SWIM TRAINING WITH MARK JAMES - BUD/S PHASE 2 DIVE INSTRUCTOR
Swimming is an essential skill for Naval Special Warfare operators, both SEAL and SWCC. We spoke with a BUD/S instructor who teaches SEAL candidates how to become proficient in basic and advanced techniques.
Episode #41 | 9/3/2020
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There are no shortcuts to a successful fitness regimen, only hard work and consistency. And to navigate through the mountain of fitness advice available, candidates must learn to separate fad from function. I’m Daniel Fletcher, welcome to The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday, The Official Navy SEAL Podcast. In this extended series, we’ll speak with select special warfare performance experts to clarify common training misconceptions and provide insight into areas of focus specifically important to special warfare candidates.
Today, we extend our fitness series with a discussion about pool training with BUD/S Phase II dive instructor, Mark James. Let’s get started.
DF: Well, thank you for coming in to speak with us. You have a tremendous amount of experience in and out of the water, whether it’s competition or education, so I think you have a lot to bring to the podcast in terms of knowledge and experience. We spoke with Dan Kish at NSW Prep in Great Lakes, specifically about water comfort and the combat sidestroke, and I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in any of that to tune in to that episode if they’re just getting started in the water looking for more info about the combat sidestroke specifically, but... I’d like to talk to you a little bit more about pool training outside of the combat sidestroke and the run up to entering the pipeline. A lot of people have been exposed to running programming, you know, they’re a lot more familiar with the distances and times and intervals of training on the ground, on the pavement than they are being in the pool. So, I’d like to maybe speak to the person who hasn’t really done any formal swimming in terms of competition, people that, you know, have never swam in a pool with fins on or a mask or the stuff that would probably be wise for them to do before they come into the pipeline. Maybe if you could talk a little bit about some of the things you see people doing that aren’t good and maybe just some of the intro level guidance, stuff that you would say to somebody who’s just kind of starting out with getting themselves into the pool.
MJ: Sure, so before I start, I’ll say I was always amazed at the guys who joined the Navy and couldn’t swim to begin with. I went to training in 1985, and we had a couple guys in my BUD/S class, Class 141, that had never been in the ocean, and they had hardly been in the pool. And actually, those guys somehow made it, and it’s always incredible to see these guys attack a 12-foot wave after never seeing a wave or an ocean before and going out there and somehow overcoming their fears and getting through it. That being said, in this day and age, most individuals that come through, get to BUD/S, have gone through boot camp, have gone through BUD/S Prep. They learn, as you mentioned, Dan teaches a great deal of combat sidestroke in a pool. A pool and the ocean are two different things. I encourage anyone who’s not comfortable in the water to join a master swim team or hire a swim coach or become familiar with how to be proficient, streamline, how to be comfortable in the water because BUD/S is not just about swimming sidestroke. It’s about diving, putting gear on, being in the ocean during all kinds of conditions and being able to swim, not just vertically in the water but horizontally. We have a tread, which consists of a 5-minute test where you have tanks on your back, 14 pounds of weight belt, you have fins on, your hands are out of the water, and you’re stationary for five minutes. And it’s amazing how many guys have trouble with that evolution. You don’t pass that, you don’t move on through BUD/S.
DF: Yeah, and that’s not like swimming in a traditional sense, you wouldn’t be exposed to even if potentially you were like on the high school swim team even, right?
