Repost: How to Swim in Choppy Water

NOTE – Here’s a timely piece for all you “pool rats” out there who are just beginning your training out in Lake Michigan.


If you spend all your time training in a swimming pool, you really miss out on the fun experience of swimming in choppy, wavy water. And yes – you did read that right. It can be a heckuva lot of fun as long as you approach it prudently and armed with the best possible information.

So here are some tips:

1) Relax

Swimming out in the elements means forgoing the static, artificial environment of a swimming pool. It also means leaving a calm and controlled setting for one that can be highly unpredictable and even chaotic. As Dave notes:

Panic sets in once you realize that the surface is not flat, that it’s difficult to spot a point in the distance to aim for, and that the water is not clear. So it’s like swimming in a fog while looking in the water, which can be quite freaky.

The key theme here is control. In a swimming pool, everything’s controlled for you. The water is calm, clear, and temperate. You’re never more than a few feet from the edge of the pool, and you can see and touch the bottom at all times. You are essentially exercising in a very large bathtub.

Out in the lake, there are no such safety nets (or limitations, as we like to call them). You give up external control over your immediate environment in exchange for the (fun) challenge of interacting with the elements as they are. So you need to shift your locus of control internally. Namely, you need to give up trying to manage the water and instead focus on managing your reaction to everything.

2) Find the rhythm of the water

Nature may be whimsical at times, but it tends to defer to rhythms, cycles, and patterns that you can use to your advantage if you can just relax and keep your head during the swim. Even in the most ferociously choppy conditions, there is an ebb an flow pattern that you need to identify and work with – not against. Dave again:

You need to learn how to tell when your body is rising and falling in the waves to determine when it might be best to take a breath without the free mouthful of water. And all of these things will make you change your breathing pattern and stroke sequence in order to swim with the chop.

3) When in nature, mimic nature

Have you ever watched the activity patterns of aquatic mammals and waterfowl? They’re all masters at navigating chaotic water conditions because they instinctively know how to move and act in those circumstances. So do you – but all those hours of pool swimming have dulled your animal instincts.

The key is to act primal in the water. This means to throw out your pre-programmed swim/workout routine and apply short-burst, omni-directional movements that conserve energy by working with the patterns of the water – and not against them.

If you look at a seal or an otter, you’ll notice that they take an indirect, angular approach to currents and waves. If the chop is too large, they’ll time it right and dive underneath it versus expending energy fighting it. And they’re also quite adept at snatching a quick breath at any time and from any direction. You need to do this too.

4) Enjoy the adventure

In a nutshell – stop keeping score. This isn’t the high school state swim championship, and you don’t (hopefully) have a micromanaging coach and helicopter parents screaming at you from the beach. Think of it as just another fun adventure that happens to provide you with intense but manageable physical, mental, and emotional challenges – all of which you can brag about when you get together with your unenlightened pool swim buddies!



Call us at +1 (312) 927-0299 or send us an email, and we’ll talk about your specific needs and how we can tailor a training session just for you.

Or better yet, click below to reserve your very own one-on-one open water swim training session TODAY – while it’s still early in the season!

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Evolutionary Health Benefits of Cold Water Immersion

Ed. – Here’s a repost from 2009. Get out of that damn pool and experience reality as you were designed to do!

As many of you may already know, I am a strong proponent of the health benefits of cold water. My argument for this is simple – cold water exposure seems to trigger positive gene expression. And from an evolutionary standpoint, this makes perfect sense.

It is quite unlikely that paleolithic hunter-gathers – especially those who migrated across several continents during the last Ice Age – would have come across lukewarm or hot water during their daily existence. In fact, our ritual of starting off one’s day with a hot shower is a very new and very unnatural phenomenon.

Here are a few examples of studies where cold water exposure seemed to have a significant positive health impact. Check out the individual links for more details.

Immune system A 1987 study by the Hanover Medical School demonstrated that regular cold showers can reduce one’s susceptibility to the common cold.

Circulation A 2005 study at Chonbuk National University concluded that repeated exposure to cold water helped stimulate the growth of new blood vessels in both cardiac and skeletal muscle systems

MoodA 2007 study indicated that exposure to cold water may enhance mood in humans by stimulating brain pathways of multiple neurotransmitters.

Bottom line – not only does exposure to cold water appear to be healthy, but lack of exposure to cold water (and colder temperatures in general) might actually be unhealthy.

High Fructose Hunter Gatherers

Ed. note – another cross-post from my site Intrepid Insights. I occasionally include fitness and science related content here just to keep things interesting during the off season (there’s an off season?).


