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Learn the lingo! (swimming words explained)

learn the lingo! Swimming words explained

Know your stuff with this glossary of swimming-related words:


AIDA: Association International pour le Développement de l’Apnée is the governing body of the sport of Freediving. L’Apnée is French for Apnoea (the cessation of breathing) as freediving involves swimming to maximum depth whilst holding the breath.

Aqua Aerobics or Aquacize: Aerobic and toning exercises usually done as a group fitness class at leisure centres. Aqua Aerobics may be done in deep water (with or without buoyancy aids) or in shallow water. These are very beneficial for people who find dry-land aerobics stressful on the joints, people who are new to exercise and people recovering from injury. Many people who are overweight find aqua aerobics comfortable and feel less self-conscious in the water compared to being in a fitness studio. As a result, there is often a misconception that aqua aerobics is only good for overweight, elderly or unfit people. Although you can go at your own pace, aqua aerobics can be a very intensive and effective activity for the very fit if you put the effort in! You do not have to be able to swim to take part in an Aqua Aerobics class.

Aqua Bike: Aqua Bike may refer to a type of duathlon (two discipline event) where you swim and then cycle under race conditions (like doing two out of the three parts of a triathlon). Aqua Bike may also refer to a type of fitness class where you cycle on spinning bikes in the swimming pool.

Aquanatal: Aerobic and toning exercises usually done as a group fitness class specifically for pregnant women. Exercising in water can be comfortable for pregnant women as the water reduces the weight and stress on the joints.

Aquatics (a-kwa-ticks): Water-based sports activities such as swimming, diving, water polo, synchronised swimming.


Backstroke/Back Crawl: One of the four main competitive swimming strokes. With the swimmer lying supine (face up), the legs kick alternately up and down whilst the arms move alternately over and under the water in a vertical circular action.

Bellyflop: When learning to jump or dive into a swimming pool, a flat landing is commonly called a bellyflop. A bellyflop often stings the skin and can make you feel bruised or winded. A bellyflop may be embarrassing, however there are many amusing videos on YouTube depicting bellyflops…even professional athletes bellyflop occasionally!

Biathlon: A biathlon is a winter sports event comprising of skiing and rifle shooting. The term biathlon is commonly used by mistake to refer to an event that uses two out of the three triathlon disciplines (either swimming + cycling, swimming + running or cycling + running). The correct term for two out of the three triathlon events is a duathlon.

Bikini: A bikini is a two-piece item of swimwear that is mainly for sunbathing and light use in the water. They are not usually robust enough for swimming, though sport bikinis are available from some retailers.

Breaststroke: One of the four main competitive swimming strokes. With the swimmer lying prone (face down), the legs kick simultaneously round in a circular, frog-like action. The arms scoop simultaneously in a horizontal circular action.

Buoy (boy): A buoy is a floating marker in water. In open water swimming and triathlon, buoys are usually large, brightly-coloured inflatables that indicate points at which swimmers should move around a course. Buoys are also used in sailing and watersports to help direct boats and other crafts for traffic management and to avoid under water hazards such as rocks and sandbanks. These buoys may be small ball-shaped markers or larger structures with lights or bells attached.

Butterfly: One of the four main competitive swimming strokes. With the swimmer lying prone (face down), it uses a simultaneous up-and-down leg action (often called a dolphin kick) and a simultaneous arm stroke where both arms pull down and back under the water, then skim over the water surface to enter the water in front of the swimmer.


Catch: During the arm movement of any swimming style, there will be certain points where the hands slide easily through the water and other parts where the hands move at an angle that generates resistance. The point at which the hand movement starts to create resistance is the “catch” of the stroke.

Catch-up: A “catch-up drill” is a method of learning and training elements of the front crawl stroke. In a catch-up drill, one hand is left outstretched in front of the swimmer whilst the other hand pulls a complete stroke cycle. When the pulling hand catches up with the outstretched hand, they switch roles. This can help a swimmer focus on individual arms to learn the technique or correct stroke faults and brings the arms closer to the mid-line of the body for a more streamlined swim


Dive: The act of moving in an inverted position into or through the water. A dive from the poolside edge or platform is usually a headfirst entry into the water. A swimmer who is already in the water can turn upside down and travel towards the bottom of the pool and this is also called a dive.

