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DF: Welcome to, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEAL podcast.
DF: Comfort, speed, and efficiency in the water are all hallmarks of a successful NSW recruit. Today at NSW Preparatory School we continue our discussion with aquatics expert, Dan Kish, to speak specifically about safely developing confidence in the water.
DF: This will be a popular episode because there are so many people that are not comfortable in the water and even before that flat out can’t swim or have had very little exposure to the types of swimming that you’re talking about. For people who are in that camp, what is your recommendation for them in terms of kind of introducing water sports initially into their training regimen? Do you recommend people kind of start with the real basics like modified freestyle just to kind of learning to at least kind of start the crawl, walk, run kind of part of this swim process? I can’t help but think that there’s going to be a lot of people that tune into this episode to learn like, “Hey, I’m a bad, I know I’m a bad swimmer,” or, “I think I’m a bad swimmer. Where do I even start? This combat sidestroke, I can barely even get in the water without feeling like I’m going to drown, you know what I mean?
DK: That’s common. A lot of friends that joined, you know, higher military branches and very weak and deficient in the water, and they knew it, and they asked me like, “Hey, I know you can swim. Can you help me out here?” and I would drag them to the pool with me. Water polo is another great way to become comfortable and confident and with team building going on. It’s the most calories you’ll ever burn in a match or game, you know, one game of polo. There is no rest cause you’re treading no matter what you are doing. You’re in the pool. You are sprinting. And great ways to become, you know, a little bit more comfortable and confident. You don’t have to be the fastest swimmer. We just want you to have a good foundation or base that we can build on and make you, you know, get dialed in and tuned in to become much, you know, more efficient in the water, and it should be the last of your worries once you get out, you know, two mile swims in the bay, water rescues, pool comp, knot-tying should be flawless once you get out there I hope.
DF: So, you just mentioned a comfortable or confident base. Can you maybe give me your definition of that? It doesn’t have to be precise, but I’m sure people will, set that as a benchmark for where they want to get at a bare minimum. And so, kind of maybe give me a picture of what that means to you.
DK: It’s very easy to identify who is scared or uncomfortable in the water from day one. If you’re swimming with big eyes, panic mode, just trying to find the wall as fast as you can, that’s wrong. You know, slow things down. You should be able to swim, you know, longer distances. You don’t need to have a ton of speed, but your 500-yard times should hopefully be under that ten minute, you know, nine minute base to be good and comfortable in the water. If you’re over eleven, twelve minutes, you’re going to struggle significantly in the pool evolutions that take place here.
DF: So, that’s a pretty good number then. People can actually kind of have a metric for themself to say, you know, “Where I’m at in this spectrum in terms of comfortability.” Obviously, I think with the type of instruction you can provide in your other teammates, obviously people can get much better and much more comfortable, especially with additional exposure, but that’s a good place for them to start is that what you’re saying?
DK: Yes, get your, you know, 500-yard time down, you know, with the least number of strokes as well. So, be efficient and get your time down. We call that here golfing, where we want to take the lowest number of strokes while going the fastest time. We’ll play around with that a little bit. And we will always train half the time on our right side and half the time on our left side here at the prep school. Majority of us have a strong dominant side, and majority of us have a bad side, and we want to be good on both, and that helps play a role with being comfortable no matter, not always operationally speaking you can go swim down on your right side and swim back on the mission on your right side as well. Be good on both, and that’s the same with freestyle. You’ll always breathe half the time over your right shoulder, half the time over your left shoulder.
DF: Is that a testing requirement for the PST to be swimming half and half on each side?
DK: That is not a testing requirement here. When we train, we enforce it heavily. If you watch the Olympics, you’re like, “Oh, Michael Phelps only breathes over his right shoulder.” Correct. They race like that. They do not train like that. You will always train half the time on your good side, half time on your bad side or with breathing on a freestyle or combat sidestroke, so we do enforce that pretty strictly here, be good on both. And that will help any one side develop better as well.
