How Non-Swimmers Can Get Ready for BUD/S or Aquatic Special Ops

A solder flutter kicks during a fitness challenge.
A U.S. Army soldier flutter-kicks in shallow water as his team watches and counts his repetitions during one of the events at the 74th Engineer Dive Detachment's Diver Fitness Challenge at Kuwait Naval Base, Kuwait, Aug. 31, 2018. (Spc. Adam Parent/U.S. Army photo)

Depending on your athletic background, it is likely you can be classified into one of two groups: swimming athletes or non-swimming athletes. While you may be one of the few well-rounded athletes with both strong in and out of water experience, typically you are one or the other.

For the non-swimming athlete, preparing for jobs that are aquatic in nature is a progression of learning and conditioning. It must take place whether you are preparing for lifeguard training or SEAL, EOD/diver, SWCC, RECON, Air Force PJ, rescue swimmer or other tactical training programs that involve swim testing and other pool training. The journey to being ready takes time and lots of swimming practice.

Below is a typical progression of training used to take a beginner who never has swam laps and making that person competent with water events (drownproofing, underwater swim, treading, SCUBA diving, buddy tow, etc.) while swimming efficiently and fast.

1. Efficiency and Technique Training: Get in the Pool

There is very little you can do out of the water to help you with swimming. At the beginning stage, most people should take lessons to learn the basics of body position and timing of the pulls, breaths, kicks and glides for getting across the pool in as few strokes as possible. Learning to do so is learning efficiency.

If you have to learn the freestyle stroke for your swimming test or general conditioning, you can find anyone near a pool to watch or take lessons. The combat swimmer stroke (CSS) is a bit different. Not many people know it, and for some swim tests in the military, you cannot swim freestyle and instead must use an underwater recovery stroke like side stroke, breaststroke or CSS.

For this phase, what is most important is comfortability in the water. Getting across the pool without being exhausted means you are getting more efficient, but to swim 500+ meters for a swim test, you also need to build your conditioning to maintain your pace.

Three-Part Breakdown of the CSS

Biggest Mistakes Made When Swimming the CSS

Nothing will beat time in the pool, practicing first the proper timing of the stroke. If you are really serious, get in the pool near daily for at least 30 minutes to break through this learning curve. You'll need to devote as few as a few days or as long as several weeks, depending on your ability to learn.

*Side note: Some swimmers learned the first steps using the Vasa Trainer system, which actually is a "dry land" swim workout system that reenforces proper arm pull technique and builds power in the swim stroke itself.

2. Perfect the Timing and Power of the Stroke

Most people will figure out the basics of the stroke within the first hour of learning. From there, the next step is making the stroke more powerful by pulling harder and kicking harder in the right direction to move forward. Make sure the force vectors you are creating with your top arm pull, bottom arm pull and kick are pointed directly behind you so you move forward. Many people instead push down and kick sideways, moving them in directions they do not intend to go. Check out the terms on YouTube and watch swimmers do the following:

Breaststroke pullout -- Kick off the wall with a double arm pull.

Freestyle catch -- Learn how to pull. The top arm pull of the CSS is nothing more than a freestyle pull.

Breaststroke scull. The bottom arm pull is a short stroke that is basically a breaststroke pull.

3. Work on Streamlining

By this time, you have a powerful kick and pull with perfect timing of the stroke, but maybe your glide is not what it could be. That is likely because you are not streamlined in the water. Being streamlined means having a tight arm recovery as you recover your arms into the glide position after the kick. Being streamlined off the wall will help you build momentum for the rest of the pool length as well, so take advantage of the walls.

Streamline swimming is the key to fast swimming, and you should be in this glide position after every kick for a few seconds and off the wall for the first 5-6 meters off the wall.

4. Conditioning

Once you figure out the stroke and you are capable of swimming easily at a meter per second for one lap, your technique is able to swim 500 meters in 500 seconds or 8:20, which is a really good goal for a non-swimming athlete.

But you likely just cannot maintain the pace for a full 500 meters. No worries, here is how you fix it: Swim 1,000-1,500 meters a day to get in shape for a fast 500.

Here is the workout I recommend 5-6 days a week:

Warmup with a 500m swim (or yards)

Repeat 10 times

Swim freestyle 50 meters fast (try 4-8 strokes per breath, too)

Swim CSS 50 meters at goal pace

Remember: minimal rest (or practice treading for a minute if you prefer)

5. Next Month

Give this workout above about a month of near daily effort, and you will see a big improvement and maybe even come closer to eight minutes flat or getting under eight minutes. Once you are in that zone and see that you have a better overall PST score from it, it is time to get into maintenance and focus on getting through training for the physical screening test (PST). That means start focusing on swimming with fins and progressing up to two-mile swims with fins, longer timed runs, rucking and some lifting for long PT preparation.

Most people prepare by focusing solely on the PST for their pre-spec ops training and missing out on the important phase of tactical fitness: Getting through the training. It is easy to get to training but requires another layer of training to get through selection programs in the military. Do not blow that off.

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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