Diving: Can be used to refer to the sport of competitive diving (entering the water vertically either head-first or feet-first from a high platform, possibly with the addition of somersaults and/or twisting movements). It can also be used to refer to the sport of SCUBA diving (undersea exploration with the aid of a breathing tank)

Dolphin: The simultaneous leg action of the butterfly stroke is called a “dolphin kick”. When children learn butterfly for the first time, they are often taught the kick on its own for a while until they have established a strong technique before adding in the arm action. For this reason, many children are convinced that “Dolphin” is an entirely separate stroke to “Butterfly”. The dolphin kick is used on its own in some instances, for example when swimming underwater and as part of a transition out of a tumble turn into a front crawl, backstroke or butterfly swim.

Drill: A drill is a training set, for example a “kick drill” is an activity that trains the leg action of a stroke in order to improve technique or develop strength/endurance. An example of a backstroke kick drill might be four lengths kicking whilst holding the arms out of the water in order to develop a stronger backstroke kick

Drysuit: Not to be confused with a wetsuit, a drysuit is most commonly used for SCUBA diving and is an impenetrable coated neoprene or waxed synthetic fabric suit. The diver stays completely dry inside a drysuit and they are often big enough for a diver to wear normal clothes (leggings, joggers, jumpers etc.) inside. They are mainly used for very cold water, technical diving or specialist scenarios where the diver needs to stay dry. They are expensive and bulky, so recreational summer holiday SCUBA divers will not need to wear one.

Duathlon: This is an event comprising two out of the three triathlon disciplines. A duathlon is usually a run followed by a cycle followed by another run, but duathlon can refer to swimming + cycling or swimming + running.


Eggbeater: This is the name for a method of treading water. Like an old-fashioned egg beater, legs kick alternately in a circular movement. It is a method of treading water that is commonly used in water polo because it is relatively easy to sustain for long periods and is not bouncy.


Farmer John/Farmer Jane: A sleeveless wetsuit, ideal for water sports such as SUP (stand up Paddleboarding), waterskiing, wakeboarding.

FINA (fee-nah): FINA stands for Fédération internationale de natation, which is French for International Swimming Federation. It is the organisation that sets the standards and rules for international competitive swimming events. Not all swimming events that exist in the world are governed by FINA, but they do regulate the main pool-based events such as the Commonwealth Games and Olympics as well as many of the regional, national and international events that provide the pathway to the Olympics. FINA set standards for swim techniques, so if a swimmer enters an event with poor technique, they are likely to be disqualified or receive a time penalty. Swim schools and swim teachers often aim to develop swimmers according to these technique rules and if you are aiming for a competitive swimming career, it is important to listen to teachers and aim to swim according to their instructions. If you have no intention of ever competing in a FINA-regulated event, you can choose to adapt swim techniques to suit your own personal requirements.

Fins: These are short, stubby flippers that are used by swimmers learning or training to develop the kick. Swimming with fins requires more effort, but if the technique is good, swimmers can travel very quickly through the water. They can help with underwater swimming too.

Freediving: This is a sport often done in the sea where a diver descends to their maximum depth whilst holding the breath. No air tank, snorkel or other breathing assistance is allowed. Freedivers train to extend the length of time that they can hold their breath. Long flippers are often used to help the freediver swim quickly to gain further depth and to return quickly back to the surface. The governing body for freedivers is AIDA.

Freestyle: Technically, “freestyle” means swimming in any method except for backstroke, breaststroke or butterfly. Usually, swimmers in a competitive race choose front crawl because it is the fastest stroke, which is why many people use the word “freestyle” when they mean front crawl. Competition regulators set rules for freestyle races, but these rules leave enough room for swimmers to invent their own stroke should they choose to, if their own style is likely to be fast.

Front Crawl: One of the four commonly used competitive swimming strokes. With the swimmer lying prone (face down), the legs kick alternately up and down whilst the arms move alternately above and below the water in a vertical circular action. It is one of the fastest methods of swimming and most commonly used in triathlon and open water swimming competitions.


Goggles: Protective eyewear for the water. They come in a range of styles designed to keep water out of the eyes and provide clear vision underwater. Goggles are also available with prescription lenses.



IM (eye-em): IM stands for Individual Medley. An individual medley is a race involving all four competitive swimming strokes. Each swimmer is competing for their own place in the results table and must perform all four strokes. This differs from the team medley or medley relay where a group of swimmers work together as a team, usually each swimmer in a team doing just one of the four competitive strokes. In a club or competitive swimming environment, an Individual Medley is most commonly just called an IM.