DF: Let’s talk a little bit about buoyancy. It’s something that I really wasn’t even that aware of until maybe a few months ago when we started doing a little bit of reading and research about the PST in general. How can someone determine whether they’re negatively buoyant or positively buoyant, is that something that’s easy to determine, or is it just like, “I keep sinking to the bottom of the pool...” How do you determine that?
DK: So, that’s funny. We’re all humans. You know, we’re all pretty much the same. How come you’re buoyant, and I’m negative? It makes no sense. However, about 20% of the candidates that come through, you know, sink to the bottom.
DF: Is that a body composition thing?
DK: Body composition plays a low role. You see, you know, the bulkier muscle guys, but we still have some candidates that exhale all their air and are still bobbing at the service.
DF: Yeah, ‘cause I definitely sink if I let out the oxygen out of my lungs, so.
DK: Which is good. What I tell them is, “You need to learn how to control your body in the water.” Some of us are positive, some of us are negative. Both have perks here at Naval Special Warfare Prep School. When we swim, we want to be at or even better on the surface, right, so we want to be positive in the water. You know, the less drag, you’ll increase speed. If you’re negative in the water, you’re going to be working a little bit harder. We want to get that body position at or on the surface. But if you’re negative, once we start working, the first time we do pool skills, one of the stations is floats, and your hands and feet will be together behind your back, and you need to do what it takes to control your body. You have to stay at the surface, you have to stay inside your six foot by six foot, you know, box, and you can’t just travel or swim all around. And for some of us, it’s the easiest thing you’ll ever do, right. You just be a bobber in the water, simple, hands and feet together. Other candidates that are negative, you’re going to be working a little bit harder. You know, get those little dolphin, shrimp kicks going, stay at the surface the entire time. So, yes, we’re all humans, why is it different? Some of us are positive, some of us are negative. Females float better than men, different demographics float better than others, everybody, everyone is different in the water. You need to learn how to control your body in the water.
DF: So, talk to me a little bit about that. Is that just a matter of keeping a certain amount of air in your lungs? You did mention something about, you know, kind of flutter kick or shrimp kick a little bit to kind of help keep yourself propelled towards the surface. Can you talk to me a little bit about that? Like what types of techniques maybe someone should investigate or kind of try out in the pool or in the ocean or wherever to kind of figure out what works for them. What’s the starting point for that?
DK: Yes, so here we have fresh water pools. In the ocean, different density makeups, it’s easier to float salt water than fresh water. So, if you’re positive in the water, you can almost get in a vertical position, straight up and down, which is quite difficult to do. You have to be very positive in the water. And then you’ll play with your lung capacity. Can you breathe and exhale and still stay at the surface or on the surface?
DF: So, you’re talking about really kind of staying like a pencil in the water, not moving your arms too much and just using your breathing to kind of determine at what level you start to, your mouth will start to sink under the water. Is that accurate?
DK: That would be someone who is extremely positive in the water, can float very easily.
DF: Just by kind of, just sticking their body vertically in the water, and their face will stay above water.
DK: Which is a small percent of candidates that come through. The majority of us, we want to get our body into a question mark shape almost, so your head will be down in the water, the buoyant parts of your body are obviously your lungs, your organs, your chest cavity is quite positive and buoyant in the water there. So, once you get your body in your question mark shape, so your hands will be together behind your back, your feet will be together, bring your knees up to your chest, and they’ll float at the surface. And then when you do need a breath, work your legs, kick your head up, get that quick breath in, and get right back down, head down into that question mark shape that your whole body should be in. This is the majority of our candidates that we see during our floats. So, during, we started doing some pool skills and drown proofing tests, you have to float for three minutes. So, stay inside your six foot by six foot box staying at the surface for those entire three minutes.
DF: It seems like you’re saying the majority of people are negative, it’s either negative buoyant or buoyant. Is that correct terminology?
DK: From the second half of the spectrum I would say a little bit more negative in the water. When you come, your feet will be tied together here. So, you need to learn how to control small dolphin kicks or working, you know, with the lower half of your body there to keep yourself at the surface and then work those into your breaths, so get a good rhythm, kick your head up for a breath, kick your head right back down, try and stay in that question mark shape. But we will work with you here. We have five aquatic coaches here to help you, make you more comfortable and confident in the water.
