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5 swim tips I learned as a US Navy Helicopter Rescue swimmer

Posted Mar 08 2011 11:34am


There are roughly 500,000 US Navy military personnel deployed all over the world in elite jobs and task forces. As the United States has the world’s best super power on the water, recruitment for the Navy’s Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Department is selective. I was among the chosen few to become a Qualified Rescue Swimmer and Helicopter Crew Chief on the Navy’s version of the Army BlackHawk (MH-60S). A professional swimmer and rescuer, I learned quite a bit. I’d like to share with you the top 5 five important lessons I learned being a US Navy Rescue Swimmer.

1. Be Comfortable in the Water

Jumping out of a helicopter without your mask or goggles can be quite confusing, especially considering the almost hurricane winds generated from the helicopter’s blades. The fear of open water creatures and high waves can really get your heart pumping. Getting comfortable in the water is really the best advice I can give. Just like a triathlon swim start with all the commotion, being comfortable, instead of letting that fear take control of you, will lead you to open water swim success.

2. Work For a Steady, Powerful Kick & Flexible Ankles

Short, flexible fins can be a vital part of training to a triathlete. However, I would argue and add that its sometimes better to use the big, sturdy fins that rescue swimmers and sucba divers use. I know many will argue that I am crazy for making that statement, but I have good reason.

When you add a fin that flexes less, this gives your legs and hip flexors an incredible workout. When you put on the small fins, all they do is make you go faster and help develop that quickness of your kick, but what about the power of your kick?

When I specifically had to wear the Aqualung’s Rocket style fin, I hated it. I only saw the benefit after using them in training and then going on my first rescue and having to buddy tow a 250-pound fisherman that had his boat overturned. With a weak kick I would of needed help myself, but strength training the hip flexors with a fin like the Aqualung’s Super Rocket made my kick cadence slower then my sprinting days. The bigger fins helped increase my ankle flexibility and I developed power and strength from those fins and made my transition to open water that much easier.


3. Lessen the Bite of Cold Water by Covering Up

Jumping into 30-40 degree water will just suck the breath out of you when you haven’t had a chance to warm-up. It would be ideal to wear a thick wetsuit in a race to keep warm, but those types of wetsuits won’t make you hydrodynamic at all. When a Rescue Swimmer jumps in the water, we wear neoprene type booties (the wetsuit shoes that cover your feet), a full-body wetsuit or Drysuit, neoprene gloves, hoodie and full mask.

Covering your body as much as possible will help you deal with the cold water at an early or very late season triathlon. Consider wearing neoprene socks, a hood, earplugs, gloves (until the race starts) and a full mask style goggle. Warming up beforehand or just standing in the water for a minute or two can also help your body acclimate. So when you are treading water before your swim start, you will surprised how much warmer you’ll feel in the water.

4. Hypoxic Training for Triathlete Breath Training

(Note: The following is a very dangerous activity and should only be performed under supervision of a lifeguard and/or training partner/friend, in order to prevent shallow water blackout. Ideally having oxygen readily available will increase your chance of survival in the event this does happen)

My Navy instructors loved to make us feel out of breath and tired with tough uphill runs, forward lunge holds and underwater sprints (ie. Hypoxic training). Underwater sprints are performed in a pool. You push off one wall and swim all the way underwater to the other side without breathing. These will hurt and be hard at first for the inexperienced athlete, but hypoxic training will teach your lungs and heart to be much more efficient. Now, you might ask, “Why would I want to do this if I could pass out? What are the benefits from something like this?”

Imagine you are at race with heavy or choppy waves in the beginning. You are already swimming with high elbows to help you get over the waves, but just as you are about to breathe again, another wave crashes over you. With Hypoxic training, you will have taught your body that its okay for you not to breath for a few seconds. This will allow you to continue without stopping for a breath of fresh air.

If you’re interested in trying Hypoxic training, only do so under trained supervision and consider starting with only 4 x 25 underwater sprints with 2 minutes of rest. When you become better at these exercises, work yourself up to 10 x 25 or start attempting a 50 underwater. Be sure to give yourself enough rest to catch your breath quickly just enough to begin your next underwater sprint. A minimum of 30-60 seconds of rest should be needed and no less.

5. Perfect Swim Technique

High Elbows & a Streamlined body Anytime you start a triathlon, everyone is close together and if you have horrible swimming technique (ie. arms swinging side-to-side rather than maintaining high elbows) you’re probably creating extra drag. In addition, without proper technique, you are most likely hitting other athletes, which will slow you down. When you’re swimming in choppy, rough waters, if you are not keeping a streamlined body position and keeping your elbows high, you are really slowing yourself down. The best way to fix this is to get someone to video tape you and send it to us at TriGuy Multisport Coaching or another coaching service. We’ll review your swim stroke and give you some great pointers.

Final Thoughts:

Everything I mentioned could be of tremendous help to you. If you are truly searching for that extra edge, though, be sure that before trying these techniques, you are very comfortable in the water and have someone supervising you in the pool. And of course, have some fun!

Alan Alan Kipping-Ruane is the founder of TriGuy Multisport Coaching. He is an elite amateur triathlete, USA Triathlon and Swimming coach, Freelance Writer, and former US Navy Rescue Swimmer. To find out more information about “Unlocking Your Athletic Potential” and his personal one-on-one coaching or training plans, go to / or follow him on twitter @triguycoaching.

Follow on twitter @ everymantri or view latest videos on YouTube .

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