Why Tactical Athletes Must Become Good at All Physical Activities

Paratrooper takes part in Army Combat Fitness Test.
U.S. Army medic paratroopers assigned to various battalions within the 173rd Airborne Brigade participate in an Army Combat Fitness Test during a Best Medic Competition on Caserma Del Din, Italy, June 4-5, 2020. (Spc. Ryan Lucas/U.S. Army photo)

Strength athletes have a challenging road making the transition from sports, such as football and powerlifting, to the military.

Here is an email from an athlete who needs to change things up for a few training cycles (or longer) to counter the typical weaknesses that strength athletes bring to their tactical athlete journeys.

Stew, I am looking to pursue a career in the Navy and aspire to become a member of (the) SWCC or diving communities. I played college football, so I have a solid strength and power foundation. My weaknesses are running, swimming and overall calisthenics. I have a full year to train for this career or more if I need it. Thanks. Any recommendations? Alex

Alex, your background sounds familiar. I was never good enough to play college ball, but I started this military spec ops journey with that kind of strength and power background. Lifting weights was what I enjoyed doing. When I ran, it was never more than a 400-meter lap around a track. Anything over that distance was "long-distance running."

Speed, strength and power are three especially important elements of tactical fitness, and you must have a foundation in these abilities if you are going to serve in the tactical professions. Still, getting good at everything is now the goal versus just being really good at strength, speed and power. It takes time to make that transition.

Even though you will lose some of your best strength numbers, you still will be stronger than most of the non-strength athletes in the Navy Spec Warfare/Operations selection programs. Even if you have not been lifting for a long time, you will have solid strength numbers and all the strength you need for the job.

Your weaknesses in cardio endurance and muscle stamina must be developed with 100% focus. Learning to swim efficiently, improving your running, learning to run lighter on your feet and doing high repetitions during workouts should be the primary focus for the next year or more.

Yes, it likely will take that much time to build your running and swimming skills to turn yourself into the multi-mode cardio endurance athlete you will have to become to get both to and through the training programs you seek.

Remember, there are two phases of training you need to master.

1. Getting to the training by mastering the Navy Physical Screening Test

Both Special Warfare combatant crewman and Navy Diver training will require you to ace the Navy PST.

  • Swim 500 yards. You'll need to master the CSS swim stroke. See how to do it in the CSS Techniques for Navy PST Swim Test.
  • Push-ups two minutes
  • Sit-ups two minutes
  • Pull-ups max
  • Run 1.5 miles. If this is a long distance to you, you need to start progressing each week with your running. If you are big and carrying a lot of bulk, you may want to use this calisthenics and cardio cycle to lose some weight that will make calisthenics and running much easier.

Check out the PST Clinic to help you understand strategies for acing the PST. It will take several practice runs before you can figure how most of these strategies apply to you and your athletic training history.

2. Getting through the training by preparing specifically for the challenges of your selection

Both options you mention will include swimming, water confidence, running and PT workouts. The diving program will require a much higher level of water abilities and general overall comfort being underwater. The SWCC program will test your overall toughness on land and is modeled after the Navy SEAL program with similar training during the first phase. This will mean running longer, swimming longer with fins, getting comfortable treading water and doing underwater swims. This training will take time if you do not have a history of swimming or other water sports in your background.

Being a tactical athlete who is preparing specifically for a challenging selection program will require time and practice doing things that you never did as a football player.

Consider yourself more of a triathlete than a power athlete now. In fact, getting on the bike as you start your running progression will help you avoid the typical running injuries that new longer-distance runners often suffer after they add miles to their training week.

If I had to rank the importance of your cardio training, I would say swimming is most important (with and without fins). That's followed by treading water, running and then biking. This still will work the heart without impacting the legs if you are feeling the pains of added miles on a large body.

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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