DF: I’m just going to interrupt real quick cause I think that’s a really key point, comfortable and confident in the water. Being exposed to water, underwater is a really fast way to make you uncomfortable, and developing the techniques and skills to give you the confidence to know that you’ll be able to get a breath when you need one as opposed to when your body’s kind of wanting one is, I think is a pretty big key to even developing your skill and efficiency in the combat sidestroke. Being able to know that you can get the breath you need, and you don’t need to break from that mental focus and put your chest up and, “Give me a second to regroup.” I can’t think of any other way other than just exposure and time, practice to really accelerate that unless you have any tips that you can add to that.
DK: Absolutely. The first three letters in SEAL spell sea, right. You’re going to be in the water. That should be the least of your worries if you have a mission, operationally speaking, if you’re in the water for that long, about your swimming abilities or how comfortable and confident you are. We are humans. We’re not designed for the water at all. We walk upright, we have a curved spine, we need air. We do not belong in the water. I think we’re one of the few mammals at birth that cannot swim. Spend time in the water to become comfortable and confident. It does not happen overnight. The golden rule we have here is every day you’re out of the water, it takes about two days to get back where you were, so if you have, you know, a long weekend, or you’ve been out of the pool for a week, it’s going to feel like you’re swimming in mud and all sluggish because you naturally will lose that feel for the water. We need to spend time in the pool, you know, find pools. You don’t have to swim lots. Back in the day, we used to swim, you know, up to 100,000 meters a day, just spend time…
DF: You mean individually, an individual would swim 100,000 meters in one day?
DK: That’s common during peak training, training trips, training times, but here at prep, we swim about 2 to 4,000 meters a day, which we want some quality training with also some treading, some pool skills taking place, water rescues, whatever else we do. So, here at prep, we swim about 2 to 4,000 meters a day to help us from, you know, kicking, swimming, pacing, long distance swims, short sprints. We kind of do a mixed bag with all the strokes almost every day here.
DF: Let’s talk a little bit about mobility. There’s obviously huge focus on strength and coming into this pipeline, you know. These guys have to do X number of pull-ups and pushups. Guys have been asking each other how much they can bench since they were teenagers, right. Not everybody has the type of genetics that you are gifted with, the type of swimmer body that you would see versus, you know, an Olympic weightlifter or fill in a blank for any other sport, right. That seems like it would be a little bit of an issue for some people, whether it’s the shoulders and their ability to reach and kind of cause a little bit of that stuttered stroke and stuff like that. Do you work on mobility here, or do you recommend the guys and athletes that are kind of coming into this process work on mobility? Any specific exercises for that, that you recommend?
DK: We all love those big, bulky mirror muscles. Those are not going to assist you in the pool. We want to have, you know, the longest range of motion possible, increase, you know, your shoulder mobility, make you more efficient in the water and just to help with injury prevention as well. So, stay away from bulky muscles. We want to be flexible, so we will do some stretching here, increase your range of motion, shoulder mobility. If I see some candidates that are really bad in the water, I will pull them aside and show them some extra stretches they can do to help them, help them out. There’s been a couple times, as groups, we’ll do, a class stretch. With the swimming background, I do, a majority of all the shoulder mobility, increase that range of motion, but there are some partner stretches, you know, grabbing your hands behind your back should be taking place. If you’re bad at that, work with a towel little by little. Working on perfect streamline. A majority of our candidates can’t even do that, where, you know, everyone can show me a streamline, but is your wrist over wrist, are you squeezing your ears with your biceps, are you as long as possible in the water? And it’s just unnatural to be in the water keeping your arms above you for that long that I think candidates really don’t expect, and it will help you out in the long run, you know, be more efficient and hopefully prevent some injuries as well.
DF: After speaking with people involved with kind of the strength and conditioning out of water portion of building up for this, there’s a big emphasis on the parts of the body that people aren’t working on in the gym, you know what I mean, the upper back and the shoulders specifically I think are, got to be a common weak point for people, not necessarily in strength but in mobility and being able to get a really, really long stroke, you need to be able to get your hands straight over shoulders, and you see nobody off the street can do those types of movements to be able to make their body that long. Do you think that’s representative of what you see in the pool?
