As noted by Brandon Webb in his excellent BUD/S preparation guide (available as an ebook to SOFREP Team Room members), both former and active-duty SEALs are asked on a regular basis how to prepare for SEAL training. It is a question to which we all develop a ready answer, as we get the question on so many occasions. For that reason, I thought I would offer my own two cents on the subject here, for the readers of SOFREP.
Backing up a step, SEAL training is called BUD/S: Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. It is a course put on by the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California. Any man (and it’s only men, for now) who wants to be a SEAL has to go through BUD/S—no exceptions. It is the basic qualification course, and the first step for every would-be-frogman to join the brotherhood of the Teams. We all know our BUD/S class number just as readily as we know our social security numbers or birthdays. It is etched into our brains forever, and we are eternally linked to the men with whom we graduated the course. The number of graduates usually varies from about 10 to 25 out of a starting class of 100 or so—at least that’s how it was when I went through training so many years ago.
Again, as Brandon correctly noted, the very first answer SEALs usually give to the question of how to make it through BUD/S is along the lines of “Don’t quit.” It sounds cliche, or like a pat answer, but it is as simple as that. When I struggled with any evolution at BUD/S—and there were plenty—I simply told myself that the instructors would either have to fail me or kill me, but that I would never quit. If that thought ever enters your mind—that it is not for you, or too hard, or not worth it—then you will never make it.
So, getting past the mental fortitude required, and assuming you are reading this because you have a desire to succeed in BUD/S, how do you prepare physically? Unfortunately, I cannot give you a magic bullet, or tell you to do three specific things and you will make it. It is not that easy. You have to be willing to put in the time required to physically prepare. For me, it required about three years of steady preparation, followed by nine-or-so months of more intensive preparation, before I was ready to go to BUD/S. I knew I was going to apply, I knew my weaknesses, and I worked on them all throughout college with the idea that when I graduated, I needed to be ready.
You have to commit your whole physical being to BUD/S preparation. You have to wake up and go to bed thinking about how much more you need to prepare, and what you need to improve on, physically. You have to be willing to commit hours per day to it, and you have to know that every mile you run, every thousand meters you swim, every push-up you do, and every rope you climb, will get you one step closer to successfully completing the program.
You need to run miles and miles before you get to BUD/S. You need to run in boots and pants, and you need to run in soft sand. You need to run in the heat of the day, early in the morning, and in the evening or night. You will run at least six to 10 miles per day in BUD/S. Your legs will be punished, and those that do not prepare themselves risk stress fractures and other stress-induced injuries. You need to be able to run relatively fast, too, as there are timed runs at BUD/S, and if you fail them, you fail the course.
I was a solid runner when I started preparing for BUD/S, and I had a good baseline of miles and speed before I committed to the training. When I did commit, I not only added miles to my training program to get to about 30 per week (not too terribly much), but I added beach runs and boots and pants to my regimen. I was lucky enough to have about three months in Florida before starting training, during which I ran on the beach in the soft sand almost every single day. This, I believe, was about the single most important thing I did to prepare for the training. I never failed a timed run at BUD/S, nor was I ever put into the “Goon Squad” for slower runners. Every little advantage helps, after all.
Not only should you run about 30 miles per week or more leading up to BUD/S, you should do a fair amount of run-swim-runs, in which you run two or three miles, swim one, and run another two to three. This will help prepare your body for the sheer volume of physical training you will have to endure in BUD/S, and help condition you for the cardio load you will have to shoulder to make it through.
SEALs are the U.S. military’s premiere waterborne commandos for a reason. SEALs spend countless hours in the water, not only during basic and advanced training, but in the Teams as well. You not only need to be a good distance swimmer, you also need to develop an extremely high comfort level in the water (more on this below). The good news is, you do not have to be a very fast swimmer to succeed in BUD/S. I am a perfect illustration of this fact. I am not built to swim, nor was I ever the fastest swimmer in my BUD/S class. College, and even high school competitive swimmers have laughed at my form. I am just not that fast, bottom line. I can, however, swim for miles, and I can swim fast enough to make it through SEAL training. That is all that matters. I never failed a timed swim, either, despite coming close a couple of times.
To prepare for BUD/S, swim side stroke, crawl, and breast stroke for thousands of meters. Develop a good baseline of distance and comfort with those strokes, then add open water and fins to your workouts. Swimming in a pool is different from swimming in the open water, and both are necessary to prepare yourself. You also need to develop the muscles and form required for fin swimming. You will swim miles and miles in fins at BUD/S, and in the Teams, if you make it. So prepare your legs now.
Comfort in the Water
I went through two phases of BUD/S training with Adam Brown, subject of the book Fearless. Adam was an animal in training, and a stud at all physical evolutions. He was a stud because he muscled through everything, no matter how bad he was at the actual evolution. Adam simply found a way to get it done. Swimming was a perfect example. Adam swam like me; he wasn’t very proficient at strokes, but just kicked and pulled like a mule to beat the swim time. I asked him once how he prepared for BUD/S, whether he did a lot of ocean swims, and incredibly, he told me that he had never even been in saltwater before coming to Coronado for training. Whether this was true or not, I do not know, but I remember being shocked by it, and once again amazed at his shear will to make it through.
Do not emulate Adam Brown in this case, if you can avoid it. Get yourself into the salt (and cold!) water, and hang out there. A lot. Swim in it, play in it, tread water in it, explore in it, SCUBA dive in it, and get to know it intimately. You should feel safe and secure and at home in the ocean before you come to BUD/S, and you will be well-served. The water will become your friend and security blanket if you ever become a SEAL. You will one day feel like you own the oceans and seas, but you have to get yourself there through conditioning and preparation, first.
Part of this comfort in the water involves breath holding, as well. I hesitate to tell you to practice this, but we are all adults here—you can handle the responsibility of keeping yourself alive while training. Practice your underwater swims and breath holds, but never do it alone. Make sure someone is with you, or watching you, in the very real event that you experience a shallow-water blackout. That said, do a lot of underwater swims, and practice underwater knot tying. You will need to successfully complete both evolutions in BUD/S.
If you ever make it to BUD/S, you will do thousands and thousands of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, flutter kicks, dips, rope climbs, and eight-count body-builders. You won’t lift a lot of weights. With that said, you need to do as many of the former as you can before entering training. You need to do push-up workouts in the hundreds, and work up to doing pull-up workouts over a hundred, as well. A good example of this type of workout is the following:
- Do 20 push-ups
- Then do five pull-ups
- Then do 35 four-count flutter kicks.
- Now repeat for 20 total sets. If that becomes easy, and it should, up the numbers to 25/7/50. You should get to the point where you can do this workout in an hour.
Another workout to do on a separate day of the same week is made up of 20 sets of the following:
- 15 dips
- 20 air squats
- 15 eight-count body-builders
Do these workouts with the right form, slower at first, then speed them up. Take as long as you need to complete the exercises properly, and get faster over time. You should also find a place to do rope climbs, and if at all possible, an obstacle course to train on that includes rope swings, rope climbs, cargo nets, monkey bars, high walls, and balance logs. Running quickly through an O-course will help prep you for the timed obstacle course requirement at BUD/S, though it will be hard to find one as close to the BUD/S course as you would prefer it be.
Finally, do your own research on BUD/S and how to prep for it, and find your own program with which to ready yourself. If you are committed to it, you will find every advantage and piece of knowledge you can to help you make it through. One thing is certain: You will need to find a seven-day-a-week physical regimen to follow, with multiple hours of multiple different workouts per day that include running, swimming, and calisthenics. This will enable you to truly physically prepare yourself to make it through the training.
Best of luck!