Here's How Much Circle-Swimming in Competition is Slowing You Down

Here’s How Much Circle-Swimming in Competition is Slowing You Down

For just about every competitive swimmer on the planet, circle swimming is as omnipresent as the smell of chlorine.

Each day we head down to the local aquatic center, hop in the water with our teammates, and swim around that black line in a circle for hours, weeks, and months on end.

During my own age group days, swim practices were almost exclusively circle swimming—there were too many swimmers and too few lanes to accommodate swimming straight up and down the pool.

Only at the rare early morning workout, when a few teammates had forgotten to set an alarm, did I get the rare chance to swim straight in training.

Combing through dusty old VHS tapes and looking at my old races there is a subtle circle pattern that revealed itself in my longer races.

The drifting to the side.

Angling back towards the black T when approaching the wall.

And the decidedly sideways turns.

How much time that cost me was always a mystery.

I accepted that it could be substantial given the frustration on my coach’s face when I walked over following such a race—

“You could have gone so much faster,” he’d say.

Just how much, I wasn’t sure.

But, as it turns out…

It was likely a lot.

How much does circle swimming cost you in competition? put together a neat-o circle swimming calculator that breaks down how much time you are losing by not swimming straight in competition.

This calculator, like most conversion tools online for swimmers, is a general guide.

Each swimmer and each race is different. And sometimes those circles are lane rope-hugging, while other times you are simply riding the edges of the black line.

But it’s always fun to see examples, even if it’s just to give ourselves a reminder to swim straight on race day.

The below times are based on circle swimming in this shape:

Circle Swimming in Competition

Here are a few examples that I plugged in and the “straight line” results in bold:

  • 50m freestyle (SCM): 25.00 -> 24.50
  • 200m freestyle (SCM): 1:50.00 -> 1:48.80

More turns, the more dramatic the improvement:

  • 800m freestyle (SCM): 9:00.00 -> 8:49.20
  • 1500m freestyle (SCM): 16:00.00 -> 15:40.80

As you can see, those are some big drops!

The best part is that it’s an effort-free drop in time–no extra training required. Simply be more mindful of how you are swimming in the pool.

Breaking the circle-swimming habit

Circle-swimming is great because it allows for more swimmers to train at once in a pool. But breaking the habit can be a little tricky when you don’t have the pool space.

However, there are a couple of things you can try both at practice and on race day to help keep you on the straight and narrow.

✅ Reverse circle swim.

One of the simple ways to balance out your swimming and shake yourself loose of the pull of circle swimming is to simply change the direction you are swimming in.

Alternate practices swimming clockwise with practices swimming counter-clockwise.


But effective.

Regularly changing up the circle direction will keep the muscle memory from forming too deeply into one direction.

✅ Performance cues.

Performance cues are one of my all-time favorite tools for faster swimming, and something that is free-range and awesome for swimmers looking to keep their mental game sharp under pressure.

They are also something you can use on race day to keep your head above the black line.

(I talk about the unreal power of performance cues and how to implement them into your swimming in my mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool.)

A way to straighten out your swimming would be to use a performance cue that emphasizes swimming up and down the black line–

  • “Attack the black line!”
  • “Charge the T’s!”

Performance cues are great because they will keep you focused on your own performance and also help you swim straighter.

Straighter, faster swimming and less overthinking.

All of the wins.

More Stuff Like This

Here’s a Reminder to Streamline Like a Champion Today. Another one of the basics is the streamline. Here’s an interesting study that shows you just how much faster you can go in the water by streamlining like a boss.

What Swimmers Should Remember When it Comes to Improving Technique. Swimming better and faster starts with the ultimate fundamental–proper technique. Here’s what swimmers need to know about getting their technical game tight.

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Olivier Poirier-Leroy Olivier Poirier-Leroy is the founder of He is an author, former national level swimmer, two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and swim coach.

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