Here’s an insightful case study illustrating what happens when a relatively isolated human population suddenly alters its historical paleolithic consumption and activity patterns. It’s an extreme example, but this same phenomenon is taking place here in the U.S – but much more insidiously.

You have been warned…

Primal Blueprint Fitness

As many of you readers already know, I am a big supporter of Mark Sisson and his Primal Blueprint philosophy and lifestyle. But I didn’t just jump on the “evolutionary fitness” bandwagon overnight.

Truth be told, I am extremely skeptical of just about any publicized fitness, diet, or exercise program. Bottom line, I think most of it is unsubstantiated fad that is cleverly disguised by effective marketing. And most of the proponents and practitioners of these programs are, in my opinion, “hucksters” looking to capitalize on the masses that want a quick fix to health and fitness.

It was with this mindset that I first approached Mark’s articles and publications – including The Primal Blueprint, his most popular book to date. And having extensively reviewed them, I can confidently give Mark’s publications a thumbs up and recommend them to anyone who comes to this site for fitness-related information.

With this in mind, I am very excited to pass along the announcement that Mark has just released Primal Blueprint Fitness, a 92-page ebook that you can download for FREE at this link:

Check it out when you get a chance. And stop doing all that “chronic cardio” while you’re at it, too!

The final five percent is a poor foundation for fitness

Mark Sisson has a great post up today called The Cost of “Perfection” that’s a must read for everyone concerned about optimizing physical fitness.  Here’s a prime (primal?) excerpt that captures the essence of the piece:

There’s no point in making yourself miserable just to lose weight or pump out a few more reps, when following a few simple fitness rules, eating right, and tinkering with some easy lifestyle hacks will get you most of the way there. To break it down further:

  • 80 percent of your genetic potential for body composition is determined by what you eat. You’ve probably heard me say this in the past. Eat Primal and you’re almost there.
  • Five more percent of your body composition can be further influenced by how much sleep and leisure time you get and how you moderate your stress levels. Lifestyle stuff.
  • 10 more percent of your genetic potential for body composition will come from smart exercise: Lifting Heavy Things, Sprinting, and Moving Frequently at a Slow Pace
  • The final five percent of your potential body composition/physical performance is achieved with more advanced training and highly specialized athletic goals. We’re getting into hours-long gym session, pain and punishment territory. [ed. – emphasis mine]

Can we really call our conventional ideas of physical perfection perfect if they come with so many downsides for so many people? What good is “elite” if maintaining that level of performance means you’re not available to enjoy the rest of your life? Is that last five percent really necessary?

Bottom line – heavy endurance training occupies that final 5%. And the problem is that many people try to make that final 5% the foundation of their health and fitness.

So if you want to dabble in this arena, make sure you’re effectively following the other 95% by eating the right foods, getting the right physical exercise (NOT heavy cardio), and allowing for proper recovery through adequate sleep and “down time.”

Remember, endurance training is an enhanced level of physical activity that operates best off of a pre-existing foundation of excellent fitness.  And your seasonal triathlon or marathon training (5%) will not make up for neglecting this foundation (95%) the rest of the year.

Humans Aren’t Stats

Be sure to check out Metaphors of Mind and Money over at the Psy-Fi Blog. It’s a great overall read, but what caught me was the section, “Humans Aren’t Stats”:

This probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but psychology embraced the concept wholeheartedly and great swathes of the subject were suddenly devoted to assuming that the human mind worked the same way as laboratory based statistical analysts did. Economics meanwhile was already set on a path that saw humans as rational processes of great swathes of data and embraced these ideas with alacrity. A tool for data manipulation was transformed into a metaphor for the human condition and from. People became all powerful manipulators of data, the mind a metaphorical statistician.

As Gigerenzer has pointed out on many occasions (see, for example Where do New Ideas Come From?) this probabilistic revolution is simply infeasible when implemented in the human brain. Once you leave the confines of the laboratory and expose people to the wide ranging set of stimuli in the real world it’s impossible to process data in the way that these models require [ed. emphasis mine]. Sure, it’s possible to use the metaphor to generate some interesting ideas, but going the further step to assuming that the mind works in the same way is close to crazy.

Bottom line, most of us are way too analytical for our own good, and we rely way too much on rational thinking and modeling to describe our environment and react to it. We’re able to be this way because we live in a very structured, sanitized, and (relatively) predictable environment.

But nature in its true form is neither neat nor predictable – and it often does a very good job of debunking human analysis and rationality in very sudden and powerful ways.

The key is, recognize that you have the luxury of living in a very unnatural world defined by several structured layers of comfort, security, and predictability – all of which are based on some type of dependency relationship. In short, stay sharp and don’t be oblivious to what lies just beyond the fringe of our neat little world.

