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Ask Stew: The Choice of Stroke for the Navy Swim Test



When taking swim tests for Navy Special Warfare or special operations, you must use underwater recovery strokes.

Acceptable strokes for the entrance exam are the elementary sidestroke, the breaststroke and a modified sidestroke nicknamed the combat swimmer stroke (CSS).

Here is a question from a young man who wonders why the Navy‘s current stroke of choice is not the freestyle or crawl.

Mr. Smith, why is it necessary to swim the Navy PST this way? Would the Navy ever consider changing the rules for swim tests so you can use the freestyle or crawl stroke for SEAL, SWCC, EOD or Diver enlistment and officer contracts? Just curious. — Thanks, Mike

There are two main reasons why the underwater recovery strokes are used by the Navy Special Ops units:

1. Efficiency

The stroke is very efficient when in the ocean, wearing fins or carrying gear when surface swimming for miles. It is also efficient without fins when used as part of the Navy Physical Screening Test (500-yard swim, push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and 1.5-mile run). Of course, that’s if you know how to do the stroke efficiently. Taking the time to prepare and learning proper technique will help you swim faster and perform better on the events that immediately follow.

2. Low Profile

The goal is to create a lower profile in the water by using the underwater recovery method for your arms during each stroke versus the out-of-water arm recovery freestyle or crawl stroke. From the very start of a SEAL, SWCC or EOD candidacy, being stealthy when swimming is a technique that’s bred into the future operator. The crawl stroke does not offer the same tactical usefulness.

See embedded html for video showing the CSS

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/tjIvweaEXWE” frameborder=”0″ allow=”accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture” allowfullscreen></iframe>

Any effective swim training requires good technique, getting into swimming shape and general water comfortability. Most of these swims will be done in open water at night while wearing and carrying your mission-essential gear.

This is a far different environment from swimming laps and doing flip turns in a pool wearing a Speedo. Learning the strokes that are most useful in the operational environment is why the Navy will likely never make a change to freestyle for the Special Operations Test.

The freestyle is a great stroke to use for practice. It’s a good tool to help people easily learn and build the swimming conditioning they need, especially if they are not from a swimming background. We use freestyle in our conditioning training with our special ops candidates.

One of my favorite workouts to get people into swimming shape and help them learn the CSS is the following:

The 50-50 Workout:

Swim 500 meters or yards as a warmup. Swimming your test distance as a “warmup” is mentally empowering as it helps you to think the swim portion of a future test is actually a warmup.

Repeat 10 times
Swim 50 meters freestyle fast
Swim 50 meters CSS or test stroke of choice at goal pace for your test.

If your goal is to swim 8-9 minutes for your test, you need to swim each 50-meter section at 48-54 seconds to meet that 8- to 9-minute goal.

One thing I have learned over the years is that a big organization like the U.S. Navy does not turn around very quickly. Just like a full-speed aircraft carrier, it takes a while for any change to occur. This change is nowhere on the horizon.

There Are Some Units That Allow the Freestyle Stroke

The Navy does allow Air Rescue Swimmers to swim freestyle during the Navy PST to compete for their future job billets. Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmers and Air Force Special Warfare also allow the freestyle stroke as part of their Physical Abilities and Stamina Test (PAST). Their missions are different from Navy Special Warfare and special operations, so freestyle can be quite useful when saving civilians and military members in the ocean.

— 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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