Most swimmers will know the feeling before a competition. You're huddled around the wall where the start sheets are pinned, frantically scanning to find your name.
You find your heat assignment. Does your heart sink just a little bit when you see you're in Lane 8? Do you have an extra spring in your step if you're in Lane 4?
Traditionally in swimming, the middle lanes have always been looked upon as the fastest.
It's where the fastest qualifiers are placed in finals, and as a result it's where a high proportion of gold medals are won.
Is it psychological, or is there more to it than that? We take a look at the facts, the science and the superstitions to establish whether there is such a thing as 'the fastest lane'.
Lane 4 swimming advantage - reality or myth?
The fastest qualifier will always be allocated Lane 4 for a final, while the second and third fastest will be given Lanes 5 and 3.
More often than not, this creates an arrowhead formation as a race develops, with the faster swimmers leading the way in the middle, and the slower swimmers further back in the wider lanes.
With this in mind, the wake a swimmer produces is key to the theory that the middle lanes are fastest.
Setting the pace in the middle of the pool will have the least resistance, as there is less choppy water caused by the wake from other swimmers.
On the outside, Lanes 1 and 8 have always been viewed as the slowest because swimmers have to deal with waves coming from other lanes, as well as water bouncing back at them from the pool wall.
It's certainly understandable to see how this could affect your performance.
In recent years, several measures have been introduced to try and reduce the impact of resistance in wide lanes.
Big competitions are now often held in 10-lane pools, with the two outside lanes left empty to reduce the problem of waves bouncing back off the walls.
There have also been huge strides made in lane rope technology. These ropes are now made with anti-wave discs which have been designed to absorb a lot of the water movement.
Thirdly, the recommended depth of Olympic swimming pools is now 3m, rather than the more traditional 2m depth. In a deeper pool, research shows there is less water disturbance to deal with.
In conclusion, it's fair to say the wide lane disadvantages have been drastically reduced at elite level where 3m deep 10-lane pools are used.
However at smaller meets, swimmers may still have to deal with waves splashing back at them off the walls.
The issue of the wake is still there too. While lane ropes have helped, you're always going to encounter additional resistance if you're trailing a faster swimmer.
The secret is to train yourself mentally. Don't let your assigned lane affect you psychologically.
Lane 8 swimming — beating the psychological barriers
How important is psychology in sport? Ask any experienced coach or psychologist, and they'll tell you it's paramount.
For years, swimming commentators and coaches have been trying to understand if there are psychological reasons why the outside lane is regularly associated with worse-than-expected performances.
One key theory is that swimmers in the outside lane don’t have a good view of how fast other swimmers are swimming. They set off on what they think is a reasonable pace only to find out that they're a couple of strokes behind at the end of the length.
As an example, look at Michael Phelps in the 400m IM final at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Phelps was the Olympic and world record holder but, swimming from Lane 8, he missed out on the medals completely. In the end, he finished fourth — more than four seconds behind winner Ryan Lochte, and more than five seconds off his record time.
Scientists Jack Brehm and Elizabeth Self from the University of Kansas offer an explanation of what might be going on here. In 1989, they developed the 'motivational intensity theory' — a theory which hypothesised that people only put in as much effort into a project as they believe is needed. No more, no less.
What's striking about the theory is that it predicts that it doesn't matter how big the prize for that effort is, whether it's a gold medal or a piece of fruit from a tree.
All that matters is whether somebody thinks they're doing what needs to be done to get what they want. In other words, they only put in the amount of effort they believe is absolutely necessary.
So what does this have to do with Lane 8? What it means is that swimmers in Lane 8 who cannot see the other competitors may not get the motivational impetus they need to win.
Though they might believe that they’re trying their hardest, their brain may be subconsciously undermining their efforts, causing them to exert less energy than they otherwise could purely because they can't see how other competitors are performing.
Whether this theory has any truth to it is open to interpretation. But psychological barriers can prove difficult to overcome, and they may not be as complex as the one explained above.
Swimmers can be a superstitious bunch and, sometimes, lane preferences will have nothing to do with water resistance or not being able to see your rivals. A favoured lane could be as simple as a lucky number, or a lane that brought them a previous good performance.
It's important not to be disheartened when swimming from a wide lane. After all, some of swimming's greatest successes have come from the outside lanes. Let's take a look at a few.
Lane 8 swimming successes
Back in the 1990s, Franziska van Almsick and Kieren Perkins both proved that you don't need a middle lane to produce exceptional performances.
German van Almsick won a 200m freestyle gold medal and set a new world record from Lane 8 at the 1994 FINA World Championships. That world record time of 1:56.78 stood for eight years.
Two years later, over a considerably longer distance, Australian Perkins won a 1500m freestyle gold medal from Lane 8 at the 1996 Olympic Games.
At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Chinese swimmer Luo Xuejuan set a new Olympic record from Lane 1 in the 100m breaststroke. At that time, it was the third fastest time in history.
If you want a more recent example, you only have to look at Duncan Scott's stunning victory in the 200m freestyle at the 2018 European Championships in Glasgow. Scott had only just crept into the final as the eighth fastest qualifier, but produced a phenomenal swim over the last 50m to win gold from Lane 8.
He revealed afterwards that he was able to ignore not being able to see his rivals, and focus solely on his own performance.
Scott said: "I didn't really know what was going on with the rest of the field. I'm just really, really happy with how it went. I had no idea where I was in the race I just kicked on with my race plan — I was just hacking away in the last 25m and hoping.
"I was pretty relaxed in the warm up, but the crowd has been amazing all week — when I took my headphones off it was amazing. But I just went in with no expectations."
So if you draw an outside line, don't worry. Take encouragement from the above examples, and concentrate on capitalising on the advantages:
- You're the underdog, you're not expected to win the heat so you can swim without pressure
- You can sneak up on the middle lane swimmers and take them by surprise. They most likely can't see you
The disadvantages to Lane 4 swimming
If you need further encouragement when drawing a wide lane, remember than Lane 4 isn't without its disadvantages either.
Starting from Lane 4 immediately puts that pressure on your back. You're in the 'favoured' lane and the spotlight is on you to win.
Being the fastest qualifier, in the centre of the pool, you're effectively swimming with a target on your back!
And unless you're locked in an intense neck-and-neck battle with a swimmer in the next lane, you may be racing against yourself which could leave you open to being taken by surprise at the wall by a determined Lane 8 underdog!
Time to get race-ready
In conclusion, there are clear reasons why you would have an advantage swimming in the middle lanes, but it's certainly not clear-cut.
We've seen how it's possible to produce your finest swims from the outside lanes, and how the right psychological mindset can turn supposed negatives into positives.
The key thing to remember is always prepare thoroughly, both physically and mentally.
Now you've overcome that worry of which lane you're starting in, you can turn your attention to getting race ready with ProSwimwear.
We stock a huge range of training and racing swimwear from the world's leading swim brands, as well as an extensive range of training aids to help you get the very best out of your performance. You're mentally ready, so check out all our swimming gear below to give you the best kit as well.