Ask Stew: How Runners Can Improve Weaknesses Before Spec Ops Testing

Swimming was one of the events at the 21st Ordnance Company Challenge, a three-day team competition at Kirtland testing physical and mental fitness. (Photo by Dennis Carlson)

Regardless of your athletic history before you begin a special ops career, you will discover that it both built incredible strengths and developed near equal and opposite weaknesses.

Take this running athlete as he prepares himself for the Navy physical screening test (PST) for Special Warfare Combatant Crewman (SWCC) training, as well as the following grueling selection program after boot camp.

Stew, I just finished my cross-country career having run well throughout high school and now in college. Based on your advice, I now see all the weaknesses I need to work on (swimming, strength, power, weight gain). I am pretty good with running and calisthenics and meet the standards on above average scale, but swimming is tough. I am not in swimming shape and my kick is weak. Any suggestions as I prepare for Navy SWCC?

After a few more questions and watching video of the swim, I recommended that he not use the breaststroke kick for the combat swimmer stroke (aka modified sidestroke) since his athletic history is built for scissor kicks. To build up swimming conditioning, my go-to workout for all non-swimming athletes is the 50-50 workout.

Get In Swimming Shape

Swim 500 meters to warm up and use any stroke. My goal is for all candidates to be able to associate the 500-yard or 500-meter swim of the Navy PST or the Air Force PAST (physical ability and stamina test) with a “warmup.”

This mindset will help by not only physically preparing you for this distance, but psychologically as well. It is very powerful to go into a swim test and be able to say, “This distance is just my warmup.”

Here is the full workout you should do near daily to get into that kind of swimming shape:

Warm up with a 500-meter swim (any stroke)

Repeat 10 times Swim freestyle: 50 meters fast

Swim CSS: 50 meters at goal pace

Rest as needed. The goal is to reduce the rest to near minimum (a few breaths) over time, but you may need 30-45 seconds when you first get started with this one.

This swim workout will help you develop the conditioning you need not only to crush the swim but still have energy for everything else before or after the swim test. I promise 1,500 meters of a swim workout will prepare you for any 500-meter swim test. You just have to do it 5-6 days a week.

Swimming with fins and kickboard drills

You can get out of the habit of using the breaststroke kick by putting on a pair of slip-on fins and doing the CSS the same way you do without fins (pull, breathe, kick, glide).

This will force you to do either flutter kicks or scissor kicks, as you cannot do a breaststroke kick very well while wearing fins. Work on moving your legs through the water to produce power the same way you would if you were running, performing jumping lunges or doing flutter kicks on your back.

You should be pushing water with the bottom of your forward kicking foot and leg and pushing water with the top of the backward kicking foot and leg. That is a scissor kick. There is a difference. Being a running athlete, your hips are more developed to use that movement.

If that does not work, add a kickboard and do the following workout:

Repeat 5 times Swim: 25 meters scissor kick and glide (kick only with no arm pulls) with kickboard

Swim: 50 meters CSS (practice perfecting scissor kick without board)

Most cross country runners also need to add some upper-body strength and lower-body strength and power to be more durable under the loads of rucks, boats and logs used in most special ops selection programs.

That means get in the weight room, reduce your running miles and eat more food. Focus on a six-minute-per-mile pace for PST timed runs and sub-seven-minute mile pace for longer timed runs of 4-5 miles. If you want to be bigger and stronger, you must eat big and lift big. A six- to 12-week lift cycle should be able to put 10 pounds of mass on you if you eat to gain weight.

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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