Competitive Swimming: Knowing the Race Rules is Critical

In competitive swimming there are 4 official strokes. These are front crawl or front stroke (often called freestyle or just free), backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly (or just fly). Races can include any of these strokes, from as little a distance as 25 meters (m), to hundreds of meters.

In addition, there is something called individual medley (IM), which is all 4 strokes combined in the order of fly, back, breast, free. Obviously IM has to be a minimum of 100 m since each stroke is a minimum of 25 m. However, it can be more than 100 m e.g. it can be 400 m IM: 100 m of each stroke. Sometimes you may even see a race which is called reverse IM. Again, this is all 4 strokes but in the reverse order: free, breast, back, and fly.

Some races can also be relays, either of a single stroke or an IM relay. For example, in 100 IM each swimmer will to 25 m in the order explained above.

The 3 kicks used are; the flutter kick which is for free and back, the whip kick which is for breast stroke, and the dolphin kick which is for fly. Free and back are non-symmetrical strokes. Breast and fly are symmetrical strokes, meaning both sides of the body are identical during the stroke.

Turns: for free and back flip turns are usually used. If done correctly this is the fastest way to turn around. In back if the swimmer turns around too soon for the flip turn they will be disqualified. For breast and fly the swimmer must touch the wall with both hands at the same time, then turn around and push off the wall with both feet.

Competition Rules

For more rules, or more information, refer to your local club or governing body.

All strokes:

  • There is no walking, or touching the floor, or pulling on the lane ropes permitted.
  • A swimmer is not allowed to start prior to the gun. Depending on the meet there may be one or none false starts permitted.
  • The competing stroke must be performed throughout. Swimmer can not switch strokes at all e.g. doing a dolphin kick while swimming breaststroke.


  • Touching on a flip turn with both feet.
  • If a flip turn is not used then both hands must touch the wall.
  • Must surface within 15 meters after diving or pushing off the wall.


  • Touching on a flip turn with both feet.
  • One arm pull is allowed before rolling over to do a flip turn. This arm pull is not used for propulsion but rather just for balance.
  • Must surface within 15 meters after diving or pushing off the wall.
  • Must be on back when pushing off the wall after a turn.


  • Must touch with both hands at the same time on a turn.
  • Must be totally symmetrical, including the kick, throughout.
  • Must use whip kick only, no dolphin kick at all.
  • Must surface head with each stroke.


  • Must touch with both hands at the same time on a turn.
  • Must be totally symmetrical, including the kick, throughout.
  • Must use dolphin kick only.
  • Must surface head every second stroke.
  • Must surface within 15 meters after diving or pushing off the wall.


  • Backstroke flags: these are the flags that are placed overhead at each poolend, 5 meters from the wall, so swimmers can judge the wall by counting number of strokes.
  • Build: getting faster within a set or a swim.
  • Catch phase: the early part of the stroke where propulsion begins.
  • Count cycle: number of strokes it takes to complete a certain distance, usually one length.
  • Dolphin kick: the kick used in butterfly.
  • DQ: Disqualified based on a rule infraction.
  • Drill: swimming only parts of a stroke used to improve some element of the entire stroke.
  • Elementary backstroke: not an official stroked. But used quite often during cool down.
  • Heat: when there are too many swimmers to all go at once then they are divided into heats.
  • Long course: using a 50 meter pool.
  • Negative split: a pacing mechanism where the second half of the race is swam faster than the first half.
  • Pacing: finding a comfortable speed and maintaining it. More important for longer distances.
  • Personal best: the fastest time that the swimmer has ever performed for a particular event/stroke/distance.
  • Propulsion phase: this is the part of the stroke that causes the swimmer to increase there speed. It is the part that the arms/hands are pushing the water towards the feet.
  • Pullbouy: foam that a swimmer places between their knees to keep the legs afloat. While using this there is no kicking therefore the arms do more work. Can really only be used for free and back.
  • Recovery phase: this is the part of the stroke where there is no propulsion. The swimmer is moving forward based on momentum. It is the section where the arms and legs are returning to the starting point.
  • Short course: using a 25 meter pool.
  • Split times: the times of individual sections of a race.
  • Starts: dive starts are used for free, breast, and fly. Back is started in the water.
  • Streamlining: the body position of least resistance as the swimmer is moving through the water.
  • Time trials: used to achieve qualifying times. Not part of an official meet.
  • Whip kick: the kick used in breaststroke.
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1 Comment

  1. The freestyle flip turn rules you list, point 2, is wrong. Only one hand must touch the wall in an open turn.

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