MJ: A lot of individuals that can swim, we just had an Olympian come through. He was a fantastic swimmer, but when he put fins on, he was just like the rest of the pack. Pushing fins is a skill. It requires strong hip flexors, ankle flexibility, muscles that you don’t utilize when you swim. Now, there’s combat sidestroke without fins that requires a scissor kick and kind of a sidestroke gliding motion, and then there’s the combat sidestroke with fins, which are completely different. I’ve done over 200 swims with BUD/S classes. I’ve been an instructor, now a civilian for the last ten years, and I try and join every class for all five of their swims. I do the two, the three and a half and the five and half mile swim. Sometimes I have to actually work. I have to actually be on one of the jet skis and monitor the swim as a lifeguard. And you can always see the top swimmers off the front, how efficient they are. They’re gliding, they’re effortless, they can hold a full conversation if need be. And then you go to the middle of the pack, and there’s guys kind of struggling, some good, some bad, and you go to the back of the pack, almost like a bell curve, two guys at the front, a bunch of people in the middle, and then people off the back. And you look at the guys off the back, and they’re so inefficient with their arms. Their arms are flailing about, they’re kicking with their knees, they’re not pushing fins, and they’re almost going backwards, and you try and talk to them, and they are out of breath and panting. It really comes down to efficiency, being streamline and also knowing how to guide. There’s no lane lines in the ocean. You have to swim from point A to point B, which is usually a half-mile or a mile, and if you don’t know how to guide, you’re going to go an extra distance, two or three or four, five hundred extra yards, which just adds to your time. There’s time standards. Each phase has a certain time standard. You don’t make that mark, you’re not going to move on.
DF: So, you spoke just a second ago about being with the candidates at BUD/S and kind of being with them through their training, not just as an educator, and I think that’s one of the unique things about BUD/S, is that the people that are teaching you and coaching you and judging you or instructing you are able to really do what they’re asking, and I think that’s something that we shouldn’t skip over. So, maybe we rewind a little bit and talk a little bit about your experience personally that’s kind of lead you up to this point. I think if people did even a brief amount of the research I did just looking at your history and your background, they’d be blown away by some of the things you’ve accomplished in your life. Talk a little bit about your physical fitness, kind of life experience from a 50,000-foot view. You’ve done a lot of competitive races, education. I’ll let you kind of take it from there.
MJ: Yeah, I was very fortunate. I lived in Cyprus when I was about eight months to two years old, and so I was introduced to the ocean very, very early in my life. My dad was in the embassy. We traveled around a lot, and swimming is something I could always do. If it was football, basketball or baseball, I was picked last. I mean it literally came down to little Timmy with one leg who’s blind in one eye or me, and they’d pick little Timmy. But when it came to swimming, I could always swim. I could free dive, I could hold my breath, and that just progressed into 8th grade, high school, post-high school. I almost had a swimming scholarship, and right before I accepted it, I joined the Navy. Pool evolutions and ocean evolutions were easy. They really are. People say, “How do you swim so fast?” and I think I just have some kind of, I don’t want to say a gift, but it’s a gift. The time standard for the swims are still relatively the same, 75 minutes, and my swim buddy and I were going 53 minutes. So, while I could swim, I struggled on things like the obstacle course. I hated pull-ups. I keep on thinking I can’t do pull-ups cause my arms are the longest in the world. But swimming became relatively easy. I was only in the Navy for five years, and I had an illusion that I could get out, make millions of dollars being a professional triathlete. I swam and ran in school. I used to ride my bike to swim practice. Did my first triathlon, won a pair of shoes and was hooked. I loved the sport of triathlon.
DF: And when was this?
MJ: So, this is 1985 is when I joined the Navy. I got out in ’91. I raced, I did the Hawaii Iron Man, did it ten years in a row. My life was, it revolved around swimming, biking, running. I also went to school, went to graduate school in Arizona, primarily to train in altitude. I lived in Flagstaff. I usually came out fairly well on the swim, and then the bikers would catch me, and then the runners would catch me. Could never really put together a full professional package. So, I was usually living in the back of my truck, and I started coaching to make money and then also doing some other odds and ends.
DF: What type of coaching did you do?
