What Is a “heat” in Competitive Swimming? What You Need to Know!

Anyone that has been involved in competitive swimming, such as a swim meet or triathlon, knows there are a lot of terminologies used at competitions. It can be confusing at times and especially confusing to those that are new to competitive swimming. 

Most swimming-only competitions are referred to as swim meets. A swim meet is a  competition between individuals or teams, organized by a swimming organization or governing body. They can be held indoors or outdoors. And, the goal during a swim meet is to complete your swimming event(s) as fast as you can (and, ultimately, with the fastest time overall). 

Another form of competitive swimming, which is held in open water, is referred to as an open water race. An open water race is a swimming competition that is held in a natural or man-made body of water such as an ocean, lake, bay, reservoir, or river. These competitions are generally 1,000  kilometers or longer. 

Triathlon is a competitive swim event that is consecutively followed by competitive bike and run events. Regardless of what triathlon you are competing in or where it is held, the order of events will always be the same- swim, bike, run. 

Within these swimming competitions, there are what are referred to as events. Events are portions of swimming competitions, particularly swim meets, that have been broken down by distance and stroke (Freestyle, Breaststroke, Backstroke, Butterfly, & IM).  They are often further broken down by age, gender, and/or relay type (e.g. Men’s 200Yd Freestyle or Women’s 200Yd Butterfly). One will typically swim in one to five events. 

Sometimes an event has too many swimmers for the number of lanes available-typically 5-7, give or take, in a recreational pool and 8 in an Olympic pool. So, during the preliminary round(s) of an event, they will break the event into “heats”.

So what is a heat in competitive swimming?   A “heat” is considered a round/”wave”  for each event during preliminaries (and sometimes semifinals) of a swimming event. How many heats there are in an event will depend on the number of lanes available and how many swimmers are competing in the event.

For example, an event with 70 swimmers being held in a pool with 8 lanes will end up having 9 heats. However, an event during a swim competition held at a  pool with only 6 lanes and 70 swimmers will have 12 heats. In both competitions, the last heat will not utilize all the lanes.  

Just because one wins their heat, does not mean they have won their event.

They will have to wait until all heats have finished and official times are recorded. Once all heats have competed and all swimmers’ times have been recorded appropriately,  official times will be posted and those with the best times will advance to the next round of preliminaries or semi-finals- whichever applies to the competition/for the size of the competition. 

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How Are Swimmers Assigned Swim Lanes? 

Swimmers are assigned a lane based on qualifying times from their previous heat. The swimmer with the fastest time earns the [coveted] center lane [number 4 lane]. The two swimmers that are the next strongest medal contenders (i.e. they have the 2nd and 3rd fastest times) will take lanes 3 and 5. Those swimmers with the slower/slowest times, who are seen as less likely to be medal contenders,  will be divided amongst the remaining lanes (lanes 1, 2, and 6-8)

It is widely known that the number 4 lane is the coveted spot in a swim competition. And, for quite a few good reasons.

The center lane has an “advantage” and thereby is the coveted lane position because there tends to be less resistance and one can better see their competition in their peripherals. 

Regardless of the stage of the event- preliminaries, semi-finals, or finals- swimmers will be assigned their lane based on their time. One’s seed time for a particular event will determine their initial heat lane placement for the event. One’s lane placement in subsequent heats will depend on their time in their previous heat. 

With regard to triathlon and open water race swimming competitions, because they are held in open water and as such do not have lanes, swimmers are [obviously] not assigned lanes. Instead, they will assign a swimmer to a heat based on their time. Typically those with slower times will go in the first heat(s) and those with faster/the fastest time(s) will go in the last heat. 

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What Is a Swimming “Heat Sheet”?

A heat sheet informs one of what (distance/stroke), when (event/heat), and where (pool/water &/or lane assignment) they will be swimming. These are generally posted on the wall(s)/door(s) or on signs at the location where the competition is being held. They are also often likened to a program for the competition. Sometimes they are sold as a fundraiser for the teams and/or organization hosting the competition.

As we mentioned in the opening of this article, a swimming competition whether it be a swim meet, open water race, or triathlon can be confusing with all the terminologies and things to keep track of at a competition. Especially challenging is keeping track of what event(s) and heat(s) you’re swimming in as well as what lane you’re to be in for your event/heat. Thankfully, most swimming competitions have what is known as a “heat sheet” to help direct competitors (and spectators) to where they need to be throughout the competition. 

Heat sheets are much like a program, as we mentioned, in that they provide information about the competition and competitors.  They are sometimes confused with a “psych sheet” which is a listing of those competing in the event listed in order of their seed times. The “psych sheet”  lists each swimmer in the event and their seedtime but does not provide any heat or lane information. It also appears more like two lists (swimmer name in one column and their seed time in the other) whereas a heat sheet appears more like a program for an event/show/competition that tells you who, what, when, and where. 

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What Is a Heat in Swimming in The Olympics?

In the Olympics, a heat is no different than in any other swimming competition. It is merely a portion of an event (generally the preliminaries, but sometimes the semi-finals as well) where swimmers compete against each other to make it to the semi-finals and ultimately, the finals of an event. 

Also, much like any other swimming competition, the lane assignments in the Olympics follow the principles of seed and previous heat times. 

So, the swimmer with the fast time for the current heat will have the center lane, the two swimmers with the next fastest times will be in lanes 3 and 5, and all other swimmers will be assigned to one of the remaining lanes based on their time.  As with any other swim competition, the number 4 lane is a coveted position, and winning that position comes with the advantages of less resistance and being able to better see your competition in your peripherals. 

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Here is a video explain several other common terms used in swimming,

What Is a “heat”  in Running Track and Field?

Track and field is an individual and team sport comprised of 14 individual events and 4 relays. Furthermore, it can be broken down to 12 track (running) and 6 field events.  A heat in track and field is a randomly picked group of athletes with similar times competing in the same running event. 

Much like swimming, a track event can have more runners competing than lanes available as the average track will have 5-8 lanes, give or take, depending on its size. So, track events will have heats to pare down from preliminaries to semi-finals (and rarely semi-finals to finals). How many heats there are for an event, much like it is in swimming, is determined by the total number of competitors for the event divided by the number of lanes available (i.e. an event with 80 competitors and 8 lanes on the track will have, at least, 10 heats).

Also, much like swimming, one’s heat assignment for their track event is determined by their seedtime or their time from the previous heat.  Sprint events will typically disperse those with the fastest times amongst all heats so that they are not competing against each other until the semi-finals and/or finals. For distance events, those with slower times are in the first heat(s) and those with the fastest times are in the last heat. 

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Melissa Frank

My passion, outside of animals, is helping people and adding value to their lives…I strive to leave the world a little better than I woke to it each day. The first part of my career, for a total of about 15 years, was spent in the public safety field as a Volunteer Firefighter/EMT-B and 9-1-1 Operator. In 2019 I obtained my personal trainer certification (ACE certified) as well as many group fitness certifications and certification as a Corrective Exercise Specialist.

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