Ask Stew: Swimming for Special Ops


Swimming is a tough sport to pick up and teach by yourself.  But it is possible to view swimming videos and self-teach some of the strokes and prepare properly for the military swimming tests. It is no secret, you do not need to be a world class or even a former competitive swimmer to join even the toughest swimming/diving training programs in the military (SEAL, SWCC, RECON, AF Pararescue, Diver, etc.). But you must be in swimming shape and competent in the water capable of doing a variety of skills beyond swimming like treading, buddy breathing, floating, drownproofing, SCUBA / swimming at night to name a few.  Here is a question from a young man who is new to swimming and the Combat Swimmer Stroke – (CSS) that is used by many special ops programs in the military.


I just started with swimming and learning the CSS. I can swim 50 yards between 46-50 seconds. I currently swim for 5 minutes with rest and then do calisthenics and repeat it 5 times a few times a week. My question is, what workout should I do to build my lungs to swim 500 yards fast, and how long does it usually take. Thanks for the help, Brad

Brad - that is not bad.  Getting your 50yd swim down to the 50-second zone is the first step. When you can do this easily with minimal effort (lower strokes per length – 5-6 per 25yds), you are efficient enough to be competitive with not only the swim but also have the energy for the remaining elements of the PST (pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, 1.5-mile run).  Now, you need to get in shape for the 500m swim.  The following is a workout I would recommend doing 4-6 days a week to really get into swimming shape to be able to swim a competitive score of 8:20 or less.  The 8:20 is 500 seconds. Swimming 500 yards in 500 seconds is easy math to figure out your pace during workouts. 100 yds = 100 seconds (1:40). 250 yds = 250 seconds (4:10).  Easy math. Here is how to get in shape so you can maintain that pace for 500 yards.

  • Swim 500yd warm up.  This is part mental game and part conditioning.  Every day we swim, we start off with a warmup swim of 500yds. This done over and over again – day after day will trigger a reaction in your brain (and body) that 500yds is “just a warmup”. This is a great way to reframe what used to be a distance that was difficult to finish without resting. Eventually, it will come.  Following the 500yd warm up swim – this can be a combination of strokes by the way: freestyle, CSS, do the following workout:
  • Repeat 10 times -- 50yd freestyle fast (get winded) -- 50yd CSS at goal pace (1 yard/second or 50 seconds for instance)  

As you start to improve, this workout will become too easy.  Now it is time to increase the distances of the CSS portion. Increase to 100 yds, then 150yds and even 200-250yd swims.  You can decrease the number of overall sets repeated if you are short on time as you really only need to swim 1500-2000 yds maximum to really prepare for the 500yd swim test.

Rest with Swim Skills / PT events. One great way to add in other elements you must master in the water is to rest 1 minute in between these sets but rest with treading (no hands). Rest with drownproofing elements and other events that you know you will see again in your future training.  You can also rest with PT events on the pool deck like pushups, plank poses, squats, lunges, bear crawls, flutter kicks and other core exercises in between sets to help with muscle stamina in the PT test.

Give yourself time to get good at swimming, running, rucking, lifting, and high repetition calisthenics before entering the military (related article).  This may take up to a year or more to be in the type of conditioning that the physical demands of the Physical Screen Test and the following selection training (BUD/S) will not crush you.  Patience, hard work, and consistent effort will get you there.

Eventually, you will need to build up to 1500m of swimming in your workouts to be fully prepared for a fast/competitive 500yd CSS swim for the Navy. I would swim at least 5 days a week to get into swimming shape.

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Fitness Swimming