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How to negotiate choppy water conditions

Windy and choppy conditions aren’t exactly the most inviting conditions for an open water swim, however, we don’t make the weather conditions, so if you really want to swim or you have an event to participate in, you’ll just have to make the most of the conditions.

While you can’t always avoid swimming in windy and choppy conditions, being prepared for them can help you deal with, and even start to enjoy, them.

In this article, we cover what wind chop is, how it affects how we swim, and our best tips for swimming in windy and choppy conditions.

What is Chop?

Chop is the cresting of waves created by the wind.

You might also describe what you’re seeing out on the water when it’s choppy as being lumpy, bumpy or messy with the water surface moving up and down and side to side. When it’s choppy it’s often referred to as looking like a ‘washing machine’.

Chop is ever-changing and can come out of nowhere if the wind picks up during your swim, but it can disappear just as quickly as it appears.

How does wind & chop affect ocean swimming?

Wind and chop can make open water swimming feel harder because it will become a challenge to maintain your streamlined head and body position and therefore efficiency moving through the water.

Choppy conditions will almost certainly make you swim slower and many swimmers hop out of the water after a swim in choppy conditions remarking they felt like they “were swimming backwards”.

With choppy conditions, water will be coming from all angles, meaning you’ll be more likely to swallow mouthfuls of water, be pushed off line and feel like you’re swimming up and over the chop.

To prepare yourself for swimming in choppy water, start by practising breathing to both sides in pool training, so when you encounter choppy conditions you can breathe to the side with the least chop and feel comfortable (plus you’ll swallow less water).

In any windy and choppy conditions it is important to keep your head down and your body in a streamlined position for as long as possible. Keep reminding yourself to have your chin to your chest, hips up and legs constantly flutter kicking.

An open water swimmer navigating open ocean chop during a marathon swim

How to adapt your swimming

The type of wind plays an important role in how the chop will affect you while swimming. There are four types of wind you will be faced with when swimming in chop, and not all of them will be challenging.

Tail-winds

This is when the wind is coming from behind you and the water is being blown in the same direction as you’re swimming. A tail-wind is a swimmer’s best friend because it will help power you to your final destination quicker.

Tip: If you’re swimming in a tail-wind lengthen your stroke and kick your legs harder when you feel a runner (wave) coming up behind you, to make the most of the added help.

Cross-winds

This is when the winds are coming from the left or the right of you, crossing your body as you swim. These are the winds that will push you off course and if not managed well, will add a lot of distance to your planned swim.

Tip: If you encounter a side current and chop from a cross-wind, try sheltering to the left or right of another swimmer, and breathing away from the wind to limit the effect it has on you.

Head-winds

This is when the wind is coming straight at you and the water is being blown in the opposite direction you are swimming. Even a small chop can feel big when you’re swimming directly into it. A head-wind can make swimming significantly harder because you are having to push into the weather and direction of the chop, making you feel as though you are barely moving – in other words, it’s a swimmer’s worst nightmare.

Tip: If you’re swimming into a head-wind, shorten your stroke slightly and increase your stroke rate to help cut through the chop.

Variable-direction winds

This is when the wind is constantly changing from moment to moment and is usually swirling and twirling. It will feel inconsistent and you won’t feel like you can get a read on the chop.

Tip: Don’t overthink it, try and get a feel for the chop and just do your best.

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