Ask Stew: How to Swim with Cammies

Marine Recon Swim Test
Lance Cpl. Jacob Maze, a field radio operator with 3rd Force Reconnaissance Training Platoon, 4th Marine Division, participates in a water survival screening at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, on July 19, 2020. (Lance Cpl. Colby Bundy/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Many military water survival courses require you to tread water, bounce and learn how to survive while wearing your uniform in the water. One of the toughest swim tests out there is the USMC RECON screening test swim that requires Marines applying for RECON units to swim 500 meters in cammies, followed by a variety of treading, diving and survival skills.

Here is an email from a future Marine with RECON goals:

Mr. Smith, do you have any advice for preparing for the RECON Screener swim test? I am OK at swimming and have only tried swimming in pants and a long sleeve shirt, since I do not have a cammy uniform yet, and it is much harder. I am still about a year out from joining the Marines, so I have time. I'm wondering how much I should be practicing with clothes on. Thanks for your time -- Jason S.

Jason, it is smart of you to consider preparing now for these challenges as they pose obstacles even to experienced swimmers. The screener has an incredibly challenging water component, but the overall test is much more than just swimming.

The actual RECON training selection test includes the following:

  • Swim: 500 meters in full cammies using the Combat Side Stroke (CSS), elementary sidestroke or breaststroke.
  • Rifle retrieval: Recover rifle from the bottom of the pool's deep end, followed by a 25-meter swim tow.
  • Underwater swim: 25 meters with cammies
  • Tread: 30 minutes in cammies
  • USMC PFT plus push-ups: pull-ups, push-ups, crunches, three-mile timed run
  • USMC obstacle course: Run it twice for time.

Swimming should be part of your daily training, but so should high-repetition calisthenics and fast-paced cardio. Practicing your technique on the obstacle course is highly recommended, just as is practicing your swimming technique. If you are just OK at swimming, I would recommend swimming 4-5 times a week to work on technique and conditioning.

When you swim without cammies, try this quick workout that will get you in shape for any 500-meter swim. I call it the 50-50 workout:

No Cammy Workout/Cammy Fam

Warm up with a 500-meter swim using any stroke. You want to get your physical and mental conditioning to a point where a 500-meter swim is "just a warmup," so do this before any swim workout.

I would do this program for most of your weekly workouts and eventually start adding cammies for a five- to 10-minute cooldown each day. The main workout is for conditioning, and the cammy cooldown is for familiarization.

Repeat 10 times.

  • Freestyle swim: 50 meters fast
  • CSS, sidestroke or breaststroke: 50 meters

Try to use the CSS, sidestroke or breaststroke to "catch your breath." If you cannot catch your breath with any of these strokes, take 10-15 seconds before the next set, if needed. Eventually, you want to do this workout without rest.

For the most effective stroke and fastest of the three options (CSS, sidestroke, breaststroke), I suggest using the elementary side stroke since you can keep your head out of the water to breathe the entire time. I would take full advantage of the wall kickoff and turnarounds to do what is called the breaststroke pullout.

The problem that everyone has while swimming in cammies is that you get nearly no glide phase from your stroke. The resistance that the clothing creates in the water is like swimming with the brakes on.

Rest phase: There is no rest, but you can change strokes to all rest for certain swimming muscle groups. You should mix in a few strokes since you may find after a few hundred meters that you either will need to change sides when doing the sidestroke or CSS. You may need to change the kick and try the breaststroke for a lap or two.

The goal is to use the swim stroke that you can do fastest while remaining comfortable in the pool. Practice until there is no doubt about how you are going to swim. If you're going to be competitive on this swim test, you'll need to have a strategy and lots of practice.

Once you build up your swimming conditioning with regular workouts in the pool, start to do more swimming workouts with cammies and add SCUBA fins as well. Swimming with fins is a great way to top off a long run, ruck or leg-day workout.

The goal is to swim the 500 meters in under 15 minutes, but some of the more competitive times will be in the 12- to 13-minute zone (or even faster), so do not settle for the minimum standard.

This swim and the other events of the RECON Training Selection Test require you to bring your "A'' Game if you want to succeed. Start swimming today.

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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