MJ: So, I was a swim coach for eight years at a little high school up in Forestville, Northern California, and then I also coached cross-country running. And then I got a job as a cross-country coach at Sonoma State University. In the meantime, I continued to race triathlons, and then ten years ago, I got the opportunity to come onboard as a civilian instructor. I work in second phase, which is the diving phase. They looked at my resume, and they said, “Oh, you got the swimming experience.” I did a substantial amount of diving when I was in the teams, I was a lead combat diving instructor. And I had classroom experience and also coaching and mentoring experience. So, I’m very fortunate. I’ve been an instructor for ten years, put 55 classes through and so over 2,000 guys, and part of my job, in addition to teaching new instructors, teaching the students is also coaching, mentoring not just diving but swimming. And I enjoy it. I like getting in the water with the students. I like, it’s a little testosterone match to see who can take me out. I do all the swims with them and also the obstacle course. I don’t do triathlons anymore. I got turned on to these Tough Mudder, 12-hour to 24-hour races that ironically, they don’t involve any swimming whatsoever. And so, I don’t know why I’m doing them. I’m obsessed with winning the series, and the next year, I’ll be doing swim/run races, hopefully overseas and around the States.
DF: So, those are 12-hour-long races?
MJ: They’re 12 to 24-hour endurance races, where it’s a 5-mile obstacle course, and you just continue to do them over and over again for the 12-hour duration. There’s five of them, and then the championship is in November, and that’s a 24-hour race called the World’s Toughest Mudder, and I’ve done it the last four years. You acquire points for each mile you go you get a point, and two years ago, I was second overall in the point series. Last year, I was fourth overall, and this year I’m leading, and I’m hoping to win the thing. But it involves travel, it involves expenses, time…
DF: So, how many of those have you competed in?
MF: So, I’ve done 76 Tough Mudder races, and I’ve done 14 of the 8 to 12-hour races and four of the 24-hour races.
DF: So, you’re a natural.
MJ: I wouldn’t say a natural. I was extremely, alluding onto it earlier, I was very uncoordinated as a kid. I could not dribble, pass, catch or throw. I just was, my synapsis were off, but in the water, I felt very comfortable. And it’s not a natural gift. I mean there are some natural athletes out there. I see them coming through BUD/S all the time. I’m not a natural athlete, I struggle. When I ran, my legs flayed out. I was afraid to run till I was like 12 years old because people would make fun of my running. My swimming is just something that I could do. I was a breaststroker in high school and in college. So, the combat sidestroke, it’s a required swim stroke for the physical readiness test, and they do combat sidestroke in BUD/S the first few weeks, and then you get fins, and then you really don’t do that much sidestroke after that. It’s a great stroke if you’re a lifeguard and for a low profile. There are some similarities between the diving position and the sidestroke. But as a breaststroker, my legs go a certain direction, and they don’t go the sidestroke scissor kick direction. So, anybody can probably swim faster than me at sidestroke, but with fins, I’m fairly decent.
DF: So, let’s expand on that a little bit because fins are not seen in competitive swimming, at least in the traditional sense. I mean, obviously, there’s some dive competitions that use fins and stuff like that. But talk a little bit about how you recommend people start to incorporate fins into their swimming because I think there’s potential there for over-training or injury, it’s a piece of rubber, and it’s a deceptively powerful device, you know what I mean. A lot of people just think, “Oh, I can just throw these fins on and swim laps.”
MJ: Sure, there’s a variety of fins out there, and I have probably 14 sets of fins at home that I use for different things. I use a Churchill fin, which is kind of an angle fin. When you put them together, they look like the fluke of a, of a dolphin’s tail, and I use that for boogie boarding. I have long fins that are 3-feet long. They’re made out of carbon fiber that I use for free diving or spear fishing. I use a scuba pro fin if I’m swimming with the students cause that’s what they wear. I want to be on even keel with them. When I’m doing my pool exercises, I’ll use a short fin, either a Zoomer or a little longer that I can just turn over really fast. There are different fins for different uses, and what’s important is that someone just doesn’t go out there and buy a pair of fins and get in the pool or get in the ocean and just wail away. You got to build up stamina, muscle strength, some people have experienced calf cramps. I’ll do a swim set with guys, and they haven’t done fin swims before, and within the fourth or fifth 100-yard interval, their calves are cramping up. It’s a different muscle group. It’s so different. You’re not applying pressure on your muscles when you’re not utilizing a fin. It’s completely different, so.
DF: So, you think people should start gradually, maybe on/off, or what’s kind of your approach for that?
