PODCAST EPISODE 11: Combat Sidestroke
By U.S. Navy SEAL + SWCC Scout Team
Posted July 18, 2018
The open water can be both deadly and unforgiving. Before sailors become SEALs or SWCC, they must demonstrate mastery of this punishing and unpredictable element; making it their most valuable ally.
I’m Daniel Fletcher, today we speak with aquatics expert Dan Kish at the Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School. We discuss the best practices, tools and techniques used exclusively by Navy SEAL or SWCC candidates and operators, particularly the Combat Sidestroke. Let’s DIVE in.
DF: For starters, thank you for taking the time. Your expertise is super important to be able to share with as many people as possible that are trying to get successfully through this program. For starters, if you can just go ahead and spend a little bit of time talking about your role here in Naval Special Warfare, and then we can take it from there.
Sounds good. My name’s Dan. I am one of the physical training leaders here at Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School, and my main point of focus is the aquatic side. So, it’s much more than just swimming. We spend a lot of time on treading, water rescue, pool comp skills. My job is to help make the candidates as comfortable and confident in the water over the eight weeks here and plan and execute all the workouts safely to the highest standard that we expect of them.
DF: The water aspect of, of kind of the initial exposure to the standards of the, the physical standards test is usually where a lot of people I think are at their weakest. At least most people have not been exposed to the level of swimming that is needed, required to be able to make it in the program or even kind of start training. So, I think that your information will be really valuable for a lot of people listening. Maybe if you could just start off with talking just a little bit about your background in aquatics. I’m guessing that you were a swimmer, or you were involved in some sort of water sports before you came into the program.
So, correct. I always loved being in the water. I was that kid you couldn’t get me out of the pool, the lake growing up. I got pretty good at swimming, so I swam, you know, the aquatic kid, high school, club, college, a little bit of postgraduate swimming, so all the staff members are Division 1 swimmers, collegiate swimmers. Did some postgraduate swimming, was good, got into coaching, became successful at that, and I’ve been here since class 297, so just over five years now, and I love it. We get all walks of life from kids that have barely seen a pool, barely passed the PST to get in, to Olympic Gold Medalists and everything in between there, so all walks of life come through, and kids just want to learn, get better in the water, but water is majority of time their weakest, you know, environment to be in. We’re humans. We don’t belong in the water at all, and a lot of kids come to prep not prepped for what we’re about to do here.
DF: The focus of this episode is the Combat Sidestroke, and we’ll get to that in just a second. You mentioned a couple other areas that your focus is on, whether it’s treading water and stuff like that. Are there areas that maybe other than the Combat Sidestroke that people should maybe investigate in addition to that stroke specifically to at least kind of get themself familiar with?
Absolutely. Besides just swimming the Combat Sidestroke, we swim slick, so without fins on and then with fins on. We also train freestyle almost every day, and we also swim breaststroke here, so they all are great assets to know and learn. The better you are at all the strokes, the better you’ll be at any one. We’ll even throw some butterfly just for fun in there as well, great, you know, cardio building tool, great fuel for the water, but they all serve a purpose. We swim a lot of freestyle when we start doing rescues to get to your victim, great way, you know, to increase your lung capacity there. Breaststroke, we want to learn the pull for guiding and siding purposes, the kick to help you with the tread and to learn underwater breaststroke pull outs or the most efficient way to swim underwater there.
DF: So, basically, I mean you covered almost all aspects of aquatic sports, you know, in terms of swimming styles and stuff like that. I would be hesitant to say maybe it’s worth someone’s time to really become very, very, very proficient in all of those. Obviously they’re going to be using those strokes to train at more of a fitness context and more of just kind of a development context, not necessarily they’re going to be specifically quizzed or tested in those areas. But obviously it’s helpful to know that, that’s not the only thing you’re going to be doing in the water obviously.
Correct, the exit test, so in order to leave Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School, you have to do the 1,000 meter swim Combat Sidestroke under 20 minutes, which our average time is right around 17 minutes. However, we still want you to become great at all the strokes, all the skills. It’s just more tools you can add to your toolbox to help you out further down the pipeline.
DF: So, obviously we’re going to try to unpack a little bit about some of the unique I guess challenges or difficulties that people have or maybe not so unique, common difficulties people have with this specific stroke. So, if you want to kind of start in really a broad sense, maybe take 1,000-foot up view of areas that you think are common that people have a misconception or maybe a very, very, very common mistake and maybe the quick fixes for those things just as kind of a real quick touch on that area.
