What Are The Survival Strokes? (And why they matter)

In order to be water confident, and understand how to cope in a tricky water situation, it will help to learn the main survival strokes and understand why they are important.

As a general rule, there are three survival strokes, namely the survival backstroke, the survival breaststroke and the survival side stroke. These strokes should conserve energy, maximise breathing opportunities and allow a swimmer to navigate to a place of safety with minimal energy loss.

Similar to regular swimming strokes, such as the backstroke and the breaststroke, these swimming strokes are slightly modified.

For example, the survival breaststroke is similar to a regular breaststroke. However, the head is typically kept above water if possible to aid constant breathing and visibility, with the glide phase maximised to reduce energy and gain maximum distance.

In this article, I want to dig deeper into this area of swimming for survival and will cover:

  • What does “survival stroke” mean?
  • What are the survival strokes?
  • What is the best stroke for survival?
  • Why is the survival backstroke important?
  • Is the front crawl a survival stroke?
  • What is combat swimming?

What Does “Survival Stroke” Mean?

In swimming, a survival stroke means a swim stroke that is used to conserve energy and maximise breathing while helping you navigate a tricky water situation to a place of safety.

Survival strokes are the most efficient way to get from point A to point B in the water.

I have found it difficult to find a clear definition of what that actual survival strokes are because any swim stroke that helps you survive a difficult water situation is technically a survival stroke.

However, there are adaptations of main swimming strokes that can be optimised for survival and help you get out of a dangerous situation by reducing energy consumption and regulating breathing.

What Are The Survival Swimming Strokes?

Survival swimming strokes are generally classified into three categories: the survival backstroke, the survival breaststroke, and the survival side stroke.

As mentioned, any swimming stroke that helps you survive is important, but there are certain swimming strokes that, when modified, can help you to safety by using the minimum amount of energy.

The main survival swimming strokes are:

  1. The survival breaststroke
  2. The survival backstroke
  3. The survival side stroke.

What Is The Survival Breaststroke?

The survival breaststroke is very similar to the regular breaststroke, but with some modifications which focus on conserving energy.

First, your arms and hands always remain under the water, unlike competitive breaststroke, where the hands can sometimes come out of the water.

By keeping your hands in the water, you will conserve energy.

Second, the motion should be slow and progressive. Unlike competitive breaststroke, where the kicks and pulls are dynamic and explosive.

The whole idea is to conserve energy, so a slow and relaxed kick and pull is needed.

With this survival stroke, it is possible to constantly keep your head out of the water, which can be beneficial if you are swimming towards a target as you can ensure you do not go off course.

When doing the survival breaststroke, allow the body to glide for as long as possible between pulls.

Again, this will conserve energy and allow the natural propulsion of your body in the water to help you reach your target.

What Is The Survival Backstroke?

This is a very important survival stroke, which can be helpful when the water conditions are rough.

The survival backstroke is very different from the regular backstroke.

You must lie on your back, and complete a breaststroke like kick (or frog kick) with your legs, while gently sculling (a back-and-forth figure-eight motion with your hands) under the water, which will pull you along.

Again, you do not raise your arms out of the water.

Your eyes should look up, with your ears just submerged. You should position your head back, which will raise your hips towards the surface of the water. This is a good position.

Here is a very nice example of the survival backstroke in action:

What Is The Survival Side Stroke?

The survival side stroke seems to be a forgotten stroke amongst leisure swimmers but it is a fundamental stroke for lifeguards or anyone who is towing a casualty in the water.

Typically, the sidestroke involves swimming on your side, using a breaststroke or scissor kick.

You then reach out and pull with your arms, which will help you move through the water.

When lifeguards use this stroke, they rarely use their right hand as they will be towing a casualty. However, if you are using this stroke for survival, you will use both arms.

Again, the idea is to be slow and progressive, using as little energy as possible.

What Is The Best Stroke For Survival?

The best swimming stroke for survival is the one that allows you to breathe easily and move through the water with minimum energy exertion.

The survival backstroke is widely considered as the best swim stroke for survival as the air passage is always clear, there is maximum propulsion and little energy usage.

That said, it is important to know more than one survival stroke so you can adapt to the situation.

For example, the survival backstroke may be the best option, but you could be in a situation where you need to see where you are going, or large waves are crashing in your face. In this case, the survival breaststroke would be more useful.

The key to survival is to know how to work with the water to get yourself to safety with the least amount of panic and energy use.

Swimming survival strokes are useful to get from point A to point B, but it is also important to learn other lifesaving water techniques such as drown proofing, floating on your back or treading water to give you the best chance of survival.

Is The Front Crawl A Survival Stroke?

As a general rule, the front crawl or freestyle is not considered a survival stroke as it is fast and takes up the most amount of energy.

The thinking behind survival strokes is to get a swimmer from point A to point B in a way that exerts the least amount of energy and allows for continuous or easy breathing.

With the front crawl, your head is always in the water and vast amounts of energy are being used to propel yourself forward.

Unless you use the time between arm pulls to “glide” in the water, it is not an energy-efficient stroke. If the situation allows, the survival backstroke is the better option.

What Is Combat Swimming?

Combat swimming refers to the combat sidestroke (CSS) developed and taught by the USA Navy Seals. [source]

The stroke itself is a modified version of the regular sidestroke but optimised for efficiency.

I find it fascinating that they developed this swimming stroke with consultation from Terry Laughlin, the Total Immersion Swim Method teacher. This is the method I used to learn to swim and I talk more about what the Total Immersion Method is and How it works in this blog.

As well as being a very efficient swim stroke, the main idea behind the combat side stroke is to reduce the body’s profile in the water. This results in a quick and efficient swim stroke, where the swimmer is less likely to be seen by an enemy.

Miltary.com offers a full breakdown and examples of the Combat Swim Stroke, which you can visit here.

More Information On Water Confidence

If you would like to learn more about water confidence, you’ll be interested in these articles about survival swimming:

Final Thoughts

As a regular swimmer, it can be very easy to get overconfident and forget the basics.

If you get into a tricky water situation, your high-powered front crawl may not be the best swim stroke choice, but do you know the survival strokes?

For competent swimmers, it is very easy to learn and practice survival strokes. A few minutes in the pool can teach you life-saving skills that could help you out someday, especially if you are venturing into the world of open water swimming.

When in a difficult water situation, it is important to stay relaxed, and if you are ever in doubt, float on your back.

From there, you can calm your mind and start a gentle survival backstroke.

It is very important to learn the survival backstroke and breaststroke, even as an experienced swimmer.

Safe swimming!

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Emma Moore

Hi, I am Emma, and I am obsessed with all watersports, from swimming to surfing and everything in between. I spend my free time in the water or preparing for my next water travel adventure.

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