MJ: An on/off approach, kind of like when I tell runners who’ve never run before that, to start a running program, it starts kind of like crawl, walk, run. You do three days a week of walking and then to running and then build up, maybe not that low, but at least a gradual thing. You just get in the pool and try doing fin sets for a half an hour a day, you might experience kind of a burn out or an injury. So, you build up. And just like swim sets, I always encourage if you’re in a pool, warm up, 500 to 1,000 yards, and then have a set written out, have a little piece of paper or a little pad with a grease pencil. Maybe ten 100s on the whatever interval. A lot of pools will have a pace clock, and I’ll look at the clock, or I’ll look at my watch, and I’ll do a pace. And then I’ll do the same set utilizing fins, and I do fin work on my side and on my back and on my front, freestyle, sidestroke, backstroke. I do not encourage swimming breaststroke with fins. It’s kind of ridiculous. Your legs just don’t work that way. But you can utilize a kick board, which is a foam board, and just go back and forth, your head’s out of the water, [DF: Start to build the strength up a little bit.] or modified swim strokes, stroke drills. I’m really big on like one-arm freestyle, close fist freestyle, doing sets, and then also underwater work. I played a sport called underwater hockey that a lot of people haven’t heard about, and it’s basically you have a mask, fins, snorkel. You have a padded glove, and you have a stick. It’s about 12-inches long, slightly curved, and it’s basically just like hockey. It’s six on six but you’re underwater, and you have a puck, and the puck stays in the bottom of the pool, and one team has white sticks, the other team has black sticks, and your goal is to push that puck into a goal, and it’s excellent training cause you’re holding your breath, you’re moving this thing back and forth. It’s teamwork. You know, you have that puck, and you flick it, and then another team gets it, or you get it to your buddy, and then you make a goal and excellent breath hold work. I’m always a little worried about telling people to do underwater work. Like I was in free diving for quite a bit and shooting fish, and it’s a dangerous sport. I mean guys get shallow water blackout, they pass out underwater. We’ve had several Frogmen actually die breath holding, swimming, shooting fish, and so you got to always make sure whenever you do any kind of swimming evolution, you have, if not a lifeguard, then a buddy who’s watching you. Not underwater with you, but on the surface monitoring you and making sure it’s safe. We’ve had individuals get in trouble, and so it’s just, safety is important. There’s no reason why you can’t have a buddy watching you.
DF: So, in regards to safety, I guess we’ll just kind of finish up the fin piece. Is it easy enough for people to monitor, let’s say it’s the first time they’ve had fins on in the pool, and they’re going to do some laps, like when to take them off and just to swim without them. Will they start to feel certain parts of their body will start to get tight or anything for them to look out for? It’s time to say, “Okay, this is enough for today, I’ll get back on this my next training session,” or anything like that?
MJ: Sure. It really depends on the individual, whether they put fins on before, whether it’s brand new. I encourage them just to go a simple set, get a feel for their fins. A lot of times, if I’m using a new fin, kind of like a running shoe, it will start rubbing on the top of my foot. So, there’s a very thin Neoprene bootie that I use with a lot of the fins I use. And then there’s open heel fins, and there’s closed heel fins, and the open heel fins, it actually has a strap on the back of the fin that you can actually adjust and cinch tight. The fins we use in BUD/S are scuba pros, jet fins, and you have to wear a bootie with that, or else you’ll wear a hole in the top of your foot because just the movement, your foot moves inside the fin. There are a variety of sizes. In the scuba pro fin, there’s small all the way up to triple extra large, and it’s important you get the right size fin. I’ve seen guys put on fins, and they can’t move them, especially for the tread or the distance swim. They kick for the first five minutes, and then they’re just essentially just barely moving their legs. Now, they’re dragging that heavy fin. So, use the appropriate fin.
DF: Yeah, do some research. It seems like that’s kind of a deceptively simple thing. It’s like a pair of goggles or something, just go pick them up or jump online and order a pair, but…
MJ: Same thing with masks. One size does not fit all. [DF: Yeah, do your research.] So, I encourage, I have a size 13 foot, and I used to be able to push an extra large scuba pro fin back when I was younger. Now, I have to go with a large, and I have a very fast turnover. So, a smaller fin, faster turnover. If you can push fins, then go gradually bigger.
