Depending on your swim instructor, you likely have been taught the basic survival strokes in swimming before moving on to the regular swimming strokes that we are familiar with like freestyle and breaststroke.
The survival strokes are modified versions of the regular swimming strokes, and most people want to move on from it as quickly as possible to the “real” thing. As such, many swimmers have forgotten about these strokes as they progress through their lessons (if they were taught them in the first place).
The three survival strokes are the survival backstroke, survival breaststroke, and survival side stroke. Survival strokes are designed to conserve energy, keep your head above water at all times to maximize breathing opportunity, and help you get from point A to B in an emergency situation.
Whether you want your child to learn how to stay safe in the water or you are an adult trying to overcome your fear of the water, it is crucial to learn the safest way to stay afloat to give you the confidence and skill to make progress at swimming.
In this article, I will go over the importance of learning the survival strokes, how to perform them, and how they differ from the regular swimming strokes.
What is a survival stroke?
Survival strokes are not the same as the traditional swimming strokes such as front crawl, breaststroke, backstroke, or butterfly.
When someone refers to the survival strokes, they typically mean the survival backstroke, survival breaststroke, and survival side stroke. Arguably a fourth stroke, the dog paddle, can also be considered a survival stroke.
The intention of the survival strokes is to swim in such a way to increase your safety as much as possible.
The core tenets of survival strokes are that they must keep your head above water at all times to maximize your breathing, help you conserve energy, and help you to swim to safety.
People who are not familiar with the regular swimming strokes may default to treading water as a means to stay afloat.
Unfortunately, treading water wastes a lot of energy because you need to constantly move your legs and arms and you would be better served floating on your back instead. If you know how to do the survival backstroke, then you can use that to help you swim back to safety.
How to perform the survival strokes in swimming
How does a survival breaststroke differ from the regular breaststroke? For one, you keep your head above water the entire time.
Two, you keep your hands and arms under the water the entire time, never letting it go above the surface of the water which can sometimes occur in the competitive breaststroke.
Since the goal is to conserve energy, your movement should be slow and progressive. In the competitive breaststroke, the movements are more explosive to increase your thrust.
Putting all this together, you are essentially performing a breaststroke where you keep your head above water, your arms and hands below water, and you allow your body to glide through the water as long as you can between pulls.
This ultimately minimizes energy expenditure, lets you breathe without restriction the entire time, and allows the natural propulsion of your body to help you go from point A to point B. As I discuss the rest of the survival strokes, you will notice this recurring theme between the strokes.
Many people find it easier to float on their backs to conserve energy, which is why back floating is one of the first things you learn in swimming.
With the survival backstroke, the main differences between it and the regular backstroke are that you perform a reverse frog kick, basically an inverted frog kick, and you keep your arms and hands under the water the whole time.
They aren’t just doing nothing, however, as they will be gently sculling in a back and forth figure-eight motion to generate extra propulsion.
Your face and eyes should be kept out of the water the whole time, though your ears will be submerged. Your head should be slightly tilted back to raise your hips towards the surface of the water more.
Survival side stroke
Many casual swimmers have forgotten about the sidestroke, though it is something lifeguards are very familiar with because they can use it to help tow a distressed individual out of the water.
This survival stroke involves you swimming on one side at a time (ideally, you practice both sides).
The lower arm should extend forward and pull water down toward the waist before returning to the extended position. The upper hand is used to push water away from the waist to the feet until it is fully extended.
With your legs, you will be performing a scissor kick. An inverted scissor kick can also be used if that is more comfortable for you.
The timing of the arm and leg movements should be such that you are pushing/pulling the water at around the same time, and they should all be fully extended in their respective directions during the glide phase of the movement.
This results in your having a streamlined shape to maximize the distance of the glide, helping you get from point A to B faster.
Why aren’t the other strokes considered survival strokes?
The most popular stroke, the front crawl, is not a survival stroke despite allowing you to swim from point A to B quickly because of how much energy it consumes.
In the same vein, the butterfly stroke is not a survival stroke either because of how energy inefficient it is.
You’ll notice that the other strokes, i.e. backstroke and breaststroke, have survival variations because it is easy to tweak them such that they are safer to perform.
Again, the point of the survival strokes is not to swim fast or look cool; it is to help you survive. That is why these strokes have been modified to help keep your face above water the whole time and much emphasis is placed on the glide.
That is to say, the timing of your arm and hand movements in the survival strokes allow you to glide through the water in an energy efficient way to increase your chances of survival.
Be comfortable enough with the survival strokes so that if you ever find yourself in an emergency situation in the water, you can reflexively perform one of the survival strokes, preferably the survival backstroke, to improve your chances of survival.