lane rope.

In tandem with double lane lines is the presence of wider lanes. Though it does make it a bit harder to see where other people are during the race, it gives you more clear water, which also means that waves from someone else’s lane are less likely to disrupt your swim.

#2: A Warmup Pool

This is an absolute must. If there is no warm-up pool, then everyone is going to suffer. Having to race “cold” is a horrible experience: you can’t catch a breath, you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, and your arms and legs quickly feel like cement blocks in the water.

There may be a mental aspect to it, but without warm-up, it is truly a tough task to swim well. At least I could never manage to do well. As such, I don’t care how fast the competition pool is — if there is no warm-up pool nearby, then that negates everything.

#3: Gutters

Not just any gutters. I’m talking about gutters that will take up all the water that crashes into the wall and not let any waves spill back over into racing lanes. As competitive swimmers, I think we all know what it feels like to swim in turbulent waves because the pool either has no gutters or really bad gutters.

At certain meets, some pools will even empty out lanes 0 and 9, essentially making a huge gutter for the swimmers in lanes 1 and 8. How thoughtful!

#4: Track Starts

Who doesn’t love the sensation of taking flight, courtesy of a wedge on the starting block? The first time I used the track start on the blocks, I genuinely thought I was going to be able to touch the flags.

I didn’t, but you get the point.

It just seems so natural to have a wedge for your back foot, and it gives you a lot more momentum when you hit the water. And especially for relays: the step-over start gives you so much more speed as the swimmer in front of you comes into the wall. Just make sure you don’t miss the edge of the block when you step over the wedge — otherwise, you’ll fall into the water, right on top of your teammate…

#5: Backstroke Ledges

One of the most annoying and embarrassing mishaps as a competitive swimmer has got to be when you slip on your backstroke start. You go nowhere, and you more or less just fall into the water. At that point, there’s not a whole lot you can do to get back into the race.

A backstroke ledge, however, prevents this from happening — most of the time.

Just like the track starts, I still remember the first time I used a backstroke ledge, and since then, it has become difficult to race without one. Though I’ve been very fortunate to avoid any mishaps with backstroke ledges, I’ve seen some of my less-fortunate teammates having to deal with ledge malfunctions — which, arguably, are as disastrous as back-flopping on your start altogether.

#6: Ideal Water Temperature

No one wants to swim in a pool that’s freezing cold. Likewise, no one wants to race in a pool that is too hot.

Pools that are too cold make our muscles constrict, preventing us from achieving maximum exertion. Pools that are too hot can actually cause increased lactate buildup and quicker exhaustion, not to mention the fact that you feel like you’re melting in the water.

Olympic pools are typically kept around 77-82oF (25-28oC). Similarly, NCAA pools are kept around 79-81oF (26-27oC).

Personally, I’ve also found it convenient if the warm-up pool is a tad bit warmer than the racing pool. Especially during the winter, I absolutely hated having to warm up in a pool that was as cold or colder than the competition pool. I was so scared of the cold that I often had to have a teammate push me into the water so that I would warm up properly for my race.

But maybe that’s just me.

#7: Scoreboards

I have no idea if this is correlated at all, but every single fast pool that I’ve raced in always has a very fancy, colorfully LED-lit scoreboard. Not sure if this is just a random correlation, but thought I’d bring it up…

And speaking of fancy scoreboards, these scoreboards are often hooked up to touchpads. Fast pools usually feature touchpads — for both ends of the pool for long course, and for at least one end of the pool for short course. Not only do they allow for more precise timing, but they also seem to add cushioning for a better pushoff.

#8: Good Air Quality

Good ventilation, good air, whatever you want to call it — this is a must. We’ve all raced at venues where the air quality is so poor that just sitting on the pool deck makes your eyes sting. You see swimmers coughing during their warmup and huddling near doors that open to the outside air.

This is most definitely not the most conducive to a fast pool.

The temperature of the air on the pool deck is also a factor. It seems that hot air and poor air quality often go hand in hand. At the same time, the air can’t get too cold — in fact, NCAA pool decks cannot be more than four degrees colder than the water temperature.

When it’s all said and done, we just don’t want to have to race while coughing our lungs out. The last thing we need during the race is for the air quality to become our nemesis.

