How to Count Swimming Laps

January 22, 2024

How to Count Swimming Laps
Table of Contents

For many of us, the biggest challenge of our daily swim is keeping track of how many laps we have done. Here, you’ll find six tricks to help you count laps.

At most swim meets there are lap counters for the distance events. Typically this means someone (a fellow swimmer) will stand at the far end of your lane with a stack of numbered, plastic cards. Every time you turn at that wall, your lap counter will hold the cards underwater to show you how many laps are left in the race. Believe it or not, no matter how well-meaning your best-friend/lap-counter is, they sometimes mess up. They flip two cards, instead of one. They are talking to the person they have a crush on and forget to flip the card. They are counting for two lanes and get confused. If they mess up, no matter why they messed up, you are the one responsible for finishing the race.


Amazingly True Story

 At one California high school meet where there were no lap counters, nearly an entire heat of the girls’ 500 freestyle lost track of how many laps they had raced. Everyone in the heat except for the girl in last place assumed the girl in first place was keeping the right count. While everyone else was hanging on the wall thinking they were done with the race, the girl in last place—who knew exactly how many lengths of the pool she still needed to race—flip-turned. By the time the others in the heat figured out what was going on, the girl who had been in last place was nearly 25-yards ahead of everyone else. She finished the race in first place. Always count your own laps. Even if you have a lap counter.


The most important rule of lap counting is this: never depend on anyone else in the pool to keep track of where you are. Yes, if you lose count, you will find it helpful occasionally to have marked your progress against the others. (As in, “That guy lapped me once.”) But don’t count on the person in the next lane to keep better track than you. Everyone spaces out.

Here are six ways you can count your own laps.


Just Count, Count, Count, Count…

As you swim, count your laps and think of nothing else! Repeat the lap number as your mantra. “This is lap four, this is lap four, this is lap four….” At the next wall change the mantra just a bit: “Five, five, five, five.” The challenge with this strategy is that you can actually zone out after a few lengths and forget to change the number in your mantra. You may eventually find yourself on lap 9 still saying, “This is lap seven, this is lap seven…”



Keep Your Brain Intrigued

Counting each and every lap is tedious and boring, particularly if you are swimming a lot of freestyle. Keep your mind interested, and it will keep better track for you. One way to make it a little more challenging for your brain is to count only your odd laps. You probably tend to mark progress at the wall you started on. Try giving the opposite wall significance by counting odd laps.



Play Mind Games

You will also find that counting is easier and more entertaining if you play mind games. For example, if you swim in a short-course pool, think of the distance in terms of money: one length (25 yards/meters) is a quarter, 4 laps (100 yards/meters) is a dollar. As you go through your workout, track how much money you have “collected” (swum) and how much more you can “make” if you finish the swim. If this is too complex, though, you will stop thinking about stroke technique, and you may even make it harder to figure out where you are!



Celebrate the “Halfway” Mark


Hot Tip: Race Plan

In a 400 meter long-course race, there are no lap counters. What should you do to keep track? Have a good race plan and stick to it. That way you will always know exactly where you are in the race. Here’s what a 400 Freestyle race plan might look like: 1st 100 - easy speed; 2nd 100 – steady; 3rd 100 – build; 4th 100 – all out. Make a plan and follow it as best you can. You’ll never again wonder, “Is this the last lap of the race?”


If your goal is to swim 400 yards of freestyle, do a little mental celebration when you get to the halfway point. As you are doing your turn after 200 yards, tell yourself, “Whoo-hoo, I made it halfway, and if I did it once, I can do it again!” Then start counting over at zero again. It’s easier to count smaller pieces, and if you lose track of the count, you can probably just count back to when you did that celebration. Plus, a mental fresh start can help you feel physically fresh.




Switch It Up

If you are just swimming a long ways in the pool, and want to keep track of how far you’ve gone but don’t care what stroke you swim, you can use different strokes, drills, and kicking to mark regular milestones in the swim. Maybe you kick two lengths after every 200 meters of freestyle. Maybe every 4th lap is backstroke. Then all you have to do is count the number of times you kick a 50 or swim backstroke.



Count “Sets”

Let’s face it: it’s just as easy to lose count of your backstroke laps as it is to lose track of the freestyle ones! You can get around that problem by using some other rotating pattern of “special” or “different” laps. Swim every 4th lap backstroke, then breastroke, then flutter kick, then dolphin kick. Then, start over at backstroke again. If you followed that pattern you would know that every time you finished dolphin kicking, you would have swum 16 lengths of the pool.

Again, you can use odd numbers to your advantage. Swim four lengths freestyle and kick one length. Repeat. Every time you start freestyle again from the wall where you began your workout, you will have completed 10 lengths of the pool.

If you are counting sets instead of laps, not only will you have an easier time keeping track of where you are in your workout, but you will also have an easier time remembering it 20 minutes later when you are out of the shower and scribbling furiously in your training log.



Count Your Own Laps

No matter what strategy you use to count laps, always remember the number one rule of lap counting: take responsibility for counting your own laps. Experiment with these tricks and you will likely come up with some tricks of your own. If you can figure out how to keep track of how far you are swimming without having to constantly think about it, you will be able to turn your attention to improving your technique. And that will make you a better swimmer. 

Want to find out what tricks other members use to count their laps? Check out the discussion below, and let us know what works for you!


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