Upon observing swimming competitions in the Olympics, it is not clear to me whether one of the eight lanes is more advantageous versus another. I've seen vague claims but nothing backed up with science.

In competitive swimming, is there an advantage to being in one lane or another? Furthermore, does the stroke (ie: breast, fly, freestyle, etc.) affect this effect?

  • 1
    Hard to answer objectively since there's the bias that faster swimmers in prelims are generally placed in center lanes for finals. From experience, swimming in center lanes is better than lanes against the wall because you can see other swimmers better (makes racing easier) and you don't get tossed around in the waves that bounce off the side wall.
    – user1301
    Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 21:20

4 Answers 4


The reason the fastest swimmer is placed in the center lanes is because it's believed to be the "coveted" lane. This is due to the fact that from lanes 4-5, you have the greatest visibility of swimmers in the other lanes. This is an advantage because in competitive races, athletes are known to perform better when they realize a competitor is close.

Also, if a swimmer breathes to the right or left, he will always be able to see half of the field, whereas swimmers in the edge lanes don't have this advantage.


In competitive swimming, is there an advantage to being in one lane or another?

No. Lane 4 has always been believed to be the "fastest" lane, but there is no scientific evidence of such.

Michael Phelps on being in lane 8 for the 400m individual medley final in the 2012 Olympics:

"The only thing that matters is just getting a spot in. You can't win the gold medal from the morning."

If any given lane had a "competitive advantage," Phelps would most likely have had a different response.

World records, championships, and gold medals have been won from all lanes, especially lane 1 and lane 8.

German female swimmer Franziska van Almsick, swimming in lane 8, set a world record by winning the 200m freestyle with a time of 1:56.78 at the 1994 FINA World Championships. Her world record stood for eight years.

Australian male swimmer Kieren Perkins. swimming in lane 8, won gold in the 1500m freestyle with a time of 14:56.40 at the 1996 Olympics.

Chinese female swimmer Luo Xuejuan, swimming in lane 1, set an Olympic record by winning gold in the 100m breaststroke with a time of 1:06.64 at the 2004 Olympics. This was the third fastest time in history, 0.27 seconds off the world record.

Historically, world records, championships, and gold medals are won in middle lanes. This is because swimmers win their prelims, heats, etc.

The swimmers are placed in their respective lane based on their time. The fastest time will get lane 4 next round and the eighth-fastest time will get lane 8. Lane placement from fastest to eighth-fastest time: 4,5,3,6,2,7,1,8.

  • 5
    Fastest swimmers of preliminaries start in the middle lane, so any research will be highly biased.
    – Bernhard
    Commented Aug 3, 2012 at 22:34
  • 5
    Using a Michael Phelps quote and anecdotal race results is hardly an answer. The other answers explain why being in the center might be better.
    – user1301
    Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 21:23
  • @HartleyBrody See previous comment..."anecdotal race results" and a quote from an experienced swimmer at the highest level reinforce said comment. Other comments and answers state environmental advantages (better vision, reflected waves, the fact the fastest swim in the middle) nicely, but doesn't explain these "anecdotal race results" in which these environmental advantages were overcome.
    – user527
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 13:09
  • 3
    I thing the point @HartleyBrody was trying to make is that the top athlete in any sport is almost always likely to state that they don't need any sort of advantage and will therefore denounce the existence of such. Better anecdotal evidence would come from someone who consistently races against Michael and loses. Not being at the pinnacle, s/he would be more likely to admit whether such an advantage exists. Regardless, this was still a good answer with good references.
    – Devin
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 18:14
  • @Devin The Michael Phelps quote supplements, albeit marginally, the answer. The point made does not refute statistics, which include races outside of any Phelps was in.
    – user527
    Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 5:52

It used to be that lanes 1 and 8 were considered slower due to reflected waves off the side, but modern pools have wave reduction systems so this is no longer the case.


Apart from the physical differences, swimmers may gain psychological advantages, and the lane in which this happens depends on the swimmer.

I have met professional swimmers who like to swim in lanes that are near the side, stating reasons which include being able to monitor all 7 other swimmers during 1 breath, as opposed to 2 breaths if the swimmer was near the middle lane.

However, that swimmer specialised in freestyle, and the opposite may be true for breaststrokers and butterflyers, who may see other swimmers more clearly in the middle lanes.

In the end, it all depends on the swimmer.

  • Welcome to SE.Sport. Can you please add any official references to your answer?
    – Ale
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 10:02
  • @Ale I forgot the exact quote, but I was training under Ashley Callus who stated it. Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 10:40

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