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What Is A Lap In Swimming? Lap Vs Length

What is a lap in swimming

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In swimming, there is a lot of different terminologies- flip turn and tumble turn, lane rope and lane line, swimming stroke and swimming style, butterfly kick and dolphin kick, a mile and a swimmer’s mile, the list goes on… But if there is one thing swimmers from all around the world can agree on it is this-

In swimming a lap is the same as a length. By definition, a lap means a complete trip around a race track, in swimming, the pool is the race track. Therefore if you swim from one end to the other, you’ve completed the track and thus you’ve completed one lap or one length.

What is a lap in swimming? Lap Vs Length
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So to put it even more simply-  if you swim from one side of the pool to the other it counts as one lap (and a length is the same as a lap).

This is by default a universal acceptance among swimmers. You can ask any competitive swimmer, whether they are a 23-time Olympic gold medalist or a 7-year-old just starting to swim competitively, and they’ll tell you the same thing- a lap is the same as a length.

You see when we are racing, we don’t say a 50 sprint is half a lap sprint. No, a 50 sprint is one lap, and so a 100 is 2 laps, and a 200 is 4 laps, and so on.

The case of the lap counter- another confirmation.

To further confirm my point, I want to introduce you to one of my friends- it’s called a lap counter and it’s a little piece of technology used for longer pool swimming events such as the mile swim for example.Lap Counter Device Swimming

If you have ever seen one of these devices in real life, you’ll quickly notice that it’s only capable of displaying odd numbers. Why? Well, because it’s always shown to the swimmer at the opposite side of the pool, meaning the side opposite of the starting blocks- where the swimmer is finishing their odd lap or length of the race.

It helps swimmers to focus on swimming and not worrying about counting laps/lengths. So why does it only go all the way up to 69 laps? Well because there are 66 laps or lengths in the 1650-yard freestyle swim (if you’re swimming in a 25-yard pool), not 33 laps. 

This once again proves my point that a lap and a length is the same thing.

Looking for something like this lap counter to make your life easier? Consider checking out the Garmin Swim 2 on Amazon by clicking here, it’s by far the best swim watch. Or if you want something a bit more affordable consider picking up the Swimovate Poolmate watch from SwimOutlet by clicking here.

The case of Natalie Coughlin- a 12-time Olympic medalist.

When researching this topic to find some good points, that most people will understand and agree with, to confirm why a lap and a length is the same I came across a few interesting clips from the NPR podcast- How To Do Everything that does an interesting investigation of this “debate”.

And can you guess who gets involved? Well, nobody other than Natalie Coughlin, a 12-time Olympic medalist in the sport of competitive swimming.

In the clip below the father of a young swimmer calls in, in an attempt to come to find a clear answer and resolve a debate with his son about how many lengths is a lap. At first, the father is completely convinced that a lap is 2 lengths while his son (who is correct) believes that they are the same thing.

Finally, the show host talks to Natalie Coughlin to see what she says about the matter. And unsurprisingly (well to me anyway), she is very clear that a lap refers to swimming from one end of the pool the next. 

Just listen to the clip below, I’ve put all of the goods parts together for you. (You can also find a link to the full podcast by clicking here.)

Click to listen clip

One length of the pool is also referred to as a lap

-Natalie Coughlin

So where does the confusion come from?

Now that we’ve cleared that out of the way, I think it’s important to ask ourselves the question of where this confusion comes from? 

The answer is most likely going to lie in the fact that most other sports that refer to a lap use circular tracks and not a track running in a straight line from one end to the other like, of course, a swimming pool.

You see in, for example, say running you complete a lap by circling around the entire track one time, which would obviously bring you back to where you started in the first place. This seems to have caused a lot of confusion among new or non-swimmers and to have tricked them into believing that you have to return to where you started in order to complete a lap.

Which in the context of swimming, would then mean that you’d have to come back to where you started, meaning the starting blocks in order to complete a lap. This is completely wrong.

You see swimming is different. You swim in a straight “track” and not a looped or circular “track” like running. But just like in swimming, the same as running, completing a lap means to complete the “track” and as mentioned earlier in swimming, the pool itself (from one side to the other) is the track.

Unfortunately, this misconception that a lap is 2 lengths of a pool is something that many casual swimmers or triathletes believe. This causes the spark for a debate that doesn’t exist, meaning to put it simply- there is no debate, you’re wrong and that’s a fact.

You see, competitive swimmers set the standards and definitions for things like this, it is our full right and as the people responsible for swimming up to 40km or 43000 yards a week at the ages of only 13 we have complete authority to do this.

We are by far the athletes who spend the most time in the water training, pushing our limits, and perfecting our swim technique to be able to swim as fast as possible… Casual swimmers swim a few thousand yards a week and triathletes get mixed up with things (wrong things) like running and cycling and therefore try to confuse the definitions of our sport.

To put it in short- competitive swimmers are the boss here, we set the definitions, and most importantly- we decide what a lap and a length are. And if that means they are the same thing- then they are the same thing. End of story.

While we’re on the fun topic of laps, why don’t you consider checking out this article on how many laps is a good swim workout?

Conclusion.

So to conclude- as I’ve probably said about a 100 times in the post now- a lap is the same a length and swimming from one side of the pool to the other counts as a lap.

That said, competitive swimmers don’t really even talk like this, we simply refer to completing a 100 or a 1000 or whatever. 

You’ll probably never hear us running around telling everyone about how we swam a 1600 laps last week, but you might hear us talking about how we swam the most grueling 40km of our lives while being fueled by nothing other than pasta, chicken breast, and dry protein powder. 

To be honest, for the most part, we don’t care about this, but the fact of the matter isn’t that we don’t care, it’s that we are right and if you believe otherwise, you’re wrong. And that… that is a cold hard fact.

Anyway, all jokes aside, I hope this post cleared things up for you and that you’re now able to go into the world for a clear and fresh consciousness as a new and found human being.

If you’d like to read some more swimming articles, I recommend checking out my blog. For the most part, I don’t write these types of articles, my articles are more focused on informative content to help you improve your swimming. So with that said, I’ll see you there!

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About the author

Benjamin

Benjamin

I am Benjamin, a competitive swimmer with many years of experience in the sport of swimming. I am very passionate about competitive swimming and love sharing everything I have learned about the sport. I specialize in swimming butterfly and my favorite event is the 100m butterfly with the 50m and 200m fly closely following.

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