Types of Races in Competitive Swimming

Swimmers racing in lanes of a pool.
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People of all ages and skill levels compete in swimming, and the type of swim meet or swimming event they are entering determines the types and lengths of the races they swim. Swim meets are held in either short-course pools that are 25 yards or 25 meters long, or long-course pools that are 50 meters long. Open-water swimming events are held in lakes, rivers or oceans, and the distance of the races can vary from 500 meters or less up to 6.2 miles or longer.


Different Strokes

Competitive swimming features four strokes -- freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly. Freestyle races in swimming pools can be anywhere from 25 yards to 1,500 meters, while the other strokes are raced at 200 meters or less. The length of races is also determined by the ages of the swimmers; high school and college meets typically have just one sprint race -- the 50-yard freestyle -- while masters swim meets for those 18 years old and older feature sprint races in all four strokes.


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Doing It All

One race, called the individual medley, involves swimming all four strokes in a particular order -- butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. Individual medley, or IM, races can be from 100 yards to 400 meters. In high school and college swimming meets conducted in short-course pools, IM races are typically 200 and 400 yards. Masters meets often feature 100-yard or 100-meter races for certain age groups.


Heading for Open Water

Races held in open water follow a set course typically marked by large buoys. These are often long races of more than a mile or more, and swimmers can use whatever stroke they like. Most competitors swim freestyle, however, although many swim breaststroke for short periods to get their bearings or negotiate their way around a buoy, and some swimmers use backstroke if the water is choppy and they're having trouble breathing using freestyle.


Relays: Taking Turns

Some competitive races are relays. In short-course and long-course pools, relays involve four competitors swimming equal distances one after another in the same lane. Relays can be as short as 100 yards for young swimmers, with each relay team member swimming 25 yards, and up to 800 meters for collegiate or Olympic swimming events. There are two types of relays – the medley relay, where each swimmer swims a different stroke, and the freestyle relay. Medley relays are typically 200 or 400 yards or meters, and freestyle relays can be up to 800 meters.


Open Water Relays

Open-water relay events include teams of anywhere from two to six or more members. These events are typically point-to-point relays that start at one side of a water body and end on the other side. In these relays, each competitor swims a set length of time, with team members swimming in a set order, until they reach the finish. Each team is guided by a boat, which navigates their course and carries the swimmers who are waiting for their turn in the water.




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