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DUDE - You Are NOT in Swimming Shape

Stew Smith

DUDE - You are NOT in Swimming Shape

You may be able to run or ruck for days or play high speed sports, but when you are new to swimming - stand by.  It takes time to first learn the technique and then get into swimming shape - maybe months.  Every week a new athlete joins my local training group seeking to improve his/her PST scores.  We teach the basic Combat Swimmer Stroke and fix the typical (any not so typical) errors with this military / spec ops swim stroke. 

For consistency purposes, I am speaking about a 25 yd pool per length, 50yds per lap, 10 laps equals 500yds.  500yds in 500 seconds = 8:20 pace.  That is MY minimum standard for spec ops swimming.  I will interchange yards and meters as well.  Some DoD swim tests are tested in yards (Navy PST) and meters (Air Force IFT). 

Here is an excellent technique of the CSS performed by a former football player / sprinter athlete.

Here are some helpful workouts and progressions that may take a few months to build up to - once you have successfully learned the technique and know how to swim efficiently:

Comment #1:  After 50yds, I can barely breathe and lose my technique.
Answer:  DUDE, you are not in swimming shape. 

For technique teaching purposes, I try to get people to be able to swim 50yds in 50 seconds without sprinting.  A nice steady pace with about 5-7 strokes per length. Once you get your swim down to a yard per second pace and can hold it for a lap (50yds), now you have to get in shape to hold it at that pace for 9 more laps (450yds).  This is typically the part that requires you to be in the pool swimming - near daily.  In fact, I recommend swimming this workout 5-6 days a week if you want to do it quickly:

The CSS - Free Style 50-50 Workout
Repeat 5-10 Times
Swim 50m free style as fast / hard as you want (get winded)
Swim 50m CSS at goal pace.  (recommend a yard / second)
- rest a 1:2 ratio (rest: work) at first (that means if it takes you 1:40 to swim the above 100m, then you rest ::50.  Time each 100m but keep track of your goal pace 50m CSS as the goal is try to keep that each set at a yard per second.  However, as you get into better shape that rest be decrease to a minimal time (ZERO rest eventually).  Your goal is to "rest" by doing the CSS - get winded doing the freestyle skip breath (6-8 strokes / breath).

My recommendation is build up to 10 sets of the above workout.  Eventually, this will get easy, then you can make it a 75-75 workout or try 50-100 mix of the free / CSS swim sets for 5-10 total rounds.  The goal here is to build up to a minimum daily standard of swimming 1000m-1500m.  

Comment #2: I seem to get winded after I kick off the wall and can't do the double arm pull (aka breast stroke pullout).

Answer:  DUDE, you are not in swimming shape. 

You have to keep practicing near daily, but do not neglect your running, lifting, calisthenics.  Personally, I like to swim last after all the above, but consider a few days of swimming first as you have to get used to swimming first in the PST / PAST tests in military swimming.  Once you are crushing the PST, you do not have to worry about swimming first - unless it fits your training schedule. The better you get at your over all cardio conditioning, the better you will be in swimming.  Eventually, your cardio endurance / effort in the water will be at a level where you are not exhausted after a 500m swim. 

Comment #3: I have my pace down, but lose it on the last half of the swim and I drop to 60 seconds per 50m instead of 50 seconds per lap.

Answer:  DUDE you are not in swimming shape - BUT getting closer...

At this point, it is time to start Warming up with your test.  When you first get in the pool warmup with 500m swim.  You can mix it with some CSS/freestyle if you prefer or do it all free or CSS.  Just get used to swimming 500m non-stop and at a set pace.  Do this for a few weeks prior to the above 50-50 swim workout and you will be swimming sub 8:30 very soon. 

Once people learn the technique and show that they are easily swim 50m in 50 seconds, I have seen it take less than a month to going from 10-11 minutes to under 9 minutes - even breaking 8 minutes in the 500yd CSS.  Happens all the time but it is a combination of learning the technique so you are not over-exerting each lap and conditioning.  These workouts do both for you. 

Comment #4:  How do I get my kick stronger?
Answer: just kidding.  Try a swim workout with fins on leg day. 

After leg day (run, rucking, leg PT, lifting weights), we will swim with fins non-stop for 20-30 minutes to build a foundation of swimming with fins.  It takes about 5-6 weeks to get the legs, hips, and ankles used to that strain of kicking non-stop.  See if you can maintain your pace of a yard per second again with fins.  If you can do 500yds in 8:30 and 1000yds in 17 minutes (or faster), you can take that pace and build upon it to 2000,3000,4000yds which is the 2-mile swim distance you will do each week at BUDS.  Preparing for that event should be done many many times during your preparation.  It is not just 500m without fins.  You will swim 99% of your swims in selection (and after) with fins - guaranteed. So swimming with fins is to get your kick stronger BUT also prepare you for weekly timed events at BUDS.  Fail a swim and you will be kicked out.  Maintain a yard-per-second pace and you will be in the top 10% of the class in swimming. 

The universal answer - you have to swim to get into swimming shape.  Once you learn the techniques those skills tend to not go away and you can rely on your other cardio events to maintain some set of cardio endurance to be OK in the water.  But to get good and stay good at swimming - you need to be swimming.  PERIOD. 

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Who is Stew Smith CSCS? Coach, Trainer, Writer, PodcasterI'm the former Navy SEAL that tactical candidates go to for books, ebooks and online coaching to prepare themselves to get to and through intense tactical assessment and selection programs and qualify for service in their chosen tactical profession.  See More at


Where to Find More Information About Optimal Performance Training Programs

When you start training again, consider the seasonal tactical fitness model.  I call it A WAY to train and obviously not the only way to train. But it offers the opportunity to never neglect your weaknesses, helps with flexibility and mobility, and will also put you at a level of physical abilities where you are happy with your overall ability to do just about anything. We have a system where the seasons dictate our training. When it is nicer outside, we tend to run and do more calisthenics. When it is colder and not so nice, we lift more, run less, and still maintain our outdoor activities with shorter runs and rucks.


Check it out: 

Seasonal Tactical Fitness Periodization System.


  1. These Seasonal Tactical Fitness BLOCK Periodization programs will walk you through 4 x 4 weeks cycles with 16 weeks of each season in two programs. (32 total weeks)

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    3 Weeks Strength - 1 Week PT / Cardio Focus (16 weeks)

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    Army PFT / CFT Workout (Prep For Rucking, OPAT, ACFT)
    Army Special Forces / Ranger Workout
    Army Air Assault School Workout
    Army Airborne Workout
    Air Force Special Warfare IFT / OFT / Selection Prep


    Advanced Running Program - Special Ops Supplement Plan
    USMC RECON / MarSOC Workout
    USMC OCS / TBS Workout
    USMC IST and PFT


    The Combat Conditioning Workout
    Air Force PJ / CCT Workout  Battlefield Airman Prep Course
    The UBRR Upper Body Round Robin Workout / Spec Ops version


    The Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer / Navy SAR Workout
    The Service Academy Workout (West Point, Navy, Air Force Academy)
    The Navy, Air Force, Marine Corp Boot Camp Workout.


    The Law Enforcement Physical Fitness Workouts

    The FBI Academy Workout  |   FBI Workout Vol 2  
    The DEA Workout
    The FLETC Workout - Ace the PEB
    The PFT Bible: Pushups, Sit-ups, 1.5 Mile Run
    The Fire Fighter Workout - Ace the CPAT


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