DF: Yeah, I think it’s deceptively simple. People might think it’s just like a piece of any other sporting apparatus would be like, you know, something that’s pretty simple. You just pick out whatever everybody else is using and just go to it, but it’s going to have to fit your body, it’s going to have to be a specific length. You don’t just want to like get some commercial, disposable vacation fins, you know, that you would get at Walmart. It’s not the same kind of thing.
MJ: No, and a lot of times, fins fall apart, not necessarily because of the user, but it’s important after you’re in the swimming pool or the ocean, you rinse those things off. Salt water and even chlorine will eat through fins very quick, so take care of your gear. Get a pair of fins that work for you. You can go to Big 5 Sports, or you can order them online. I suggest getting the fins out of the package, putting them on, seeing if they work, getting a small bootie so you don’t wreck your feet and then getting in a pool and then doing the sets that I suggested, even if it’s just down and back. Look at your time. How do you feel? It’s really important you’re using your hip flexors and the front part of your ankles to push those fins. A lot of guys just start kicking, and they’re kicking literally with their knees. When you use a fin, you should feel the pressure on the front part of your fin on the one foot and the back part of your fin on the other fin, and just it’s a constant back and forth. And I kind of do either a flutter kick, which is just a back and forth, think of freestyle flutter kick, and I’m on my side, or I dolphin kick, where my knees and my legs are basically together, and I’m doing a dolphin kick back and forth. And what’s important is you’re efficient. I’m not out of breath, you got to time your breathing. A lot of times, when I do the swims with the students, I just have one arm in front of me and one arm at my side, and I’m just on my side, and I’m just kicking a relatively fast turnover, whereas sometimes in sidestroke, guys are using arms, but if they don’t do it right, it’s almost like they’re just throwing out an anchor, and they’re slowing themselves down…flailing around.
DF: Flailing around kind of? So, efficiency is something I’ve heard you speak about just numerous times today, and other swim professionals talk about it as well. Is that what you have found yourself in your experience calling out to students, whether it’s at BUD/S or in civilian life the most as far as things you see them doing wrong and telling them to correct?
MJ: Constantly. I’m on the obstacle course, which we have at BUD/S, one of the toughest obstacle courses in the world, and I see people go on that for the first time, and they take 15 to 20 minutes because they don’t know how to climb a rope, they don’t know how to get over a wall. They’re completely inefficient. They use so much energy on the first five obstacles, they can’t get through the last ten obstacles. So, it’s not about strength. It’s about knowing how to do the obstacle efficiently, not burning out their arms, knowing how to climb a rope by utilizing their feet, not their arms. With fin swimming, if you’re kicking with your knees, or you’re flailing your arms around, and you’re out of breath, especially on a two or three-mile swim, you’re not going to get anywhere. You’re going to go backwards. You’re going to suffer. A lot of times, I’m thinking about how is my body position, how streamline am I, I’m constantly swimming. People think, “Oh, you just space out when you swim and run.” With both sports, I’m constantly thinking about body dynamics, how can I go faster, how can I save energy, what do I look like? Am I a starfish in the water, or am I a swordfish? You know, I envision that swordfish as being sleek and swimming straight and getting there and back efficiently.
DF: Being I think in tune with your body, in the moment of exercise is something I’ve heard echoed through a lot of the professionals I’ve spoken with. I think it’s a really big, important part that people can easily overlook because it’s not a specific exercise that you do, it’s not a specific food or training program that kind of hones that in. It’s really your own self-awareness to developing efficiency or just seeing and analyzing your own movement patterns, how are you doing this, how are you doing that, could I take that out, should I not be pushing so hard here? Whatever, just that, having that sensitivity. Earlier, you talked about hiring a swim coach or being part of a league or a swimming club or something like that. For people who maybe don’t have access to somebody like that, do you think that there’s resources online, or would you just encourage people to do their own research, or how would you recommend people approach that if they’re in middle America and don’t have access to, you know, a swimming club or maybe don’t have the financial means to do that or whatever?
