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Starting Blocks and Water Depth: Is Your Pool Safe?

When it comes to the world of competitive swimming, there are stringent guidelines that everyone involved in the pool design process must take into consideration. This is especially true for water depths beneath starting blocks.

Starting blocks are raised platforms typically mounted on the pool deck at the end of competitive swimming lanes. In most installations, the height of the starting block platform above the water surface is less than 29 ½” above the water surface. Swimmers mount the blocks and push off from a crouched position, using the force from their lower bodies to launch into the pool. We’ve seen many technological advancements for modern day starting blocks, with the most recent changes being the addition of rear footrests and side handles, which can have an impact on a swimmer’s overall performance.

Because swimmers are diving with a lot of force, it is crucial to ensure that the water beneath the starting blocks, as well as a portion of the pool length ahead of the swimmer, is deep enough that swimmers will not injure themselves. Diving into water that is too shallow can result in devastating injuries.

Credit: Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

If a swimmer hits their head on the bottom of the pool, a massive amount of force is transferred to the spine. This force can sometimes collapse the vertebrae that encircle the spinal cord, potentially leading to paralysis or worse. For this reason, it is important for an appropriate water depth to be maintained at the ends of pools where swimmers are diving into the water. In addition to this safety concern, sufficient water depth beneath a starting block can provide a swimmer with the best opportunity to maximize the performance of their start.

USA Swimming, the national governing body of competitive swimming in the United States, has its own set of racing start standards that vary based on swimmer experience and training. In pools with water depths less than 4’-0” at the starting end, all swimmers, regardless of skill level, must begin from within the water. In these instances, backstroke starting ledges are also not permitted. For pools that have water depths between 4’-0” and 6’-0”, a swimmer can utilize a starting block if they have been certified by a USA Swimming Coach. For water depths greater than 6’-0”, starting blocks are allowed for all swimmers, regardless of skill.

FINA, which serves as the international governing body of competitive swimming, has its own standards. The minimum depth at the pool’s end has to be 1.35 meters (about 4’-5”). But when it comes to all Olympic and World Championship events, pool depth must remain a minimum of two meters (about 6’-6”) throughout the entire field of play, with three meters (about 10’-0”) preferred.

It’s important to note that various industry organizations and jurisdictional health and safety departments all have their own defined standard, as well as several varieties of the standard based on different factors. For instance, some organizations have a defined range of water depth standards that are dependent upon the pool type or user. Others take it as a case-by-case basis, and vary the depth as appropriate. Additionally, there are local, state and municipal regulations that need to be considered. What is too shallow for one group may be sufficient for another.

At Counsilman-Hunsaker, we make things simple by recommending a minimum water depth requirement of 6’-0” (with 7’-0” preferred), that is to be maintained a minimum of five meters (16’-5”) from the end wall. This is a universal standard for all pools we work on, regardless of pool type or user, that ensures your pool will be competition-ready. These recommended water depths will also allow a swimmer to utilize a starting block with minimal risk to their health and wellbeing.

Swimmer safety is a top priority for Counsilman-Hunsaker. We take time to assess our systems and specifications to ensure we are designing pools that are not only functional and aesthetically-pleasing, but also keep swimmers safe and able to pursue aquatics for life. Be sure to follow us on social media for more aquatic design and operations information!

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