Ask Stew: Achieving Faster Swim Times for the Navy Physical Screening Test

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(U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Colby Cooper)

There are many areas that can increase swim times for people training to crush the Navy Physical Screening Test, which requires a 500-yard swim. Depending on the Navy job you want, you can either do this in freestyle (rescue swimmer) or using a common underwater recovery stroke like the breaststroke, sidestroke or combat swimmer stroke (CSS).

If you want to do well in swimming, you have to first learn the technique to master efficiency, then you have to train hard to get into swimming shape. It is different from running or other cardio methods and requires time in the pool. Here is an email from a new swimmer.

Hey, Stew. Thanks for your articles and videos out there, especially on swimming. They have been very helpful, though I feel like I need to get faster as my 500-yard CSS swim, for the Navy PST is just under 10 minutes. I can do a 50-yard lap in 50 seconds, and it takes me six strokes to get across the 25-yard pool. I have issues with doing double arm pulls, stopping to breathe on turnarounds and laps times getting slower each set. I run an 8:20 1.5-mile run so my cardio is good. Any suggestions? -- Matt

Matt, this is a typical problem with many non-swimming athletes who may be good on land but have not developed the swimming comfort and conditioning required to be faster and more competitive with eight- to nine-minute swim times for the PST.

It sounds like your stroke is capable of 500 yards in 500 seconds, but your heart and lungs are not. Yes, it is swimming conditioning that is holding you back. Though, just to be sure, send a 50-yard swim of you doing the CSS to Stew@stewsmith.com and I will gladly critique it.

I post countless videos on my YouTube Channel (shorts too) and Instagram Reels that are reader-submitted CSS videos, and I provide voiceover critiques for you to compare and contrast forms and techniques.

One simple issue could be that you are adding too many flutter kicks into the stroke in between the scissor kick and glide phase. This can quickly burn you out and turn an easy swim pace into an anaerobic sprint that is unsustainable for many athletes. The sequence of this modified side stroke we nicknamed the CSS is the following:

  • Top arm pull (turn your head with the pull)
  • Bottom arm pull (inhale during bottom arm pull)
  • Scissor kick (or breaststroke kick) at the same time as streamline recovery of your arms to the overhead position
  • Glide for two to three seconds (without additional kicks, start exhaling during glide)
  • Repeat

For your specific problems, the double arm pull (or breaststroke pullout) is not needed, but it will help you maintain momentum off the wall (which is the fastest part of the swim each length, with less effort). I prefer it and, as you get into better swimming shape, you will be able to handle double arm pulls off the wall throughout the 500-yard swim.

If you are huffing and puffing on the turnarounds, you are wasting time. You can add more than a minute to your swim by taking two breaths at the 19 turnarounds of the 500-yard swim in a 25-yard pool. Work on your open turn and take one breath and, with no delay, kick off, hold the glide and work to not lose that wall-kick momentum.

This is a telltale sign of you are not in swimming shape, even though you can outrun most people taking the 1.5-mile timed run. The other sign that your conditioning is the issue is that you continually get slower each lap of the 500-yard swim. You might also start off too fast and burn yourself out in the first few laps.

For instance, since you run an 8:20 1.5-mile run, that means your mile pace is in the 5:30 range. Running an 85-second quarter-mile for six laps will achieve your current score. Imagine you ran your first lap at 70 seconds, the following laps would be considerably worse and worse unless you are in next-level running shape (4:40 mile pace).

So, it could be your starting pace is way too fast or you are not in the type of shape to handle your current technique capability (50 yards in 50 seconds swim).

Here is your answer: Do the 50-50 Workout to get into swimming shape quickly. Many people have used this free swim workout to get from 10-minute swims to 8-minute swims in less than a month's time.

This is the 50-50 workout:

Warm up with a 500-yard swim (free, CSS or mixed). When starting out, you may not complete a 500-yard swim without stopping. That is fine. Rest as needed. The swim will get easier the more often you do it.

After warming up, start the 50-50:

Repeat 10 times

  • Swim 50 yards free hard and fast
  • Swim 50 yards CSS (combat swimmer stroke) at the goal pace
  • Rest as needed every 100 meters but build up to a level where the CSS is your recovery
  • Cool down with a 500-yard swim or 10-minute tread (mixing in no hands as often as possible)

You have the hard part done (mastering the stroke), now just get in the pool four to five times a week and do this workout to get in shape for the stroke. Let me know how it works for you.

-- 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 start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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