Cold Water and Exercise

This is primarily a swimming-related piece, but I’m cross-posting it at my other site since it also touches on fitness.

In early 2008, the editors over at The Science of Sport did a fantastic two article series on Exercise in the Cold. I’m going to focus on the second part of the series since it talks about swimming. But the information is relevant to anyone who exercises in the elements.


First, what I really like about the piece is that it addresses the “cold shock response.” This is the physiological phenomenon that a swimmer or triathlete experiences when he or she suddenly plunges into cold water without properly preparing the body for this radical change of state. Per the authors:

One of the first things you experience when submerging yourself in cold water is something called the “cold-shock response.” This is characterized by an uncontrollable gasp for air, followed by a prolonged period of hyperventilation – more rapid breathing… the hyperventilation that happens in the cold has a profound effect on the ability to swim in an efficient manner [ed. – emphasis mine].

This is a key takeaway. Why? Because once the cold shock response is triggered – and the athlete’s respiration rate is elevated – it stays elevated for several minutes.

As evidence of this, the authors cite a 2005 study which measured how a swimmer’s respiration rate changed because of exposure to cold water. Here is a graph of the study results along with commentary from The Science of Sport:

So the rate of breathing goes up from about 16 breaths per minute to 75 breaths per minute, within the first 20 seconds. It then stays up at 40 breaths per minute for the next few minutes. It is not difficult to see how that would affect your ability to swim, because your stroke rate would have to change substantially to allow you just to breathe!


In addition to hyperventilation, sudden cold water exposure can also trigger a rapid, or even irregular, heart rate:

The other big ‘killer’ is a heart attack, which can result when the temperature of the blood returning to the heart is suddenly cooled – this can affect the electrical conduction within the heart, causing fibrillation. So it is these two possibilities – drowning and cardiac arrest that are most likely the cause of death.

Granted, such incidents are quite rare during endurance sports events, but they do occur.

Last year, I posted a piece on this site about some triathlon fatalities that took place during the swim. While there were certainly some strong opinions about whether or not event organizers could have done anything to have prevented these fatalities, I strongly feel that it’s most likely an issue of training – or lack thereof.

Bottom line, the endurance sports community does a great job at teaching people swim techniques and drills. But in my experience, it does an inadequate job of instructing people on critical items such as how to manage your respiration and heart rate during heavy exertion in cold water.

Here are a few rhetorical question to athletes of all training levels looking to improve event performance:

  • What if you could minimize – or even prevent – this cold shock response?
  • How would a lower respiration rate at the front end translate to more endurance and energy during the bike and run portions?
  • What would this do to your overall confidence level going into the event?

Remember, there’s an old saying that “triathlons are all about the run.”

But it all starts with the swim.



Call us at +1 (312) 927-0299 or send us an email, and we’ll talk about your specific needs and how we can tailor a training session just for you.

Endurance training and the low carb flu

Mark Sisson has a great extended piece on the “low carb flu,” something most people experience when eliminating grains and sugars from their diet. I recommend you read the whole thing.

However, transitioning from a carb-based diet to a fat-based one – while ideal – is not always practical for those of you doing heavy endurance training. Per Mark:

Keep in mind also that people in low carb transition can genuinely shortchange their physical needs when they aren’t eating enough fat or when they’re pursuing high intensity exercise routines lasting over an hour, which send the body’s glycogen stores into a nosedive to the ground. I hear this from CrossFitters and P90Xers who insist on maintaining their daily high intensity while transitioning to Primal eating.

Bottom line, it’s almost impossible to completely “go primal” while training for that big marathon or triathlon. But then again, you shouldn’t really be doing all that chronic cardio anyway, right?

Ginger and Muscle Pain

For those of you doing higher intensity training (which should be all of you), you may wish to start adding more fresh ginger into your diet. Not only does it taste good, but it also appears to have anti-inflammatory properties.

A recent study at the University of Georgia found that daily consumption of ginger (both fresh and heat treated) reduced exercise-related muscle pain by 25%.

So feel free to step up your ginger consumption – just be careful with the ginger ale.

Ditch the treadmill and get out to the beach

Be sure to check out this new study by the American Chemical Society which details the benefits of “green exercise.”

Essentially, just five minutes of exercise out in a natural setting (versus a gym) significantly improves one’s mental health.

What I found particularly noteworthy was that the presence of water seemed to play a significant role in elevating one’s mood:

All green environments improved both self-esteem and mood; the presence of water generated greater improvements. Although participants should be encouraged to undertake outdoor activities in both rural and urban environments, spending time near waterside (e.g., beach or river) or participating in water-based activities may give a greater benefit.

Of course, you all know my views on recommended water-based activities!