MJ: Sure, it’s hard to find a swimming pool and a swimming pool that’s open and a schedule, and some pools, local pool here, it costs $7 just to go use the pool. What I have at my disposal, I’m very fortunate I live in Coronado, so I have a bay on one side where I live, I have the ocean on the other side, and also there’s lifeguards to monitor. I swim around a buoy. I’m out there quite often. There are so many videos on how to swim online, and that’s good to a point to look and see someone else’s swimming technique. They slow down their video, you can see how they are, or you can kind of visualize, but I encourage someone who wants to come into Special Forces, especially the Navy or the Navy SEAL program, they have to get in the water. They have to get to a pool or a river or some kind of venue. They can’t expect to come through this training. There’s so much water activity in BUD/S, and if you don’t feel comfortable in the water, I mean water comfortability and swimming and efficiency and streamline, it just, every phase of training. If you can’t swim, you’re not going to make it through. You’re going to have to go through another division.
DF: In terms of training volume, obviously, the types of competitions that you embark on or compete in require way more volume than what’s probably needed for people entering the pipeline to come into BUD/S. What, and I know it’s difficult to pin, or it’s probably not appropriate to pin an exact number on the mileage or yards that someone should be covering on a week, but can you maybe unpack that a little bit and get people at least a rough idea the type of volume that you think would be appropriate for the average person that sets them up for success to come in here to at least be able to put their best foot forward?
MJ: Sure. A person coming through BUD/S does not have to do the collegiate mileage that I did, which is sometimes ten to 15,000 yards a day. That’s over six miles a day of swimming, but that’s because I swam long distance freestyle, and I swam breaststroke. A BUD/S candidate should be swimming at least four days a week in my opinion, running four or five days a week, doing weights, doing other things to prep them for the BUD/S program. Everyone should be familiar with what the PST is, the Physical Standard Test, and that consists of a 500-yard swim, a mile and a half run, two minutes of pushups, two minutes of sit-ups, max pull-ups, they should do that proficiently. And if they do it well enough, they can get an auto qual. That’s what they used to have, an auto qualification contract, and that’s what they should be trying to achieve. I encourage guys and females, they’re eligible as well, to do a PST, to record their times, take about ten minutes, grab some nutrition and grab a Gatorade and then go do that PST again and then record their times, and if they’re really gung-ho and in shape to do it again. Initially, the students have to be able to, well, become students. They have to pass the PST, and then in BUD/S themselves, the longest swim that they’ll do is five and a half miles of nautical swimming. That’s not until their fifth month of BUD/S. The average swim is two miles. It’s in the ocean. You do relatively very little sidestroke without fins after the first couple weeks of BUD/S. But there’s like one step at a time. Pass the PST, get a good score, be proficient in swimming. Regarding mileage, I don’t think a student or a potential student needs to swim more than 3,000 yards every time they swim. They should be able to sprint, they should be able to swim underwater, they should be able to swim a set amount of time wearing fins without being exhausted.
DF: That makes a lot of sense. I think maybe people want to hear the prescription for the perfect program to be able to, “I do these things, then I’ll make it through,” but it sounds like it’s a lot more about being comfortable and capable in the water and getting to that point just takes exposure, not necessarily a specific program, like you’re talking about doing dynamic play underwater with the hockey, or just in general being comfortable in that space enough that you can perform. And then it becomes you pushing yourself at BUD/S in a space where you’re comfortable as opposed to something that’s so new to you that you’re stumbling through it is kind of what I’m hearing from you. You think that’s pretty accurate?
