Swimming Lane Assignment Rules

swimming lane assignment rules

Among the many moving parts of a swim meet are the lane and heat assignments. Each swimmer is given a specific lane to swim in based on their previous fastest time. Furthermore, since there is only a certain number of lanes in a given pool, swimmers compete in groups called heats. If a swimmer does not swim in their designated heat, they are subject to disqualification, and so it’s important to understand how both lanes and heats are designated to avoid disqualification.

Preliminary Heats

When entering a swim meet, entry times are listed with the fastest swimmers first and the slowest swimmers last. If a swimmer has no submitted time, they will be considered the slowest and will complete their race in the first heat. As meets with preliminaries and finals are typically large-scale meets, there are a few ways that lanes can be assigned.

If there is only one heat, it must be swam as scheduled for the preliminaries and finals. All swimmers in the preliminaries would swim in the finals in this case. If there are two heats, the fastest swimmer would be in the second heat, the next fastest in the first heat, and so on. In the case of three heats, the fastest swimmer would be placed in the third heat, next fastest in the second, and next in the first. The rotation will be continued until all swimmers have a lane assignment.

The heat assignment changes when there are enough competitors for four or more heats. In this case, the times are placed in descending order. The last heat is the fastest heat, and the seed times in the previous heats grow slower from there. In this case, lanes will be assigned in descending order at each meet.

Any exception to these rules comes when there are two or more heats but fewer swimmers registered for the race. In this case, there must be at least three swimmers in one preliminary heat, but fewer than three swimmers may be seeded in subsequent heats due to scratches.


Swim-offs are considered to be part of the preliminary process of qualifying for the finals. This is because there is no case in which a swimmer with a faster time may displace another who placed ahead of them in a heat. If this situation results in disputed qualifications, all swimmers that have times tied shall swim-off the event to qualify or place in the final unless the swimmers, coaches, and referee mutually agree to solve the tie in a different way, such as coin toss.

For the finals, the times used for the swimmers involved must be the times achieved in their original preliminary heats. In the case of a disqualification in a swim-off, the swimmer that is disqualified is relegated to the lowest qualifying position, but they still will qualify. Disqualification in a swim-off for a qualifying position does not eliminate a swimmer from eligibility to compete in the finals, or at least as an alternate.


 In finals, the seed times are based on the times swam in the preliminary round. If any qualifying swimmers have the same time, their lanes are determined by draw. Lane assignments are made in descending order of times by putting the fastest swimmer or relay team in the center lane, but this is only done in a pool that has an odd number of lanes.

If the pool has an even number of lanes, the fastest swimmer or relay team should be placed in lanes 3, 4, or 5 (even-numbered pools typically have 6, 8, or 10 lanes), with the swimmer having the next fastest time in the next lane, then alternating the other swimmers on either side of the two fastest swimmers based on the submitted times.

Timed Finals

In timed finals, the last heat is made up of the swimmers with the fastest submitted times, the next to last heat is composed of the next fastest times, and so on. Lanes are assigned in descending order of submitted times within each heat based on this pattern. When there are two or more heats, there must be a minimum of three swimmers or relay teams seeded into the first heat. Ideally, the last heat would be full, too, but since there is a requirement to fill the first heat with three or more swimmers or relay teams, there may not be enough swimmers to fill the last heat.