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Survival Backstroke: Stop Teaching It Wrong

What is Survival Backstroke?

By definition a survival stroke, survival backstroke is arguably the most efficient stroke for prolonged survival swimming. But like any tool it's only as good as the way it is used.

Wait... Get Your Lesson Plans Here

This is a stroke that is so often misunderstood and worse, so often taught wrong, that most of those that even know about the stroke would be next to useless in a real survival situation.

I keep telling my students that survival backstroke is not a competitive stroke "so don't try and turn it into one".

This stroke is meant to be slow: very slow!
You should not be trying to race anybody with it.

In fact, you are only meant to take a stroke once you feel your legs beginning to drop in the water or you are loosing forward momentum. Your legs dropping or losing forward momentum and nothing else is supposed to trigger a stroke.

Forward Momentum

Forward momentum is defined as slow but effective movement in the direction you want to go.

Slow because you want to conserve energy and heat.
Effective in that you need to be making progress toward your objective.

And given that what I am about to say next is often discussed last it's not a surprise that people don't even realize that the stroke is meant to help retain heat.

At the end of every single stroke, you are meant to bring your arms and legs together so they form a comfortable seal under your armpits and between your legs. Heat loss minimization is one of the prime functions of survival backstroke.

Two Of The Places That Your Body Uses For Fast Cooling

Under your arms and between your legs are two of the places that your body uses for fast cooling and they are therefore prime locations for heat loss. If your arms and legs are not kept together you are exposing yourself to potential hypothermia much sooner than you need to be.

Image of girl doing survival backstroke
Survival Backstroke

Because the objective is to conserve energy and reduce heat loss there should be No Long strokes. Your arms should Not extend beyond your shoulders.

You should be taking short ballistic strokes with your arms and legs moving and coming together at the same time. This action should result in a very long glide with your legs and arms held close but comfortable together. If there is no long glide then you are not conserving energy. If your arms and legs and not held close but comfortable together you are not preserving heat.

Summary Of What's Wrong

So when I say that survival backstroke is very often taught wrong I mean that there should be:
- A long glide
- Arms and legs moving in short ballistic strokes
- Arms and legs coming together at the end of each stroke forming a firm but comfortable seal between the legs and under the arms
- Heat conservation and energy conservation

If not, it is not survival backstroke and if you're a swim teacher and you are going to teach it wrong in this case your students are better off not learning it at all.

A correct survival backstroke may one day save your life. An incorrect survival backstroke may kill you.


Note: This school may be teaching the stroke for different reasons, I have no way of knowing. But as a long term survival skill in ocean water, it would fail because the arms go right above the head, leaving under the arms exposed to loss of heat and the stroke is done too often. As a fun stroke and maybe as the first stroke you learn after you learn to float it may be OK. It's just not survival Backstroke for open water.

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