MJ: It is. When I coach swimmers, I train them like I coach runners. I say, “Hey, on one day, swim or run by yourself,” I mean with a lifeguard present. On another day, swim or run with someone who’s a little faster than you, that’s competitive, that you do a set with them, and you’re trying to race them, and they’re beating you up. And then on the third day, swim with someone who may be a little slower than you that you can kind of back off and push them. There’s a kind of symbiotic relationship. When I did triathlons, I would run with professional runners, and they would just kill me on the track or on the hills. I would bike with category one professional cyclists, and they would destroy me in the hills, and then I would also swim with Olympic type swimmers, and they would kill me, too. Well, those three individuals, if I was to do a triathlon against them, I would beat them. And so, it’s a humbling experience taking that abuse and just taking that discipline and getting after it and keep on striving and then learning from the best. What the SEALs do and other Special Forces do is we learn we’re not necessarily the best parachuters or divers or skiers, but we find the best skiers in the world, and we say, “Hey, what can we learn from them? How do we become more proficient? How do we become the best?” because we have so many skillsets that we have to be proficient at. It’s hard to be a master of all sports.
DF: Yeah, kind of getting your exposure from as many sources as you can. I think that’s something that’s a continuous thread through training for BUD/S or active SEALs, their quest to find out the truth or find out the right way or the best way, and it’ll oftentimes just requires doing a lot of research, exposure, asking the questions and finding out for yourself because there’s a lot of noise out there in terms of physical fitness and even smaller portions of that, specifically swimming. Everyone would like to think that there’s a master plan or the right way to do something, but a lot more of it is about the attitude of being humble like you’re saying, exposing yourself to professionals and being in that environment, learning, continuous education. That way, you’re kind of developing yourself, and then you have your own knowledge as opposed to just trying to echo somebody else’s opinion or life experience.
MJ: Ultimately, putting in the time. I do these endurance races, and I’m always amazed at how many people sign up on a whim, and then they come to the race, and they’re completely out of shape, and the same thing happens sometimes at the PST or BUD/S training. I’m really amazed at how many people come into BUD/S, especially after being at their prep, and they’re really not in the kind of shape, in my opinion, that they should be. And there’s limitations at Great Lakes. I don’t think they have soft sand to run in, they don’t have a rough ocean to swim in, I don’t know how much fin use they’re doing but there’s so much more that individuals can do, and it’s really a self-discipline thing. You have to want it. You have to make yourself uncomfortable every day. That’s almost become a cliché saying, but you really have to do that, whether it’s getting up early and going for a run or taking a cold shower or eating Brussels sprouts or something you don’t want to do and do it because that’s what BUD/S is. BUD/S is extremely difficult, and I hate to see kids come through this program, and they’re shell-shocked, like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m getting yelled at,” or, “I’m having to run when I’m wet and sandy, and my body’s chaffed,” or, “I’m tired. I’ve been up for like three days. Now they want me to swim two miles in the ocean.” That’s what it’s about. It’s all a training for the real world. I often tell people I was scareder, tireder and colder after BUD/S than I was in BUD/S, and people go, “Wow, wow, yeah,” and I really didn’t do anything. I mean I got out after five years. I didn’t do a lot. I was the Winter warfare platoons, where we froze, of course. I dove in ice water, I climbed mountains and those type of things, but people got to understand what they are signing up for. This is not a movie, it’s not a book, it’s a serious thing…You’re training for war, and if you have to go out the ocean and swim for five or six miles now holding a buddy or holding a piece of equipment, I can think of a jump I did where I jumped out of an airplane, and I hit the water, and we had to hold on to our parachutes. This was a training operation. And I was in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, and it’s 2,000 feet deep, and I’m holding onto that parachute, and the parachute is getting heavier and heavier and heavier, and the whole time, I’m thinking, “If I lose this parachute, I’m going to get in so much trouble.” And I was the last guy out of a stick of 24 that jumped out of that airplane to get picked up, and that thing felt like it weighed 400 pounds, but by God, I held onto that parachute, and when the boat came over, they pulled it up, and I was exhausted. I didn’t have fins on either. I was kind of treading water in boots holding onto this parachute. BUD/S is hard, and SEAL training is hard, and being a SEAL is very hard.
DF: So, just to touch back on a little bit of equipment, I think a lot of people might have some questions about that. Other than fins, what types of gear you think people should expose themselves to, whether it’s snorkels, mask, goggles, or, you know, the type of swimwear, like what do you kind of recommend for people just starting out so that they maybe don’t feel like completely lost in what they should try to expose themselves with?