Ironman (Eye-on-man): Ironman is actually a company that organises long-distance triathlon events. However, the brand is so well known, that in casual conversation, people use the word Ironman to describe any event of that distance, in much the same way that people talk about their Hoover when referring to their vacuum cleaner. Another company running a triathlon of the same distance is not officially allowed to use the term Ironman as it is trademarked. An Ironman distance event is usually a 2.4 mile (3.86km) swim, followed immediately by a 112 mile (180.25km) cycle, followed immediately by a marathon-distance run (26.2 miles/42.2km). Ironman is often seen as the epitome of triathlon and their world championships, held in Kona, Hawaii, are famous. As super-endurance events are becoming increasingly popular, many companies are running events that are described in multiples of Ironman e.g. a triple-ironman, which can be organised as a long swim of 11.58km, a long cycle of 540.75km and a long run of 126.6km, or it can be organised as a regular ironman which repeats three times (i.e. once you have finished your first marathon, you get back in the water to begin round 2)



Kickboard: A kickboard is a large rectangular float commonly used by advanced swimmers for training. These floats can be held in front of the swimmer to focus attention on the kick or can be held perpendicular to the water surface (submerged) to generate resistance to strengthen the leg muscles.


Lane: Swimming pools may use ropes to separate the pool space into numerous segments (usually running the length of the pool) called lanes. A lane swimming session is where the entire pool is separated into segments for fitness swimming. Fast, medium and slow lanes allow swimmers of a variety of speeds to swim complete lengths of the pool in a processional formation for exercise and training.

Length: The length of the swimming pool is along the longest edge. Standard leisure centre swimming pools are often 25 metres in length and 10 metres in width.

Lido (lie-dough): an open-air swimming pool. Popular in the 1920s and 1930s, many have recently been restored due to an increase in popularity for outdoor swimming. Some lidos are heated and some are not. Some lidos are chlorinated and some use salt or seawater


Marathon: In swimming, a marathon is usually an open water swim over a distance of 10km. It is a recognised event in the Summer Olympics

Medley (med-lee): A medley is a swimming race involving a mixture of all four competitive swimming strokes (front crawl, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly). The event may be an individual medley or a team effort in a relay.

Mid-line: Imagine a vertical line drawn down the middle of the body from head to toe. For a balanced, efficient swim stroke, your arm pull should be close to the mid-line.


Noodle (noo-dull): a long, sausage-shaped foam float that is a versatile learn-to-swim aid for adults and children

Noseclip: A small clamp that fits over the nose to hold it shut. Noseclips are most commonly used by synchronised swimmers because they spend a lot of time upside-down in water, which is when water often travels up the nose. However, many recreational swimmers dislike the sensation of water in the nose so will use a noseclip. It is a personal preference.


Open Water: a natural body of water such as a lake, river or sea. Open water swimming is the discipline of swimming outdoors in a natural body of water, whether or not that water is public or privately-owned. Many areas of open water are dedicated venues for watersports and swimming. There are also a range of open water races, challenges and events that swimmers can enter either as part of a club or as a standalone entry.


Paddle: A hand paddle may refer to a piece of training kit, a plastic disc held in the hands to develop arm strength and stroke technique. Paddling or “forward paddle” may refer to a basic pulling movement in the water that babies and young children do (often called “doggy paddle”)

PB or Personal Best: Your fastest time or furthest distance (or anything else you wish to measure your success by).

Pentathlon: This is a five-discipline event that comprises swimming, fencing, equestrian showjumping, shooting and running. It is often called “modern pentathlon” because the ancient Olympic event involved javelin and discus, long jump and wrestling instead of swimming, fencing, showjumping and shooting.

Pike: A pike is a position used for jumping, diving and synchronised swimming. When a person is in a pike shape, they are bent at the hip joint with legs together and straight (not bent at the knee).

Prone: Laying face-down in the water as in front crawl, breaststroke and butterfly.

Pullbuoy (pull-boy): a block of foam, often shaped in a figure 8 that is usually held between the legs to keep the lower body buoyant whilst training a front crawl or backstroke arm action



Recovery: Recovery is obviously a term for getting your breath back after a strenuous swim such as a race/training set. However, recovery is also a term for the part of the swim stroke that does not involve a driving force against the water. For example, in front crawl, the arms “recover” over the top of the water, having pulled under the water. In backstroke, the arms recover when moving in the air from the leg to above the head. The recovery part of the stroke in butterfly is when the arms swing over the water surface. In breaststroke, the recovery part of the stroke is when the arms stretch forwards. In breaststroke, the legs recover when drawing up towards the bottom, getting ready to kick.


