More Time in the Water is the Best Investment in Self

Time in the sea ought be a way of life, not merely an occupational tool

Too many former collegiate swimming buddies don’t want anything to do with getting in the water.

Yes, they’ll go to the beach, ride on a boat or even paddle-board  -- all great activities, each with its benefits -- but their committed days of being in the water are over. 


They reached burnout stage years ago and, today, associate the water with cold, fatigue and endless laps of pain. 

Yes, your peers hear you. The Court of Fitness, Longevity, Personal Responsibility and Wisdom, however, must reject your reasoning.

How many retired Naval Special Warfare personnel are in the same boat?  The water can become taboo because of the cold and painful memories it conjures.

Or, is it that we’ve been there, done that and so we stay on land?

Or, are we on to other challenges and have neither time nor interest?

Or, fill in the blank as to why we aren’t swimming anymore, using our know-how to the greatest benefit? 

Whatever the reason, if you are not submerging weekly, you are abandoning perhaps the greatest opportunity known for physical- and mental-wellbeing. No, this is not my opinion. The data backs it.

Researchers at Indiana University Bloomington’s Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming (IUB) have done –pardon the cliché--- groundbreaking work documenting the benefits of swimming.  

Looking for the fountain of youth? Two-thirds of the world is covered with it. “…(S)wimming substantially delayed the decline of such markers as blood-pressure, muscle-mass, blood-chemistry and pulmonary function,” the researchers write. “Swimming,” they add, ”can postpone the aging process not only for years but for decades.”  

Another study, conducted over 32 years by the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, compared the mortality of sedentary, walkers, runners and swimmers of 40,000 men between 20- and 90-years old.  The results were compelling: swimmers live a lot longer.

Legions of other studies empirically document benefits of being in the water. Still, I want to share personal experiences over the 30 years I have coached and the 25 years I’ve spent as a tactical swimming instructor with Naval Special Warfare. 

Accelerated Recovery

Recovering quickly after a hard physical event is critical to being ready for the next practice, workout, training evolution, competition or mission. 

Nutrition and rest are vital components of this, of course, but active recovery in a soft, weightless environment at the proper heart-rate reduces recovery time by as much as half. Using the water as an active recovery tool is now a prevalent therapy in professional and amateur sports.  

Russel Wilson, quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, goes for a swim every Monday to work out aches and pains from Sunday. He believes it is a key to success. 

 I’ve worked with professional sports teams that regularly use the water to reduce soreness, flush-out lactic acid and reduce recovery time.  

If done right, active recovery, rather than sedentary conduct, gets us ready quicker with little, if any, stress to the body.  

A few years back, I visited physical therapists working with the University of Arizona football team to talk about benefits derived from in-water sessions after hard dry-land activity.  To my surprise, they walked me into their new training facility and it had three pools. Recovery after games was one of the primary purposes for these pools. I left both excited that UA had implemented this philosophy and a bit deflated as, it turns out, I wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t already know.  

Feeling tight, heavy, sore, beat-up, worn-down after a hard run, weight-lifting session, wrestling match, hike or other?  Get in the pool and let the magic begin.

Alternative Weightless Training

Constantly beating ourselves with dry land training -- anything out of the water -- subjects us to gravity and the effects that gravity has on the body. 

Much of that is good and makes us stronger, but there is only so much wear and tear a body can take.  Training in a weightless environment creates numerous advantages not found on solid ground. 

Tom Brady uses the water regularly to supplement his other training.  In his book, he talks of exercises that enhance what he calls “pliability”, especially important as we age.  The aging process turns our muscles from being like tender filet mignon, when we are young, into beef-jerky.  Young muscles are pliable, flexible and recover. Older ones becomes brittle, tight, injury-prone and take longer to recover. Brady likes to do exercises that lengthen and stretch muscles on a regular basis, instead of shortening and tightening, so as to increase pliability. Swimming and other water exercises are used to do just this.  

