The spatial and temporal distribution of root water uptake (RWU) under deficit irrigation are critical factors for crop growth. The SWAP (soil–water–atmosphere–plant) model was applied to analyze the pattern of RWU for winter wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) under three irrigation levels: no water deficit (100% evapotranspiration [ET]), moderate water deficit (80% ET) and severe water deficit (60% ET). The 2–yr experiments indicated that SWAP was highly accurate (mean relative error [MRE] <21.7%, root mean square error [RMSE] <0.07 cm3 cm−3) in simulating the soil water content (SWC). Root water uptake was significantly (P < 0.01) different in the 0- to 60-cm soil layer. The 0- to 60-cm soil layer was the main source of RWU, and the average value accounted for 89.4% of the total root zone. Water stress had the greatest adverse effect on heading to grain filling, reducing RWU by 0.0026 cm3 cm−3 d−1. The critical SWC was 67.9% of the field capacity, when the RWU dropped to 95% of the control treatment. After rewetting, compensation and hysteresis effects on RWU were observed. The ranking of RWU recovery ability after rewetting was: emergence to jointing > jointing to heading > grain filling to maturity > heading to grain filling. Recovery time of RWU was 2 to 11 d and gradually increased with growth stage. The simplified RWU model established using path analysis and regression performed well (R2 = 0.836; P < 0.01) for RWU. This provided a more convenient way to accurately estimate RWU with fewer variables.