Screw-kick: A stroke fault in breaststroke where the legs do not kick symmetrically. A screw-kick is usually caused by hip rotation. You notice a screw kick because one knee points inwards whilst the other knee points outwards when performing a breaststroke kick

SCUBA: SCUBA diving is the sport of swimming underwater with the assistance of an air tank, allowing the diver to spend hours below the water surface exploring shipwrecks and coral reefs. The air tank allows SCUBA divers to swim to great depths, further than might be possible just by holding the breath. SCUBA stands for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) is the largest operator of SCUBA diving courses and holiday experiences internationally, though in the UK, BSAC (British Sub-Aqua Club) operates a similar programme of diver training. BSAC does have operations internationally and opportunities to learn diving abroad, but these are not as common as PADI venues.

Sculling (skull-ing): refers to a side-to-side or scooping action of the hands used as a standalone activity or incorporated into a swimming stroke to make it more effective. A sculling hand action can be used to tread water and to perform some synchronised swimming moves.

Shortie: A short-sleeved and short-legged wetsuit, often a multi-purpose wetsuit for use in a range of water sports at a recreational level.

Sinkers: Toys, hoops or sticks that sink to the bottom of the pool. Usually used to motivate swimmers to submerge and swim underwater.

Skins: A term used by open water or wild swimmers . “Swimming in skins” means swimming in a regular swimming costume (as opposed to a wetsuit). Not to be confused with swimming naked!

Snorkelling: This is a recreational activity involving swimming face down on the surface of the water, using a breathing tube. Snorkellers usually wear flippers to assist their swimming and a mask for clear vision into the water. Snorkelling is often done as a holiday activity to observe marine life. Coral reefs and tropical waters provide excellent opportunities for snorkelling as they contain colourful fish and plant life.

Speedo: Speedo is the name of a company that produces swimwear and training aids. However, the term “speedo” commonly refers to a particular style of men’s swimwear that is a minimal, close-fitting lycra brief, often worn by competitive divers.

Springsuit: A thin wetsuit suitable for use in warmer water, often long sleeve but short or no legs. Often used for surfers to stay warm or provide sun protection.

Straddle: Many gymnasts will understand a straddle to be a jump where the legs stretch out either side (somewhere in between a pike and a star), but in swimming, a straddle usually refers to a type of jump used in lifesaving and survival. A person doing a straddle jump enters the water by stepping from the poolside, but upon landing in the water, must ensure their head does not submerge.

Supine: Laying face-up in the water as in backstroke

Synchro (sink-row): short for “synchronised swimming” (sink-ron-ized swimming) is an aquatic discipline where teams of swimmers perform dance routines to music as part of a competition or display performance.


Tankini: A tankini is a two-piece item of women’s swimwear. Comprising of a vest and briefs, a tankini is an option for recreational and fitness swimming.

Tetrathlon: This is a four-discipline event comprising shooting, swimming, equestrian showjumping (or cross-country) and running.

Touch-Turn: This is the term for the technically-appropriate method of changing direction in a breaststroke or butterfly swimming race. When reaching the end of the pool, a swimmer may need to turn around and swim another length. The rules for competition in FINA-regulated races is that the swimmer must touch the wall with two hands at the same time, turn in a horizontal plane and push off the wall. The other method of turning in a swimming race is a tumble turn, but this is used in races involving front crawl or backstroke. There are many more specific technical rules for a touch turn, but the essential difference is that a tumble turn flips over in a somersault, whereas a touch turn swivels sideways. A touch turn is sometimes also called a “two-hand-touch”

Transition (swimming): In swimming, transition refers to an action that links one move to another. For example, when a swimmer in a freestyle race dives into the water, they may do a butterfly kick under water for a few metres, then when they come up to the surface, they may swim front crawl. The butterfly kick is the transition between the race start (the dive) and the race swim (the front crawl stroke). A transition can link a tumble turn to a race swim in the same way.

Transition/T1/T2 (triathlon): A transition in a triathlon refers to the parts between each discipline. T1 (transition 1) is the part where the competitor leaves the water, takes off their wetsuit and puts on their cycling shoes and helmet. T2 (transition 2) is the part where the competitor returns their bicycle to the rack and takes off their cycle helmet. The time taken during T1 and T2 are recorded and published as part of the triathlete’s final race result. Transition can also refer to the fenced-off area where triathletes keep their bike and personal belongings.

