Here's How a Non-Swimming Athlete Can Improve at Swimming

Navy swimming PST
CDR John B. Horn, Commanding Officer of Navy Talent Acquistion Group, performs a 500-yard swim during a Physical Screening Test on March 23, 2022. (Photo by Erin Newton, Commander, Navy Recruiting Command)

Swimming shape is something entirely different from the conditioning you get from running, rowing or playing any land-based sports.

Swimming conditioning is difficult to maintain without a place to swim. Sure, you can work the muscles of swimming on land (push-ups, pull-ups, dips, flutter kicks) and even use land-based swimming machines like the Vasa Trainer, but for most people, there is nothing like getting in the water and practicing the many skills you will see in typical military diving and rescue swimming programs.

Even though you may be an excellent runner who can easily do multiple six-minute miles, you will be shocked that one minute of swimming will leave you out of breath. Let's face it. You are not in swimming shape and need to work on technique and conditioning in the water to develop a wide variety of pool skills (treading, lifesaving, underwater swimming and more).

Here are some common issues for many non-swimmers who want to improve a water weakness by adding swimming to their training cycles for several days per week.

How many of you struggle to even swim 50-100 meters without getting out of breath, much less the entire 500-yard or 500-meter swim you must do for military diving training?

The goal is to learn the stroke technique at an above-average pace so you can build up to swimming 50 yards in 50 seconds without sprinting. The ideal is to find a steady pace with about 5-7 strokes per length using the combat swimmer stroke (CSS).

The freestyle stroke would be different, but a stroke count in the range of 14-16 strokes every 25 yards is a decent and efficient count, especially for a non-swimming athlete who is learning to swim. As soon as you get your swim down to the pace of a yard per second and can hold it for a lap (50 yards), you now must get in shape to hold it for the remaining distance of your swim (usually nine more laps or 450 more yards or meters).

Conditioning for swimming typically requires you to be in the pool swimming nearly every day. Ideally, you should swim this workout five to six days a week if you wish to see results quickly.

The 50-50 Workout

Warm up with a 500-yard or 500-meter swim. Work toward being able to do this nonstop without rest.

Repeat 10 times.

  • Swim 50 meters freestyle fast (make sure you get winded)
  • Swim 50 meters CSS (try to catch your breath during this technique-focused swim lap)
  • Rest as needed, but minimum rest is the goal (10-15 seconds max)

Typical candidates have reduced their times from 10 minutes to eight minutes for the 500-yard CSS in just 3-4 weeks by doing the 50-50 workout 4-5 times per week.

Do you have issues with the stroke timing? Here is the Combat Swimmer Stroke breakdown, which uses professional swimming coaching elements from other strokes to build the perfect CSS form: top arm, bottom arm/breathe, kick/arm recovery and glide.

With swimming, it is difficult to describe how to swim without the use of videos to show the strokes.

1. Top arm pull. Freestyle Catch: Just like in freestyle (turn your head with the arm pull)

2. Bottom arm pull. Breaststroke Scull: Breathe during the bottom arm pull.

3. Scissor kick or breaststroke kick: Kick and recover arms to the overhead position to be ready to glide.

4. Glide/streamline body position: This is how your glide should look after every kick and arm recovery of the CSS.

Are you getting winded when you kick off the wall and try to glide? Getting winded after kicking off the wall and gliding is a sure sign you are not in swimming shape. If you cannot kick off the wall and glide for a few seconds, then do the double arm pull (aka breaststroke pullout).

You must practice daily, but don't neglect your lifting, running and calisthenics. I prefer to swim last; however, I would recommend a few days of swimming first to get accustomed to swimming for the Navy PST tests. However, swimming last (at the end of running, lifting, calisthenics) is perfect if you are preparing for the Air Force Special Warfare Initial Fitness Test (IFT).

Do you struggle with losing your pace the longer you swim? Getting winded and losing your set pace after the first 100 meters is another sign that you have improved to a point, but are still not quite in the swimming shape needed to maintain your pace for the full 500 meters. Keep practicing.

If you find the 50-50 is getting easier, reduce the rest periods to zero between sets or increase the workout to 100-100m sets. You need to start practicing bigger swim sets to work on maintaining the set pace that will yield your goal time.

In the end, you need to be able to swim 1,500-2,000 meters without fins nonstop to be ready for the demands of swimming in the military. None of these times needs to be world class; just become competent in the water with training that helped you get into swimming shape.

Swimming, treading and other water skills that are tested in the military require time and practice long before you join the military if you want to see success in the wide variety of military swimming and diving programs available.

Put in the time and be patient with the process, and you can be at an above-average military swimming level in a relatively short period of time.

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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