Longer Career

I’ll stick to a few more football examples of big men playing hard sports. The average lineman’s career in the NFL is 3.5 years. There are many reasons for this, but one is they are very heavy human beings and their bodies take a huge amount of punishment not only in their games but in training. This heavy pounding takes its toll in a short period, but the results last a lifetime.  I like to compare our bodies to a certain year-and-model of car.  Some of us are early model trucks, some vans, some sedans, some sports cars, some off-road Jeeps.  Whatever model and year we are, the car lasts as long as we take care of it.  Extending our mileage is critical.

Training done in the water is like highway miles on a car. The less impact from city driving, the farther down the road you get.

My theory: if these lineman were to use in -water training during the off season and, as appropriate during the regular season, to supplement dry-land training (while cutting back on the same), this would enable them to maintain a high-level of cardiovascular fitness without damage to the body required to maintain that same level in doing all dry land work.  That would result in fewer “miles on their car.” 

 True, in-water work may not be specific to their specific job, but it will take some of the hard-mileage off the odometer. It would keep them in shape, allow recovery off-season, and enable them to ramp back up to their specific work requirements faster than if sedentary, and with less-risk and fatigue than if doing all dry-land work. 

Similarly, if we implement a water routine into our own weekly regime, we lessen impact on our “car” and extend the amount of time we are able to perform a certain task --- our careers -- in a significant way.

Healthier More Productive Retirement

Most of us can’t do now what could when younger. Too often, because of this many just stop doing much at all. The spiral downward accelerates.  Inactivity begets less ability. Past injuries, wear and tear, pain, and other reasons keep us from being as active as we used to be and as we want to be. Running hurts more, lifting can make you tight and sore for days, and it’s impossible to work out long enough to get the benefits because of the impact to the body. 

Water takes away this excuse. It is forgiving and soft on the body. If you have decent technique, the risk of injury is low, and you can work out as long and hard as you want.  Or, you may want to just use the water as time for peace, tranquility and rest.   

Whatever stage of life you are in, water enables you to take full advantage of your potential.

Harder Training and Energy System Enhancement

A human can work harder and longer in the water than anywhere else, period.  He can also recover quicker from training. 

This is true because, when swimming, the body is prone, blood-flow more efficient. You are immersed in an automatic coolant to regulate body temperature in order to not overheat (assuming the pool’s temperature is proper); you are in a weightless environment, and the entire body is engaged in propelling you forward from the tip of fingers to the bottom of toes.  

In this environment, one can train as hard or easy as one likes for whatever duration. Eating and sleeping are really the only limiting factors if technique is good.  Yes, the “if the technique is good” part is important.  That’s the subject of another article. 

Land gravity-based training is great, and we all need it. Many get all they want from this kind of training whether it be running, lifting, wrestling, or other activity.  But, the body breaks down quicker in doing these activities in comparison to swimming. The limitations in doing these activities, even in our younger years, are dramatic compared with what we can do in the water.

 In my training heyday, when coaches at the time thought the more the better, doing 100,000 meters (60 miles) in the water per week was not uncommon and even 120km (80 miles) during a Hell Week was not unheard of.  

I’m not recommending this. It is overtraining, unless one’s training for an ultra-marathon swim, but using this as an example of “if you want to get work in and can’t do it on land anymore, then the water is your playground”. 

Keeping up that kind of rhythm in any other sport would spell disaster, and rightfully so, as the body would start to crash.  As we age, the differences in what we can do on dry land versus water becomes more profound.   

All-out sprints in the water at 60-, 70- or even 80-years-old is do-able with little risk to the body as long as the heart is heathy. Most other sports require one’s body to be well-tuned to make that kind of exertion without a higher risk of injury. 

In running, joints and muscles, start to break down from the tremendous hammering. Yes, there are a few who can get away with this for years, but for many, the miles of running take a toll on the body and that toll needs to be carefully monitored to keep us from doing more harm than good. It is harder to keep up the running miles and intensity as we age in comparison to what we can do in the water. 