Treading Water: the act of keeping oneself at the surface of the water when it is too deep to stand up. Treading water involves kicking downwards and swishing the hands side to side with downward pressure to propel the body upwards to enable the person to keep the head above water. It is a survival technique as well as a skill used in water polo and synchronised swimming.

Triathlon (try-ath-lon): A competitive event that starts with a swim (often in open water), followed immediately by a cycle, followed immediately by a run. Triathlons are available in a variety of distances, commonly Super-Sprint, Sprint, Olympic Distance, 70.3 and Ironman. There are many variations in between.

Tumble Turn: This is a method of changing direction in a competitive swimming event involving front crawl or backstroke. In a FINA-regulated event, rules require the swimmer to somersault at the wall before pushing off for the next length. A tumble turn is a fast method of changing direction without interrupting the flow of the stroke and many people use tumble turns for recreational swimming. FINA specify many rules regarding the particular technique of a tumble turn, but the essential point is that it is a somersault at the wall. Many people assume that backstroke swimmers do a backflip at the wall, but in reality, they usually roll over onto their front before somersaulting. More recently, swim schools and teachers refer to tumble turns as “flip turns”. The other main type of turn in a swimming race is a touch turn, used for breaststroke and butterfly events.

Turnaround: A turnaround is a training exercise in which a target time is set for a swim distance including time taken to rest. Usually, the set is repeated many times. For example, “a 100m turnaround on 2 minutes repeated 6 times” would involve 6 sets of 100m swims. The swimmer can complete the 100m as fast or as slow as they wish within 2 minutes. The faster they swim, the more rest time they allow themselves. Once the 2 minutes is up, they have to start the next 100m set.


Undulation (un-dew-lay-shon): Usually used to describe a butterfly kick. An undulation is a smooth, flowing up and down movement, like a dolphin.



Wakeboarding: Similar to waterskiing, instead of individual skis, the participant wears a single board (similar to a snowboard) and is pulled along by a speedboat to perform tricks, or complete a course within a set time (see also waterskiing).

Water Polo: A team sport similar to netball, football or rugby played in a swimming pool. Swimmers have to tread water because the pool is too deep to stand up. A small ball is passed between players with the aim of scoring a goal in a football-type net positioned on poolside. Players commonly wear fabric swim hats identifying which team each is playing for. The hats are distinctive with protective ear boxes.

Waterskiing: A sport/activity where a participant wears water-specific skis and is pulled along by a speedboat. There are a variety of ski types, skills, tricks and competitions you can try (see also wakeboarding)

Wetsuit/”Wettie”: A neoprene thermal suit. Wetsuits come in different fabrics and thicknesses depending on their intended use. Surf wetsuits are comparatively thick, made of robust fabric and are often reinforced at the knees and stomach because a surfer spends a lot of time on their knees and stomach on a board where the sand and salt water rub against the fabric. Surf wetsuits can be used for other water sports such as waterskiing. They often have coloured sleeves. A swimming wetsuit is nearly always black and is made of smoother rubber-like material. Swimming wetsuits are designed to provide thermal protection when swimming outdoors and are smooth for minimal resistance when swimming fast.

Width: This refers to the shortest edge of a swimming pool or the shortest distance from one side to the other. A standard leisure centre swimming pool is often 25 metres long and 10 metres in width.

Woggle (wogg-all): an alternative name for a noodle. A long, sausage-shaped foam float that is a versatile learn-to-swim aid for adults and children





70.3 (seventy-point-three): This is a half-ironman distance triathlon. Each discipline is half the distance of the full Ironman version. 70.3 refers to the cumulative distance in miles of all three disciplines. In a 70.3, the swim is 1.2 miles (1.9km), the cycle is 56 miles (90km) and the run is a half-marathon 13.1 miles (21.1km). Triathletes will commonly refer to the event simply as “a 70.3” rather than “I did a 70.3 Ironman” or “I did a 70.3 triathlon”. Ironman is a company that organises triathlon events and the terms “Ironman” and “70.3” are exclusive to their brand. Though other triathlon companies organise races of the same or similar distances, they are not allowed to call them Ironman or 70.3. However, the brand Ironman is so well-known that in casual conversation, most people will say they have done an Ironman or 70.3 even if it was an event run by a different company. It is similar to people using the word Hoover, when referring to their vacuum cleaner.


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