Swimming Start Rules

Swimming Start Rules

One of the most important and underrated parts of any swim race is the start. A good start can ensure that the swimmer has a direct advantage over their competitors just as much as a bad start can cost a swimmer the entire race. As simple as a start may seem to an outside viewer, there are many moving parts and rules that play a role in a legal start. It’s for that reason that swimmers are most often disqualified on the start. Read on to learn all about the rules regarding starts in swimming.


Starts require a specific set of equipment, and there are two moving parts to the starting signal. The first part is the auditory signal which requires a loud speaker with an attached microphone for the starter to speak through. The second is the visual signal, which requires an electronic strobe signal. The visual signal is unique and absolutely vital to the start not only for the swimmers but also for the timers so they know when to start the stopwatches. 

Start Mechanics

Once the pool has been reset and a new heat is beginning, the referee will give a series of short whistles to let the swimmer know that they must remove all clothing except for their suit. Following that will be a long whistle that indicates that the swimmer should climb on the block (or take their position from the deck) or get in the water.

In backstroke events, the referee will give two long whistles: the first one lets the swimmer know that they can get in the water and the second long whistle is when the swimmer takes the backstroke start position. Once the swimmers are in the correct position and all officials are in place, the referee will pass control of the swimmers to the starter.

Swimmers that choose to begin their race in the water must have one hand either on the wall or on the starting platform. If any swimmer does not respond to the starter’s statement, the starter will release all the swimmers by saying “stand up” after which the swimmers may stand on the block and reset their starting position. If this does occur, a swimmer can’t be disqualified for an accidental false start or other illegal starting position. Once all swimmers have assumed their starting position and are no longer moving, the starter will give the signal.

False Start

A false start is when a swimmer jumps prior to the starter’s signal. In order for a start to be declared a false start, both the starter and the referee have to observe the violation. If the start signal is given before the swimmer is disqualified, the race may continue without recall. If the disqualification is given prior to the signal, the starter will then release the swimmers from their starting position and redo the start. A swimmer can declare a false start by reporting to the referee that they have decided not to compete in the race and they will be disqualified. 

Warning Signal

A warning signal is used in distance races starting at the 500m. The starter or the referee must sound a warning signal over the water of the finish end of the leading swimmer’s lane when there are two lengths and 5m left in the race. 

Deliberate Delay or Misconduct

The starter must report a swimmer who is deliberately delaying the start by disobeying an order or any other misconduct that occurs prior to the start. However, the referee is the only official that can disqualify a swimmer for this type of delay or any wilful disobedience. The referee also must disqualify a swimmer that does not check in at their designated lane by the time their heat is meant to start. If a swimmer does not check in at the correct time, this type of disqualification is not considered a false start.


What is a false start in swimming?

A false start is defined as a swimmer leaving the starting block prior to the starter’s signal. A race may continue after a disqualification but only if the starting signal has been given before the recall signal. The referee and the starter both must agree that a swimmer has false started in order for the swimmer to be disqualified.