So, Combat Sidestroke, I swam competitively for over a decade, and I didn’t even know what Combat Sidestroke was until I got into the military, and then I started realizing what the stroke was, why it was created and then how to critique and correct it to be as efficient as possible, trying to be the fastest as possible and still create that low profile while swimming Combat Sidestroke. So, a lot of the times, the first couple weeks here, and what I really need to stress is technically correct swimming, so work on perfect, pretty Combat Sidestroke. Speed will eventually come, but focus on just perfect technique starting off, trying to be as long and efficient in the water as you can. We see a lot of students or candidates that come through that have, you know, a little bit bigger and bulkier muscles. Those are not always the best for in the water, decreasing your range of motion. You always want to be as long as possible. Get your stroke count down, help you prepare for those longer, open water swims that’ll be taking place.
DF: So, is it fair to say that you, that you see a lot of people that are maybe just learning for the first time, kind of trying to “over muscle” to kind of push and pull, to put too much into it and not focus on, on taking their time and lengthening their stroke and being efficient? Is that, do you think accurate?
Yes. I witnessed that today during a PST. Just because you’re taking more and more strokes, you know, you’re swimming more violent and higher turnover rates, sometimes you feel like you’re going faster, but the clock doesn’t lie. There’s a kid swimming next to him taking half as many strokes and going faster, so I see that man attitude where you want to race and compete, and you’re taking a ton more strokes, but you’re just working harder to go, you know, the same time or sometimes even slower.
DF: It doesn’t mean you’re getting anywhere faster.
DF: Are there any big areas, or maybe what are some of your cues that you say to get people to kind of slow down? I would obviously think just like a running race, people try to, they go out hot, you know. Their adrenaline is pumping, they’re breathing faster, everything, you know what I mean.
Absolutely, and we see that here. Over the eight weeks, we do many different workouts from short, fast, you know, high intensity sprints to longer distance, and the last couple weeks here, we focus a lot on pacing, we always have the clock facing you. You will always watch, you know, the clock when you leave, what your splits are, are you hitting your goal times, are you making the sets, but running and swimming, you’re always against the clock. You know, in the weight room, it’s weights. In the pool, you have to watch the clock to see, you know, how fast you are going.
DF: Other than kind of I would say, an excuse me for not using maybe the correct terminology, maybe strokes per minute or whatever the term is, what else do you see in terms of kind of like “sloppy” form that’s a really common theme that you’re constantly having to cue people with, you know, not to do?
So, other things we see in the water, in the pool, a lot of candidates will we be swimming uphill, which is quite natural with the body position in the water. Same thing as running uphill, running uphill is a lot more energy.
DF: Now, when you say swimming uphill, can you give me a kind of what that means to you?
Coaches are yelling at you like your feet are dragging on the bottom of the pool, your hips are sagging down, you are creating more drag for yourself, so running uphill is very difficult. Swimming uphill would be the same metaphor for that. To correct that, we want to try and get your legs going a little bit more, so your feet should be, you know, near or at the surface. Your hips should be at the surface as well as, you know, your whole bodyline, your head. Normally, it’s, when people are not using their legs as much or thicker candidates in the water, but this will have a direct correlation, and once we start doing buddy tows, you’re going to have that same bad body position. Now, you have to tow someone. You’re creating a significant, you know, higher amount of drag for yourself, which is, you know, stay away from swimming uphill.
DF: And is that typically a head position issue that kind of leads and the body follows it, or what is, what’s usually the culprit there?
So, correct head position does play a major role for that. The top of your head will always be pointing in the direction of travel. Majority of candidates, we’ll see, you can swim really good, showing me the top of your head pointing forward, but then they go and take a breath, and they will lift their head to breathe, which will shoot that body position, you know, back uphill, which is incorrect, creating more drag. A lot of our candidates are good until they do take a breath. So, A, don’t breathe, or B, learn how to control that breath.
DF: Or get back into position.
Absolutely, so snap that quick breath in. You’ll have one eye in the water, one eye out of the water, and when your mouth is above the surface, you are inhaling only. We should not be hearing you exhale and inhale when your mouth is above the surface, you know, so dump that air out right before your breath. You know, if you’re very negative in the water, keep the air in, but right before your breath, dump that air out. When your mouth is above the surface, inhale only, eyes right back down, and that’s for freestyle and for Combat Sidestroke, same body position.
DF: So, would you say that that’s probably the largest deficiency in people’s stroke whenever they arrive or really the thing you see most common is body position in terms of kind of swimming uphill like you’re speaking about and not being able to breathe very efficiently and get back into the right position? Is that the most common problem that you see?