DK: It is common. Hopefully, it will go away over time. Once we do start swimming, you’re going to start getting used to having your arms out in front of you for long periods of time, whether we’re doing some, you know, kicking drills in the streamlined position, whether we’re just swimming some long-distance freestyle sets, where we kind of over-exaggerate, you know, front quadrant swimming. You’re always keeping one hand out in front of your body, you know, the most efficient ways to swim freestyle, and that should start going away over time, but hopefully you can come with a good range of motion in your shoulders. We’re not going to overstress your shoulders too much in the pool. A lot of us swimmers have been doing it for many years, we’ll start having some shoulder injuries more common in the pool. Ankle flexibility is also a huge one that gets overlooked in the pool. A lot of our candidates kick like they are wearing boots, and they have no boots on.
DF: So, you’re saying keeping their foot at like a 90-degree angle?
DK: Correct, which is not what we want to do here. You should not have to think about pointing your toes while kicking, but ankle flexibility plays a big role in the water. We will slowly increase the amount of meters we do with fins on starting off with no fins and then slowly working our way up to, you know, 4, 5,000 meters with fins on, but if you have poor ankle flexibility, there’s some other stretches you can use, you know, such as writing the alphabet, sitting on your feet while you’re watching TV or whatever it is but other, natural abilities to get kind of overlooked in the pool there.
DF: So, you mentioned fins, what’s your take on the fin issue in terms of for prep and training, how do you recommend people incorporate, if at all, fins and masks and goggles and caps or whatever it is into their training process developing for PST tests?
DK: So, almost every pool has some basic equipment. Luckily for swimming, you don’t need any. If you want some goggles or a mask, absolutely wear them. Take your mask off every now and then. Swim, you know, swim with your face in the water. Your gear will fail. Masks will break. Mission still needs to be carried on. You shouldn’t be freaking out if you have no mask. You can still swim; still carry out the mission. Fins, just wear some regular rubber surface fins. You don’t need to have 10-foot-long dive fins, some ridiculous things on your feet that are, you know, stiff as a board. Just basic surface fins or Zoomers, which are those little bit shorter looking fins. Help you out just condition your legs a little bit more. Kickboards are almost found at every single pool as well. We do use those here at prep as well, you know, condition your legs. If you can condition, you know, the biggest muscle groups of your body, the rest of your body will be good to go as well, so we will focus a lot on kicking. It’s also the quickest way to get in shape as well, kicking with the board, without a board, you know, in streamline position, on your side. We will do a lot of other drills, you know, with some equipment on, some equipment off, so be comfortable all strokes with, without equipment. You should be good in the water no matter what. If you’re wearing pants, if you’re wearing a shirt, just a suit, all have different feels for the water, which you should be able to, execute with no problem.
DF: What kind of things that are a little bit unconventional do you think are helpful that you would recommend that are safe for people to develop their skills and their capabilities and their comfort level?
DK: One great thing about swimming, there’s infinite amount of drills you can do to help you out, become more, you know, comfortable in the water, are just bite-sized pieces of the stroke. So, you can start swimming, you know, with just one arm or just, you know, one leg out of the water. We’ll do some goofy, you know, body balance drills like that. Always swim with a lifeguard, with a buddy. You don’t need to do underwater swims. You do not need to do, you know, anything crazy outside of here, you know, at a pool, just do some basic lap swims, different intervals, different distances. You know, join your high school team, polo team. Treading is a big one. I think it’s overlooked.
DF: You mean in terms of people not practicing that?
DK: Correct. Coming here with no base on how to tread in the water, so staying stationary at the surface with your head dry, and we’ll do this for extended periods of time. Our hands out of the water, with, you know, one hand out, two hands out in the streamline position, and you need to learn how to control your body in the water. So, come with a good base of tread, whether it’s the eggbeater kick, which you see the most efficient way to tread, or with a breaststroke or a scissor kick to help you out keep your head above the surface there.
