How Do Swimmers Know When To Turn & When To Stop?

A split-second could mean the difference between gold and silver medals in a swimming event. There are numerous ways to gain these minute advantages, and knowing how to turn is one of them.

Professional swimmers have mastered the art of the turn and understand the importance of including this in their training. Alternate turn styles are required for the different strokes, and knowing the rules and factoring in the turn times are all needed to get your best result. 

So, how do swimmers know when to turn? There are several ways they can do this. Professionals with years of experience count their strokes, so they know when the wall is approaching. Others watch the provided signal flags above or markers on the bottom of the pool. Visually impaired swimmers often employ another person—a tapper, to advise them when to turn.

Why Are Swim Turns Important?

The purpose of the turn is to allow a swimmer to move continuously, regardless of the length of the event. Some choose this time to rest, which is a mistake. Events are won by swimmers who have perfected turning.

The push-off from the wall is the secret to the best turn. Practicing positioning your feet at the optimum place on the wall will help you become a better, faster swimmer. You need to be aware of the number of seconds you use in your turn.

Turn Time

A poor turn could lose you the race. Your turn time adds additional seconds. Your goal is to get this as quick and as tight as possible. The turn time is slightly different per stroke:

  • Freestyle and backstroke use the flip (or tumble) turn. This term is for when they somersault as they reach the wall. The turn time is calculated from the moment they begin the flip until their feet push off again.
  • Breaststroke and butterfly use the open turn. The turn time is calculated from the moment the hands touch the wall until the feet push off.

Turn time is an important part of training, get this right, and you’ll shave seconds off every lap.


Turns come with regulations. For Olympic swimmers, these are:

  • For breaststroke and butterfly, you must touch the wall with both hands simultaneously before executing the turn.
  • Regardless of which turn you use, you must resurface and make a stroke within the first 15m after making a turn (Source)

How Do You Know When To Turn In Backstroke?

There are two ways to know when to turn in backstroke. The easiest way is to pay attention to the signal flags above the pool and determine how many strokes they need to propel those final few meters. The second way is by counting their strokes from the onset. (Source)

1. Signal Flags

Signal flags are placed 5 meters (5.5 yards) from the wall. Once the swimmer sees them, they know they have that distance to complete. As part of their training, they learn how many strokes that can take.

2. Counting Strokes

No matter the style, counting strokes is an effective method for many experienced swimmers. Knowing exactly how many are needed before turning removes the need to rely on anything else. One missed stroke or moving slightly off-course can make this a tricky practice, especially for novices.

How Do Visually Impaired Swimmers Know When To Turn?

Visually impaired swimmers will admit that the most challenging part of the race is knowing when to turn. Counting strokes is more complex; naturally, they can’t react to visual clues. The most common solution is to have a person, known as a tapper, hit them with a device to let them know it’s time to turn.

The swimmer and the tapper need to work almost like an intimate partnership. It’s a relationship built purely on trust. They negotiate at what point of the race they want to make contact. For some, it’s the exact moment that they need to turn; for others, it could be up to 14 feet from the wall. (Source)

Where they’re tapped is another consideration. Some swimmers want it right on top of their heads, and others prefer it on their backs. The tap also needs to be quite hard so it’s not confused with an accidental lane marker bump.

At first, this may sound barbaric, but bear with me; it’s actually very successful. American Paralympian Philip Scholz claims he’d rather be hit with a pole than smack his head into the wall. (Source)

As tempting as it is, the tapper is forbidden to communicate with the swimmer verbally. No position hints or encouragement is allowed.

Currently, there is no such thing as a ‘commercial tapping device’—there’s a marketing opportunity waiting right there. Visually impaired swimmers have used many things, from a piece of PVC pipe to a tennis ball on a broomstick, a car window washer, and a golf ball retriever.

According to section of the WPS Rules and Regulations, a tapping device must comply with World Para Swimming guidelines, be prior approved, recorded, and deemed safe for use. (Source)

Paralympian McClain Hermes has experimented with what she calls the sprinkler system. She sets up a sprinkler connected to a garden hose at the end of the pool, one stroke away from the wall. The blast of cold water alerts her that it’s time to turn. However, this system isn’t currently permitted in competitions. (Source)

How Do Olympic Swimmers Know When To Stop?

The 100-meter swim is easy to track, up and back, and it’s over. The 1,500 meters, on the other hand, at 30 laps, is much harder to keep track of. A swimmer has a lot more to think about than counting laps. There are manual and electronic ways to let them know how much of the race is left, from the classic bell ringing to monitors on the pool floor.

Manual Methods

The manual counting board and the ringing bell are the two most recognized ways a swimmer knows how many laps they’ve done.

Counting Board

The board is dipped into the pool showing the number of laps that have been completed. For the final lap, numerals are replaced with colored boxes, usually orange. It’s at eye level, so the swimmer only needs to lift their head out of the water slightly before turning. 

There has been recent controversy over the use of these boards. Teammates use them to signal to the competitor where they are in the race. A secret code made by moving the board side to side or up and down gives the swimmer an unfair advantage.

The Ringing Bell

Anyone who has ever attended a swim meet will be familiar with the sound of a bell ringing at the pool. While some think it’s used to encourage or hurry along the swimmer, that’s not its actual purpose.

A bell is rung by an official or a teammate when they’re on their last lap. Depending on the length of the race, that means either one or two lengths of the pool are left to swim.

The Future is Digital

Digital lap counters were introduced at the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan and again at the Rio Olympics in 2016. They’re installed at the bottom of each lane, on the opposite side of the finish, counting down the remaining laps. (Source)

To become a better and faster swimmer, you must master the art of turning. Knowing when to do it, perfecting the action, and getting that turn time down, will all benefit you.


An extreme triathlete who have competed in dozens of triathlons including IronMans and Extreme triathlons.

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