How to Swim in Choppy Water

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!



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6 Replies to “How to Swim in Choppy Water

  1. Thanks for the tips — ironically, I swam (or “co-existed”) in water since I was six months old, swimming lakes and rivers in the mountains of the Adirondacks.

    I turned to lap swimming in my 30s, and realized I had forgotten how to open water swim — which use to make me laugh when I was a kid – LOVING bouncing up and down when a boat’s wake went by, and being tickled pink swmming on a choppy day.

    I tried swimming in a chop yesterday and TOTALLY forgot to stop “trying.” Thanks for bringing me back to my “biological” roots.


    1. Hey Diane. You’re welcome! As a dyed in the wool “pool brat,” I’ve always associated swimming with fun and adventure (and sometimes mischief). And making the switch to open water was just simply an expansion of this. So you can imagine my surprise when I started working out at the pools and the triathlon-specific swim areas where NO ONE seemed to be enjoying himself or herself – even with perfect water conditions.

      Bottom line, you can still get in a serious workout while having an absolute blast doing it. This is something which has unfortunately been lost on way too many triathletes and masters swimmers. So quit your scowling out there, people! And remember – if it gets too choppy for swimming, that’s what inner tubes are for!

  2. i do believe the photo is aquaman doing his death defying jump into the shark infested waters….
    nice artical Steve it tells it like it is…

  3. Great post! Looking at how animals approach waves is good advice; another idea is to borrow from surfers. They too, often dive into approaching waves, figure out where peaks and rips are, and use them for efficient travel. Besides, it’s a good idea to check the surf report to get some idea of the waves before heading out. Funny enough, there’s actually surf reports for Chicago, e.g. . 🙂

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