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What is the difference between long course and short course swimming?

Sports

What is the difference between long course and short course swimming?

25m vs 50m swimming
File Photo Credit: John Yeong/SSC

By Malcolm Baey

Short Course vs Long Course

The term “25-metre” and “50-metre” refers to the length of the swimming pool. The width depends on the number of lanes. Olympic-sized swimming pools have 10 lanes, each with a width of 2.5 metres making them a total width of 25 metres.

25-metre pools are typically called short courses and 50-metres pools are called long courses.

Competitions that are Long Course and Short Course

FINA or Fédération Internationale de Natation is the International Federation recognized by the International Olympic Committee for administering international competition in aquatics. The Olympic games, FINA World Aquatics Championships and SEA Games are held in 50-metre pools.

However during even years, the FINA World Swimming Championships or “Short Course Worlds” are held in 25-metre pools. 

Why are some swimmers better at short or long course?

Here are some differences between the short and long course:

  • Short courses have an extra turn
  • There is an increased speed after each turn
  • There is a period of inactivity after each turn
  • The period of inactivity lowers the heart rate of the swimmer

Both the 25-metre and 50-metre pools are used for training by professional swimmers all over the world but the same swimmer will always be able to get a faster time in a short course rather than a long course. The main reason for this is because the short course has an extra turn for the same distance in the long course.

An illustrated example

What do I mean by this? Picture a swimmer who is swimming 50-metres in a long course pool. He dives into the water and powers himself through to the end of the wall. Now this same swimmer who swims the same length of “50 metres” in a 25m short course pool can make a tumble turn and “push-off the wall” at the end of 25 metres. After which he swims another 25 metres to complete the distance.

In this example, it effectively means he swims the same length but has the added bonus of pushing off the wall halfway though the short course pool. This is why the same swimmer will always be able to get a faster time in a short course rather than long course pool.

This extra turn is highly beneficial to swimmers who have good execution of technique. Their technique alone can be the difference between a gold or silver medal.

How the pools affect different types of swimmers

Besides the turn itself, competitive swimmers often have a strong streamlined underwater kick after pushing off the wall to maximise the ratio of effort to distance. A swimmer who has more strength in strokes will lose out to a swimmer with better turns and streamlined underwater kicks if racing in a short course pool.

Another key difference caused by the extra turn is the swimmer having to turn and glide longer in a short course as compared to a long course. The time used in turning and gliding requires less effort compared to stroking. This creates an opportunity for the upper body muscles to enter a short recovery state. This short recovery state increases lactate clearance and decreases lactate production from the muscles, thus helping the swimmer swim faster.