As such, being able to train over a wide variety of energy systems is more possible in the water than dry land training and it can keep us fit well after the uniform is taken off.  

Mental Health Advantages

“Sheep Dog Syndrome” is a phrase I’ve used for anyone who is used to being active with a purpose- driven life and suddenly goes to pasture with no goals or vision.

 I have seen it in the civilian world as successful people retire and have no path or vision forward and I’ve seen it within the military. If a working sheepdog, accustomed to herding cattle all-day and fulfilling its full measure, is suddenly taken out that critical role and placed in a fenced-yard with nothing to do, depression sets in or the dog gets into mischief. I’ve had sheepdogs; I’’ve seen it happen.  

Transitioning out of any career can be difficult. Having a routine that keeps one connected with one’s former-self and a path forward is critical. I am nowhere near the athlete I used to be, but I still enjoy every stroke I take or time in the water. OK, mostly I do, unless the open water conditions are horrible, and then I survive like anyone else! But, I still like the challenge of being the best I can be at my current age and ability. Interestingly, I am not as fast as I used to be, but I can swim as far as I ever have. Some things can actually get better with age. 

Enjoying each swim and using it to keep us mentally sharp is possible. We can think about every stroke we take and how we can make it better. We can still enjoy competing or challenging ourselves with new goals every year. Entering competitions or committing to goals are important, as I never tarin as hard as when I know I need to be ready for an event.  Fear of being embarrassed by a poor performance keeps me pushing.  

These goals and tests keep our inner-sheepdog en guarde. Even though we may not be at the same level, we can still contribute, perform and meet standards we’ve set for ourselves. This will help us not only physically but more importantly, mentally.   

The water is the one medium where we can do as we once did, train like we’re 20 again, and feel like we want to.

Physical Therapy

There are so many things the water can do for us. I haven’t covered them all, but I wanted to end with one of the most significant.

If all else fails, get to the water. This fact is exemplified by a few stories.  

Many of you have heard of Bill Walton, the famous NBA Hall-of-Famer and all-round great guy. I met him a few years back when I was swimming at a YMCA in San Diego.  He was in the water walking around doing his exercises and I stopped to talk to him. We are fellow Dead Heads and I thought that might be sufficient to start a conversation. He was kind enough to give me a few minutes and told me his story and the miracle of water.  

Bill is a tall and big man.  The injuries he sustained from years of basketball left hm debilitated as he aged, and it got to the point he could not get off the floor of his house. After dozens of surgeries and countless hours of PT treatment and therapy, he was hopeless. 

He would lay down on the floor almost all day as it was the least painful place to be. Even standing was excruciating. He would eat laying on his stomach, slopping up his food and bathroom time was no fun at all.  His back and entire body had quit on him and he was at the end of his rope.   

Some of his friends recognized this and wanted him to try one more thing.   The put him in his wheelchair and took him to the YMCA pool and just dumped it over. He fell in the pool and was light enough in the pool to tip-toe around on the bottom.  He enjoyed being able to walk again, this time in the water, and experienced very little pain in so doing. 

Bill went back almost every day and found that he was making progress. He could stand up taller in the water and walk further almost every day he went. After a few weeks of pool work he was able to stand without pain on dry land. In a little more time, he was walking again and after a few months he was riding his bike and virtually resuming a normal life. What an incredible story. 

Subsequently I found out that injured horses have similar therapies where they put injured horses on underwater treadmills to give them weightless exercises and then they make it a little harder day-by-day by draining a certain amount of water from their pen in order for the horse to build up strength enough to do this on dry land. 

My own mother recently went through a horrible experience where she broke 5 different vertebrae in her back and was unable to walk for months. Finally, she was able to get in the water and her experience with being able to use the weightless environment to slowly heal and gain strength to walk on her own. It was incredible to witness.


The SEAL community owns whatever environment it operates within.  

Water is the environment that sets this community apart from all others.  

Water opens up new worlds to operational SEALs and will continue to open them for those who continue to seek. 

To this, I can attest, after more than five-decades of taking yet another stroke.