Body position plays a major role. Conditioning and speed, you know, will come along, but if you’re swimming uphill, you’re just burning wasteful energy. Another major issue we see is a timing issue, which we see candidates stop, pause or sink at some point in their stroke. We always want to move, you know, forward in the water, whether it’s Combat Sidestroke, breaststroke or freestyle. A lot of times we’ll see them move forward in their stroke and then take a breath and stop, pause, sink and then start moving forward again, stop, pause, sink. We want to always move forward in the water even during your breath, so never shut down your legs, maintain that, you know, body moving forward. Don’t, just because you’re taking a breath does mean you stop, pause or sink.
DF: So, what do you think the culprit is there? My first kind of instinct is to think that the rhythm there is not quite at least, they’re not comfortable quite in the rhythm of the stroke yet, an experience thing, or is there, are there other culprits?
It’s actually difficult to do, so they will have a, you know, pull, breathe, kick, glide, pretty common pattern for Combat Sidestroke and for breaststroke. So, you obviously start with your arms, then get your breath, execute your kick and hopefully have a long glide. Now, during the breath part of that, don’t stop dead in the water, do not sink and create more drag, and, you know, you should always be moving forward. So, once again, back to the breathing, normally our candidates are good until they do take a breath and then stop in the water there. Keep your legs going, so especially with freestyle, never disengage your legs. Always keep your legs going behind you. And in Combat Sidestroke, you know, during your recovery, try and have as, the least amount of underwater recovery as possible. So, when your arms are underneath the water, try and have the least amount of resistance that you can, active streamlining.
DF: So, active streamlining, and you said something about recovery. Now you’re talking about basically getting your hands back out in front of you for the stroke again. Can you maybe go into a little bit more detail about that? You’re talking about the efficiency or the least amount of resistance, is that what you’re saying?
Correct. So, for Combat Sidestroke, it was designed to be very low profile, so no white water or splashing taking place. It’s a very efficient stroke. However, just like breaststroke arms, the underwater recovery part of the stroke is underwater, which is not very efficient because you’re pushing yourself backwards when you do that. We want to over-exaggerate the underwater recovery and minimize the amount of resistance when you move your hands back out into the streamlined position.
DF: So, you’re not fighting yourself essentially.
Don’t push yourself backwards at all during your strokes.
DF: Okay, okay. So, is this stroke used primarily as a test and fitness mechanism if you will, or is this stroke used operationally during mission?
So, both are correct. The stroke is great to increase your overall fitness levels without banging up your body, right. Swimming is a great way, whether, whatever stroke you’re doing, increase your overall fitness with very low to no impact, right. You should be able to swim, you know, for hours, still feel good. It’s not like you’re banging up your body, high stress, high impact environment. So, when you do swim, make sure you are over-exaggerating full range of motion. You should be feeling good, feel loose in the water, so that plays a cardio, you know, fitness role in it, but operationally speaking, it was designed to be efficient, so you could be able to swim your long distances, you know, infiltrate and extract a couple miles and still carry out the mission. The low profile aspect, so when you’re swimming up to shore, you don’t have a bunch of white water splashing behind you, a bunch of noise coming in, and it is quite simple to learn and execute. We do a lot of the fine-tuning, getting dialed in here, but if you look throughout history, you know, swimming has played an important role in the history of mankind and in warfare in every century. It goes back, back in the day, but just recently with the UDTs, you look at World War II, Korea, Vietnam, there’s many aquatic stories from, you know, the greats, the Medal of Honor recipients, where if they did not have that maritime, aquatic background, we would not have heard about these stories at all.
DF: How does the Combat Sidestroke differ from the regular sidestroke? Is there glaring differences, very similar? Just maybe kind of give me some detail on that would be great.
So, the common sidestroke that you see from swim lessons or, you know, at your local YMCA, where you are basically, you know, picking apples off a tree and putting them in the basket, I remember being told that when I was like three years old. Combat Sidestroke, you’re going to have a little bit more rotations, so we’re not going to be swimming flats.
DF: So, in the hips or the shoulder area?
So, just like any sport, you’ll have a lot of power come from your hips and your core. Back to those common mistakes that we see from our candidates, where people swim flats, which we do not want. Swimming is not just your arms up, swimming is not just your legs down; you want to get your whole body engaged. Drive with your hips and your core, back on to streamline on your stomach.
DF: I see. Maybe, I would say there’s no glide phase of the stroke, but towards the end of the stroke, I see what you’re saying. You’re facing the bottom of the pool more than just facing the side of the pool.