#9: Pressure

And, at last, we come to the last component. I’m talking here not about the pressure of the pool; instead, I’m referring to the pressure of the meet.

When the big meet comes around, you know everyone’s bringing their A-game. You’re racing against people who have trained all season long in pursuit of this moment — and so have you. Just knowing that the expectations are higher often leads to faster swims overall, especially because there is more at stake.

I guess that’s why it seems that during every Olympic year, swimmers around the world are dropping faster times. Everyone is shooting for their one chance every four years, and so the stakes are most definitely higher than any given year.

Final Thoughts

This list is by no means a be-all, end-all: in fact, I’ve swam in some pools that look quite run-down, and yet my teammates and I proceeded to inexplicably drop some best times.

But being able to race in a “fast” pool is always a plus. And in the same way that turf fields and polyurethane tracks are constantly being designed to promote athletic performance, I’m curious to see the next innovation in swimming pool design that will help propel athletes to the next level.

ABOUT COREY HE

Corey is a current junior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying biology and healthcare management on a pre-medicine track. Originally from New Jersey, he first jumped into the water when he was 4 years old and swam competitively all the way through high school. Prior to college, he swam for Fanwood-Scotch Plains YMCA. He hopes to pursue a career in sports medicine.

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Bru Piranha
1 day ago

A good “ready room” area the swimmers can do their pre race routine before heading to the blocks.

James Beam
1 day ago

Indoor pools only for championships meets, especially run by USA Swimming (i.e. stop using Irvine for team selection meets). Too many uncontrollable variables (sun in your eyes for backstroke, wind, hot days, rain etc)…

Joel
Reply to  James Beam
1 day ago

Australia does this too for the junior team.

DrSwimPhil
Reply to  James Beam
1 day ago

Just wait till 2028 OTs….

1650 Onetrick
1 day ago

Another huge aspect is depth. It’s not really a problem with most competition pools, but if the pool is under 6 feet deep (and especially if it’s under 4 feet deep), the water gets super turbulent from the waves you generate bouncing off the floor. So it makes the pool fast if it’s deep all over (not just near the blocks, but the whole length of the pool).

Cougarswim
Reply to  1650 Onetrick
1 day ago

Absolutely agree here. I remember scratching my back while turning in a 3’ depth shallow end.

SwimmingPagani
2 days ago

Hear me out- I think huge overflow gutters are super fast. If anyone has ever swam at Cleveland State their gutters are massive. I don’t understand why super high levels meets use touchpads that go 2 feet above the water. I feel like it defeats the point of the flow through gutter and sends your wave crashing back at you. Does anyone have an explanation?

RealSlimThomas
Reply to  SwimmingPagani
2 days ago

I think you have a stronger finish when the touch pads are high like you have described. When they are sitting in the gutter, you have to touch the pad slightly lower than you might want to so you ensure a good reading.

FloatingProcess
Reply to  RealSlimThomas
1 day ago

That’s how they are in international competitions. Watch the Olympics. No gutter to grab on breast and fly turns.

FloatingProcess
Reply to  RealSlimThomas
1 day ago

That’s how they are in international competitions. Watch the Olympics. No gutter to grab on breast and fly turns.

Mark Rauterkus
2 days ago

Depth is missing, as that is a big factor.
Water clarity counts too. As does water chemistry, but that’s a bit harder to “see” — unless there are people who need to be admitted to the hospital with breathing troubles. (Sadly, its known to happen.)

Scott Bonney
Reply to  Mark Rauterkus
2 days ago

Depth is important, just ask anyone who swam in the old pool at the Naval Academy where the whole pool was extremely deep for scuba training purposes for the midshipman.

RealSlimThomas
Reply to  Scott Bonney
2 days ago

Likewise, too shallow is a massive issue. It creates the same problem as no/bad gutters.

joannietheswimmer
2 days ago

Depth of pool is very important also.

There's no doubt that he's tightening up
Reply to  joannietheswimmer
1 day ago

Approved by Vyatchanin

Coach N
2 days ago

Floor jets > wall jets

Mark Rauterkus
Reply to  Coach N
2 days ago

A lack of current(s) in the pool.

Samuel Huntington
2 days ago

Double lane lines – do any major LCM meets use these?