Swimming competition rules

Competitive swimming is not simply swimming fast, but rather doing so following several highly technical rules. Failure of a swimmer to abide by competition rules and regulations can result in disqualification from a race or meet.

Governing Bodies

USA Swimming is the national governing body for swimming in the United States. International competitions are governed by FINA, or the Federation Internationale de Natation. While the rules and regulations are generally the same for USA Swimming and FINA, college, high school and independent swim clubs may have alterations to these regulations.


Most events are held in either a 50-m (Olympic-sized) or 25-yard (short course) swimming pool. Swimming competitions can also be held in open water. In these competitions, lane ropes may or may not be used, and the competition starts and finishes in the water.

Take Your Mark

Competitive swimming consists of four strokes: backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle. Races consist of varying distances of individual strokes or a combination of all four. Races begin after an officiator indicates the start of the race with the sound of a beep or horn. Swimmers leave the block and the clock starts. The race is completed once the swimmer has properly touched the finish wall, thereby stopping the clock.


The backstroke competition begins in the water with the swimmer’s back facing the opposite end of the pool. Swimmers must remain on their backs at all times with the exception of turning at the wall.


Swimmers use a forward start for breaststroke. Breaststroke follows a stroke cycle of one simultaneous arm pull followed by a simultaneous “frog” kick. Flip turns and finishes must be executed with both hands striking the wall at the same time or a “two-hand touch.”


Butterfly begins using a forward start. During the length of the swim, legs must be held together at all times while kicking. Flip turns and finishes must be executed using a “two-hand touch.”


Freestyle or “crawl” stroke races begin using a forward start. The swimmer must touch the wall with some part of her body at every turn and to finish.

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article

About the Author

Jaemi Jackson is a Demand Studios writer who has provided several articles for A graduate of the University of California, San Diego, Jackson works in the green building industry. She is a LEED-accredited professional and writes for the USGBC Chicago Chapter newsletter. She currently lives in Chicago.