DF: You talked a little bit about, “no need to underwater swim…” How is the PST, administered in terms of starting off your swim? Are you allowed to go underwater and push off the side of the pool and go as far as you can underwater? Are you able to kick off and do that on every lap? What are the, kind of, standards for that?
DK: So, once we start doing underwater swims here, we have a one-to-one safety ratio. So one candidate per one staff member, you know, with fins, snorkel, rescue tube in case something happens in the higher risk training evolutions. However, once we start doing our swims in the water, every time you push off the water without fins on, you should be executing at least one underwater breaststroke pull-out, which is the most efficient way to swim underwater. Not the fastest way but the most efficient way to swim under water. So, push off in that tight streamline position, so we have wrist over wrist. You’re squeezing your ears with your biceps, you know, powerful push off the wall, you know, as tight and streamlined as far as you can. Then when you start slowing down, your hands will separate, start anchoring, you know, your arms, push that water past your chest, past your hips, past your feet, long glide, and then sneak your hands back out front while executing a breaststroke kick. Underwater swimming is the single greatest thing you can almost do to become better in the water because you’re building up your lung capacity, you learn how to catch and move through the water and obviously how to be streamlined as possible in the water. So, it’s a great thing. We do not allow our candidates to swim underwater, though, without us there, so there’s a fine line with the safety issue, but off every wall, execute one underwater breaststroke pull out. Try and travel about 15 meters off the wall.
DF: You mean in total before initiating a stroke or...?
DK: Correct, which is, in the competitive world, that is how far you are allowed to go off every single wall, so try and use that, you know, be comfortable with pushing off in the streamline position, executing one underwater breaststroke pullout, and try and travel as far as you can. And you should be relaxed while doing this efficient way to swim under water. You should not be having a higher heart rate, freak out mode, which we see when candidates start doing, you know, our underwater swims. Sometimes you see people, with big eyes, start breathing too heavily, and that’s when stuff can go south very quick.
DF: How do you feel that open water swimming plays into the training process to get you to BUD/S?
DK: So, I strongly enforce that every candidate that leaves here can do the one mile in the bay, mile and a half, two-mile open water swims under those time standards of 90, 85, 80 minutes. They’re all physically able to do that. One thing that you cannot teach in a pool with a line telling you where to go with no waves, no marine life, no tides pushing you around is guiding and sighting. So, once we start doing some buddy swims where you’re partnered up with someone, you’ll always swim within six feet of each other at all times. So, guiding and sighting is one thing that’s difficult to teach in a pool, so every once in a while when you swim, work on picking your head up, looking down range, focus on, you know, a person walking by, a fixed object down far away, you know, mimicking a boat, a buoy, a bridge, an island, whatever’s out there, and then without stopping or pausing in the water and continue swimming. We will be swimming 4,000 meters, you know, a day, which is well over two miles in 90 minutes, so everyone is obviously able to pass that time standard here, but open water is a new realm, and Mother Nature can play a big role sometimes with what’s taking place there.
DF: Yeah, I guess there’s a big safety issue, too, if you lived by the beach, and you wanted to try to get out in open water and that’s where you’re going to practice your strokes. I’m going to have to guess that’s not something you recommend in terms of trying to increase your fitness level generally unless you’re really an expert swimmer, and even so, I don’t think that that’s really worth the risk.
DK: Unnecessary. Find a pool with a lifeguard, make sure you have some swim buddies around, you know, go work out or train with people, similar in speed or age, and try to push each other that way. You don’t need to find open water. Here at Great Lakes, we have Lake Michigan in our backyard. We are only in there, you know, a handful of times a year due to the amount of safety equipment, staff, everything that takes place in order to swim outdoors, and the limited window, which we have here in Lake Michigan is quite small, and that’s if the weather cooperates with us on those days. So, there is a lot of safety aspects takes place to swim open water, but easily find a pool, get your workouts in there, and, you know, try and do, you know, 3,000 meters, which is two miles, hopefully under the 90-minute mark. 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 any other details they might want to about this topic?
DK: So you can go to SEALSWCC.com, wonderful illustrations, pictures and descriptions about 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.
DK: Any time.