MJ: I encourage everyone to know how to use a mask and clear it underwater cause masks get kind of dislodged underwater, know how to clear it. You simply blow air out of your nose and clear the water out of the mask. I also encourage the use of a snorkel. A snorkel allows you to be on the surface and look down through your mask and actually breathe through a snorkel. It’s a little tube, for people who don’t know what a snorkel is, and when you go under water, that snorkel fills up with water. And then what you do is, when you come back to the surface, when the top of the snorkel clears the surface, you use your last breath of air to exhale, and you forcefully blow that air out of the snorkel, and if you do it right, you don’t have to take the snorkel out of your mouth. You can take the next breath of air. Usually, there’s a little trickle of water in there, but learn how to use a mask and a snorkel, learn how to use fins, go somewhere tropical. The underwater sea life is my favorite place to be. I love being underwater. I like the simplicity of fins, mask, snorkel and swimsuit. I think if I was to go through BUD/S again, I think of my own experience. I was a great swimmer, but I was weak upper body. I was weak on the obstacle course. I prayed to God I wouldn’t fail the obstacle course cause I didn’t want to get rolled. And I think someone who’s balanced in their running, their upper body fitness, their swimming has an easier time coming through training. I often tell the students I teach that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and I kind of joke that’s why I work on my strengths. I work on my swimming all the time, where I never hit a pull-up bar when I should. Ironically, I do these obstacle course races, which is all upper body strength work. As I said earlier, find a coach if you can or someone who’s really good at whatever it is you’re weak at, kind of pick their mind, and who knows, maybe they can’t run, or they can’t balance their checkbook, or they don’t know how to work a computer. There’s always this give and take, it’s great when that works out. But swimming is something that if you didn’t grow up swimming, it’s going to be work, you. It’s more than having your uncle throw you in the pool. You know, you hear those stories, “I didn’t know how to swim. My uncle just threw me in the water.” It’s more than that. It’s learning how to be proficient in the water and comfortable. I see guys that do these tests, and I know in the first minute that they’re going to have a hard time. Their eyes get big, and they move really fast underwater, jittery, and it’s okay to be nervous, but it’s better to be calm, cool and collected and then just follow procedures. People have this illusion that pool competency, which I teach, it’s basically a 20-minute test where the student wears tanks, and as an instructor, we go down there, we turn their air off, we put them in uncomfortable positions, and they think that’s all about holding their breath for five minutes or long periods of time or untying God awful knots. It’s not. It’s following procedures. The students are never underwater on a breath hold for more than a minute. Everything is very safety oriented, and they’ve been taught along the way in a series of different pretests what to expect on that final test. And if they can just remain calm, so water comfortability involves knowing how to move underwater but also having self-talk mechanisms in place where you can just have a mantra you’re constantly telling yourself, “It’s okay. I love you, Grandma. I can do this. Just do it,” and that’s a repeated theme, and I do that still to this day in the races. I suffer, “Okay, I can do this. I can do this,” just a simple mantra.
DF: Slowing down your mind. Sometimes slower is faster…I know that’s counterintuitive.
MJ: It, it is. It’s, smooth is fast, but I caught myself saying the other day, “Slow is fast.” What does that mean? Slow it down and also staying in a present moment. I see so many people come through the training, and they keep on thinking, “Oh, what’s going to happen tomorrow?” and Hell Week, especially. Five days of staying up, and the first day they’re thinking, “What’s going to happen tomorrow? What’s going to happen?” No, stay right locked in the present moment, and you’re going to do better.
DF: Well, Mark, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. If people want to find out more, they can visit the SEAL/SWCC website. There’s a lot of good information there in terms of swimming and the specific strokes, but I think you provided a lot of good knowledge and kind of foundation for people. Thank you for your time.
MJ: Great. Thank you for having me. I hope to see some of these listeners in BUD/S. I’ll be there another 20 years hopefully.