Correct. Your bellybutton will not point to the wall the entire time. You will be rotating, so your bellybutton will point at the wall and the bottom throughout every cycle. When you take your breath, you know, with one eye in the water, one eye out, you’ll be looking at the wall. And then once you execute your scissor kick, so your top leg will start initiating that rotation, your top leg will go forward, execute your scissor kick, and while doing that, you’re going to drive with your hips back into the streamline position. So, it should be quite fluid motion during your, you know, pull, breathe, powerful kick and glide, but we’re not swimming flat on one side the entire time. You’ll be rotating just like we do in freestyle, same thing with Combat Sidestroke. Drive with your hips and your core, full body exercise. Don’t swim flat, and then don’t over rotate either. So, we see some candidates where they want to take a big breath, and they look up to the ceiling, and then they have to spend all that time going back into the streamline position on their stomach, wasting a lot of time and over rotating onto their backs, which is what we don’t want.
DF: That’s kind of what you’re talking about, the one eye cue as opposed to your, you know, whole face and both ears out of the water, you know, kind of thing.
And that plays a role with swimming uphill. If you take your head up to breathe, for your breath, you know, your hips will drop. If you over rotate on your back, you’re just wasting more time, which is unnecessary and inefficient, so we want to be as efficient as possible while swimming then.
DF: We’re looking at the PST a little bit kind of like a race even if it’s just against the clock or yourself. Is working other strokes you think really beneficial to kind of helping the Combat Sidestroke time diminish in terms of kind of water fitness if you will? That’s probably not the right term, but.
Absolutely, no, absolutely. The better you are at all four strokes, the better you’ll be at any one. All those elite swimmers, if you see, you know, just a butterfly or just a backstroke, they swim all four strokes almost every day still, whether it’s, you know, just a little bit, a warm up, a cool down, you know, main set. You will always train, you know, more than just Combat Sidestroke on your good side the entire time. So, like I said, we’ll do some freestyle almost every day with, you know, give yourself challenging breathing patterns. A wonderful way to build up your lung capacity while, you know, having a little bit of elevated heart rate with freestyle. Combat Sidestroke both sides. We will train breaststroke. The first week here, we’ll break it down where we have, you know, demonstration, drills, which, drills are just bite-sized pieces of the stroke broken down, so just the kick or just the arms, you know, focusing on being as hydrodynamic and focusing on the underwater recovery aspect. So, we will focus a lot those first week or two here on drills that are just bite-sized pieces of stroke to, you know, put it all together in the long run.
DF: So, my kind of takeaway so far about kind of developing up your Combat Sidestroke ability is general comfort in the water through a variety of strokes and being in there often enough that your body’s kind of, not necessarily grown used to it, but it really has in flexibility and strength to the point where you’re comfortable enough to get the time that you need. It’s not that you need to do these crazy static breath holds or put weights on yourself or do this type of really hard plowing work so much as it is getting yourself comfortable enough that you can do the stroke properly. And I think putting that before busting your butt on the sidestroke that you’re not doing right, it seems like that kind of stuff comes even more important than your Combat Sidestroke. Is that true, or am I really kind of a little bit off there?
No, that’s a good summary of what we’re talking about here, that focus on, you know, part bit by bit, and then you’ll eventually put it all together, work on that perfect technique, and then slowly start, you know, increasing the amount of time you spend in the pool. Then start watching the clock a little bit more, you know, a little bit more intense workouts, and then start watching your times drop hopefully.
DF: This is a new stroke for I would say the vast majority of people if not everybody. You know, people have probably barely been exposed to the sidestroke, the normal sidestroke we’ll call it unless they had swimming instruction, right. So, Combat Sidestroke being totally new, people I’m sure will jump on the web, or maybe if they’re lucky or smart enough to find a swim coach or team or group, ask them about it. What do you see that’s common misinformation about this specific portion of the training process?
One of the worst ones that I witness online, and all the staff see it, too, is when swimming Combat Sidestroke, your lead arm or the arm that always, you know, your bottom arm, so if you’re swimming on your right side, your right hand, just like a breaststroke pull, the right hand should stay out in front of your body. You’re not pulling that arm all the way down to your hips and then pushing yourself backwards almost with the underwater recovery portion. So, your lead arm, or you’re swimming on your right side, your right hand will always be out in front of your chest, so a small range of motion. You’re not getting a lot out of the arm, so during your pull and your breath, your hand will start coming towards your chest, and then when you execute your kick and your glide, push it back in a streamline. But do not pull that lead arm all the way down to your hip, stop in the water and then all that underwater recovery, it’s going to start pushing you the opposite way of which you want to be traveling.
