Ask Stew: Should I Focus on Swimming Faster for the Navy PST?

Future sailor and special warfare candidate Zachary Purcell completes the swim portion of the Navy’s physical screening test.
Future sailor and special warfare candidate Zachary Purcell completes the swim portion of the Navy’s physical screening test in Shreveport, La., April 29, 2015. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Fahey/U.S. Navy photo)

The Navy physical screening test (PST) is the current assessment tool for recruits and candidates to get accepted into many programs. BUD/S (SEAL training), SWCC, EOD/diver, air rescue swimmer and special amphibious recon corpsman (SARC) require additional preparation and training beyond the standard Navy physical fitness assessment (push-ups, plank, 1.5-mile run) in order to join.

The Navy PST is a 500-yard swim, push-ups (two minutes), sit-ups (two minutes), pull-ups (max) and a 1.5-mile run. Here is a question from a candidate who is doing well and wants to do even better:

Hey, Stew. I wanted to know how to get a faster swim time. Mine right now is 8:31 with the Combat Swimmer Stroke (CSS). Is there anything I can do to go faster, and do I really need to have a faster time? Alex

Alex, thanks for the question. I want you to consider two answers:

1. The Answer to Swimming Faster

Sure. Getting faster is a combination of swimming conditioning and improvement in technique. Being at 8:30, you are already one minute faster than the optimal recommended scores on the SEAL/Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman (SWCC) website. I recommend being in the 8:30 range as a good, above-average standard. Yes, there will be people faster than you, but if you are swimming under nine minutes without fins, you are fast enough.

Also, if you are not great at a different element of the PST, you might want to focus on the run or the calisthenics portion of the test if you are flirting with less than optimal scores in events that you consider a weakness. Swimming 500 yards is not a weakness.

My advice is to focus on any weaknesses you may have, as they will be exposed on Day 1 of SEAL training (or any other selection, for that matter). Shoot for 80-100 push-ups and sit-ups, 15-20 pull-ups and a nine-minute, 1.5-mile timed run before you work on your already great swim time.

However, if you want to get faster at the CSS or freestyle swim (SAR swimmer stroke), try the 50-50 workout and advance to the 100-100 workout. It works like this:

Warm up with a 500-yard swim (any stroke). The key here is to make your test swim your "warmup" for the rest of the PST. This has both physical and psychological enhancements, helping reduce anxiety by actually saying before the PST, "OK, this 500-yard swim is just my warmup."

Then do the following:

Repeat 10 times.

  • Swim 50 meters freestyle fast
  • Swim 50 meters CSS at goal pace but try to catch your breath
  • Minimal rest as needed.

If you do this workout 4-5 times a week, you will be much faster in 2-3 weeks. I have seen people go from 10-minute, 500-yard swim to eight-minute, 500-yard swim in 3-4 weeks. Swimming 1,500 meters in a workout will get you in shape for any 500-meter swim test, but you have to do it.

The PST is only taken a few times prior to SEAL training and at BUD/S Prep and will never be taken again during BUD/S. The workouts and tests change significantly during SEAL training. Here is the bigger issue in front of you ...

2. The Answer to a Bigger Issue with Testing and Training

Instead of trying to spend more time getting faster without fins, start practicing swimming with fins as you will take two-mile ocean swims with scuba fins at SEAL training every week for 26 weeks. The PST is an assessment to get you accepted into the training, but two miles with fins, four-mile timed runs, log PT/boat carry/rucking, treading water and various pool skills will get you through the training.

Once you can crush the PST with above-average scores, start working on weaknesses and focusing more on specific event training -- not just the fitness test to enter the selections that use the PST for its recruitment assessment.

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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