Does water temperature influence the performance of key survival skills?

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Title

Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports


Blackwell Munksgaard


Centre for Exercise and Sports Science Research / School of Medical and Health Sciences




Schnitzler, C., Button, C., Seifert, L., Armbrust, G., & Croft, J. L. (2017). Does water temperature influence the performance of key survival skills?. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 28(3), 928-938. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12997


Aquatic survival skills may be compromised in cold water thereby increasing the likelihood of drowning. This study compared physiological, psychological, and behavioral responses of humans treading water and swimming in cold and temperate water. Thirty-eight participants were classified as inexperienced (n = 9), recreational (n = 15), or skilled (n = 10) swimmers. They performed 3 tasks: treading water (120 seconds), swim at “comfortable” pace, and swim at “fast” pace in 2 water conditions (28°C vs 10°C). Heart rate, oxygen uptake, psychometric variables, spatio-temporal (swim speed, stroke rate, and stroke length), and coordination type were examined as a function of expertise. Tasks performed in cold water-generated higher cardiorespiratory responses (HR = 145 ± 16 vs 127 ± 21 bpm) and were perceived about 2 points more strenuous on the Borg scale on average (RPE = 14.9 ± 2.8 vs 13.0 ± 2.0). The voluntary durations of both treading water (60 ± 32 vs 91 ± 33 seconds) and swimming at a comfortable pace (66 ± 22 vs 103 ± 34 seconds) were significantly reduced in cold water. However, no systematic changes in movement pattern type could be determined in either the treading water task or the swimming tasks. Water temperature influences the physical demands of these aquatic skills but not necessarily the behavior. Training treading water and swimming skills in temperate water seems to transfer to cold water, but we recommend training these skills in a range of water conditions to help adapt to the initial “cold-shock” response.



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