DF: And so, that’s something that you see as kind of maybe a piece of common misinformation? You know what, honestly, I think with the term even sidestroke, it seems like that lead hand, is that what you call it… (DK: Lead arm.) Your lead arm is doing a little bit more of kind of a tugging crawl. It’s not doing a full stroke. It’s kind of there almost treading water, pulling you forward kind of consistently, not, not a full stroke so to speak. It’s more of a repetitive kind of a crawl, I guess is maybe not the right word.
Correct, it’s a smaller range of motion out in front of your body, which is a sculling motion, so keeping your hand, you know, you’re not going to get a lot of power out of it, similar to a breaststroke pull, just enough to pick your head up for your breath and shoot back down or streamline.
DF: Yeah, more of kind of a corkscrew and not a full shoulder stroke all the way to your side. I see what you’re saying.
But that also plays a role once we start introducing buddy tows or water rescues. You’re going to do that same exact motion with that lead arm the entire time. So, it’s still a drill that we’ll do here that will also be used down the pipeline with water rescues. So, it plays a role, and it reduces the amount of time of underwater recovery and the stroke, which should make you more efficient, less drag increasing speed there.
DF: So, for people, for the folks at home, it would be great to see this visually. You’re showing me more of a, of a rotation past the elbow, a circular rotation as opposed to a full stroke. It’s kind of a constant, more of a rotation as opposed to a stroke. That does make a lot more sense, to be able to keeping you from having more of a cycle in the stroke and keeping you moving forward as opposed to that pause that you’re talking about earlier as a problem.
DF: There’s a lot of talk about technique, and that’s also in the kind of judging standards for the PST, whether it’s pull-ups, pushups, clean reps. Is there anything for people testing themselves in this process to be aware of in terms of technique that will get them kind of a, red flagged, or, “This lap doesn’t count,” or anything like that they need to be aware of?
Yes, so when we do our testing here, your wrists will always be in the water. So, the whole point of Combat Sidestroke is to have that low profile, where we’re not taking, you know, freestyle strokes with your arms flying all over the place. So, maintaining that low profile of keeping, you know, your wrists or hands in the water at all times. So, if we start seeing the hands come out, you know, you’ll be warned strictly once by an instructor, staff member, and if it happens again, you’ll be pulled from the test. So, that’s one of our criteria as well as never touching the bottom of the pool while we swim. You know, if you take a break, you know, 500-yard swim, operationally speaking, it’s going to be taking place in the ocean. There’s no, there’s no wall or floor to stop and take a break, so never touch the bottom of the pool when you’re swimming, and don’t spend time on the walls. So, when you do practice in the standard 25-yard pool, spend as little to no time on the walls as you can.
DF: When you’re tested here, what apparatus is used in terms on person?
The initial entrance PST, you have to swim your 500-yard swim, which can be swum Combat Sidestroke, breaststroke or basic sidestroke, and that has to take place under 12:30 in order to get into our program. You’ll be wearing tri shorts with the, you know, the traditional UDT shorts.
DF: So, you’re talking basically like swim trunks, spandex, kind of set up?
Yes, not a lot of drag. They’re not beach board shorts, which are good for training, actually… (DF: Almost like a running short, kind of.) Correct, with a standard dive mask on, so covering the nose. During the exit test, you will have the same swim trunks, a dive mask, but now you’ll be having fins and booties on, so rubber booties around your feet, your fins over that, your dive fins over that, and you’ll be executing 1,000-meter Combat Sidestroke under 20 minutes. 17 minutes is our average, so you should be crushing that. You should be able to float, you know, a 17-minute 1,000-meter swim no problem before you leave here.
DF: And that’s mask as well there?
With your mask on.
DF: Okay. Well, great. I’ll let you kind of, kind of summarize and give us the, you know, you have 15 seconds to give somebody the important pointers of the Combat Sidestroke and then, you know, water comfort in general. I think we’ve covered just about all of it. I think it’s worth it kind of giving you a moment to kind of wrap up what you think is kind of key big points.
Find a pool, get in and swim, try and join a swim team or a water polo club, get with your friends, get in the water, spend as much time in the water as you can, and come to prep with a good base or foundation that we can build on.
DF: Well, Dan, thank you so much. Where can people find out more about the specific standards for Combat Sidestroke and any other details they might want to about this topic?
They can go to SEALSWCC.COM, wonderful illustrations, pictures and descriptions about how to swim Combat Sidestroke and what to expect here at Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School.
DF: Great, Dan. Thank you so much for your time and all the great information.