Ask Stew: How Can a Non-Athlete Prepare for Special Operations Training?

Soldiers assigned to 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment, Division Artillery, 1st Armored Division, perform coll down exercises after the Iron Thunder Tactical Athlete event here Sept. 2, 2015. (Photo by Spc. Moniqua Woods/24th Theater Public Affairs Support Element)

Not only does military service require many layers of professional and physical preparation, applicants must undergo significant screening and testing.

Height and weight standards (which most candidates fail), medical qualifications, academic qualifications, other physical standards and a lack of criminal history are just a few of the many hurdles a candidate must clear before he or she even becomes a recruit.

As you progress into special ops-level screening programs, the necessary preparation will be longer, more challenging and more intense.

Here is a question from someone who is considering special ops programs but has never been an athlete:

To what extent do you think people who are in good physical shape, but have never been an athlete or part of a team, can complete BUD/S?

You do not need to be an athlete to be in good or above-average shape. You will be surprised what the human body can do even if you did not play competitive sports growing up.

Maybe you have untapped potential and did not even know you have athletic ability. There is plenty of time to find out and to make yourself stronger, to get faster at running and swimming, and build the durability and work capacity needed for long days of selection-level training.

Whether you are an athlete or not, this process of preparation for special ops takes time. You may just need to be a little more patient to build up the running miles, swimming miles and repetitions needed to become a tactical athlete.

You will find that there is a difference between tactical athletes and sports athletes -- but some important similarities. The biggest mistake people make is that they join the military when they are not quite ready to serve.

Here are a few of the athletic skills you'll need to succeed.

Team Work

You may have missed out on some team-building activities that sports provide, but you can still get those needed skills by being part of a team in school clubs, musical or band performances, and even theater. With that many moving parts working together to make a song or a performance, that is team work as well.

Self-Motivation and Overall Conditioning

You have to be self-disciplined to train every day. Athletes in sports have coaches during the season and off-season drilling them in training. You may miss out on that expertise if doing it on your own. But to be honest, self-discipline is most important. You will see many former athletes get out of shape when they no longer are playing sports and being coached.

Specific Skills

Many athletes come into spec ops training and bring their own strengths and weaknesses. Expect the non-athlete to have them as well.

Many football players need to learn how to swim and run longer distances. Many long-distance runners need to learn how to lift weights and get stronger and maybe even how to swim as well. Swimmers need to learn how to function in gravity, as the impact of running can be painful on feet, shins and knees.

The non-athlete may have the flexibility to work on all those elements of fitness throughout the year, which may even give them a physical timeline advantage.

Regardless of your athletic status, everyone must work on one or more of the elements of fitness needed for the tactical athlete. These are speed and agility; strength and power; endurance (run, swim, ruck) and muscle stamina; flexibility and mobility; grip and other skills.

Being good at ALL of the above is required for the tactical athlete, no matter what your past experience may be.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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