How to Prevent Losing Military Fitness Gains While Underway

A sailor lifts weights aboard the USS New York.
Command Senior Chief Ervin Kelly, assigned to the amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (LPD 21), lifts weights in a gym aboard the ship, March 17, 2020. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Lyle Wilkie/U.S. Navy photo)

If you deploy on ships and train hard while in port, some of your endurance gains often can be lost or significantly decreased after a few months. Especially if you are making great strides with swimming conditioning, technique and water efficiency, a long boat ride is tough to maintain.

Here is a question from a young Navy sailor who is seeking to prepare for a future in the special-ops community of the Navy and for the Navy physical screening test (PST): 

  • 500-yard swim
  • Push-ups
  • Sit-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • 1.5-mile run

Stew -- I'll be going underway soon, and I want to figure out a good routine since I 'll be limited to calisthenics, some weights, rowing and a treadmill. I know I 'm going to lose some of my running and swimming endurance/skills, as I was at about 20 miles running and 8,000 meters of swimming a week. What do you suggest I do while on ship to stay in shape as best I can for cardio?

You have enough to stay in above-average shape while on ship; now you just have to make time for it. Doing some form of cardio every day is the best way to stay in shape for running and swimming. Maybe warming up with the rower and running your distance on the treadmill to keep up with your mileage per week. Make your weights and calisthenics workouts tough, with little to no rest in between, to keep your heart pumping. Doing Tabata intervals and sprints with the rower is a great cardio option as well.

Some ideas:

How do you suggest I get back into my program after being on the boat for two months?

As with anything in athletics, you do not want to start over where you left off after several weeks of not performing certain exercises. I would recommend going at about 50% of where you were for total miles/meters for running and swimming. You may find, though, that if that is easy, you can progress quicker than normal, especially if you trained hard on the treadmill and rower while deployed. 

The good news with swimming is that your technique will be unchanged, so now you just need to work on your conditioning. Do what you can. Rest when needed between 100- and 200-meter swim sets.

Some Ideas for Progressions on the Ship

First, keep doing the program you are currently on; just replace swimming with rowing. This way, you can progress through the workout plan and then, when in port, you just have to make up the swimming conditioning.

Another option is to take a break from impact cardio and work on strength training. There is nothing wrong with taking a six-week cycle of lifting for strength and power to build a foundation of strength. You still need to add some cardio at the end of the workout, so you do not lose it all. 

However, a strength focus is a healthy option, especially if your future involves log PT, boat carries, rucking and other load-bearing exercises. Once you are back in port, you can get back on the program, as mentioned in your first question above.

Good luck with your training and thanks for serving.

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

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