Wim Hof has gained increasing amounts of attention in recent years for his remarkable feats of endurance which include running a marathon barefoot on Mount Everest, standing packed in ice on the streets of New York in January and swimming 200ft in freezing waters beneath ice. He claims his method can help you sleep better, improve your cognitive and athletic performance, boost your mood, lose weight and alleviate your anxiety simply through some breathing exercises, exposure to the cold and power of the mind.
While his method isn’t going to make you a better runner, I took a look at his book (“The Wim Hof Method”) to see how it might resonate with my own experiences of health. The little I already knew was about that it helped avoid illness and I’ve rarely been ill, perhaps ten working days missed in my life, even then, I could still function. I’ve had an iron constitution over the years and attribute it to keeping physically fit and the power of my mind, just as Wim Hof does.
Although his claims may sound a little far-fetched, his book details on pages 65-68 how researchers injected him with E. coli bacteria which had given flu-like symptoms to all previous subjects. Yet, unlike those 16,000+ people, Wim had none – he remained perfectly healthy. Then afterwards, using his method, he was able to train a group of 12 new subjects in four days and they subsequently experienced no issues with the E. coli injection.
I’ve generally avoided looking into Wim’s method until now. I’m not sure why other than I thought I would get angry or frustrated because his method would be a distortion of what I already know. That it might be a complicated way of achieving what I do simply by going for a run. But reading his book, I’ve found myself nodding along and seeing the overlap between his method and everything I’ve learned about health and incorporated in to my running.
The Wim Hof Method (WHM) is based on three things:
- Deep breathing. This brings oxygen into your system, removing carbon-dioxide thereby lowering stress, anxiety and inflammation.
- Exposure to the cold. You turn your shower onto cold after your usual warm wash and then progressively increase how long you endure it, until you are able to bear doing this for two minutes. It shocks the body to improve your vascular system to be able to handle heat or cold quickly as well as getting the blood better at transporting energy and removing waste products.
- Concentrating the mind on what you want to achieve until your body is aligned and ready to do it.
My thoughts on the deep breathing exercises which involve take deliberately inhaling and exhaling to fill the lungs for twenty minutes at the start of the day are limited. It’s very much something that people who meditate do. When I’ve tried meditation and counted my breaths as a guide, I find the speed of breathing slows down which seems to be due to the body becoming more relaxed and perhaps a little more efficient at using the oxygen it has.
Typically I’m a deep breather anyway as I learned how to breathe with my diaphragm after reading John Douillard’s “Body, Mind and Spirit” book. For a while I did yoga which focused on holding or moving through positions in time with the breath. Sun Salutes are a good example of this.
Typically, while sat at rest, I complete a breath cycle – breathing in, exhaling – in about five seconds (about twelve per minute). The moment I begin to focus on how I breathe and keeping it slower and deeper, it expands to take eight to ten seconds (six or seven per minute). What I tend to find is that the gap between exhaling and the next in breath involves a pause lasting a few seconds. Although I’m not a regular meditator there have been times when I’ve tried and, by the end of a forty-five minute session I’ve found I might be taking up to twenty-five seconds for a single breath cycle! It’s never forced just a consequence of everything slowing down.
I’ve never particularly felt there were any great benefits from breathing, only that it must be preferential to quick, shallow breathing. WIm Hof says that deep breathing will help you alkalize the body (p. 38). It’s quite possible I didn’t realise the benefits I was getting by already doing the right thing.
The daily cold showers are the aspect of WHM that everyone’s heard about. The idea behind them is to improve the vascular system. By stimulating the skin from a warm environment to a cold one, the body has to react and start pumping blood to these areas to help heat them up again. Wim says this can be achieved within ten days and when I think about the opposite process – acclimatising to a hot environment – the science says this takes two weeks, it’s a similar timeframe.
WHM believes it is this improvement of the vascular system and its ability to work more aerobically that provides more health benefits. There is a crossover here with Phil Maffetone and his work on Maximum Aerobic Function and ensuring the body burns fats rather than sugars anaerobically while training. Too much anaerobic work causes the parasympathetic to rev up, create adrenaline and generally causes the body to become unhealthy due to the waste products caused by anaerobic metabolism. I am in agreement with both Wim Hof and Phil Maffetone about the benefits of building a stronger aerobic system for good health. I’m going to explore their similarities in a future post.
It occurs to me that one of the benefits of Hof’s cold showers is you stimulate the body’s largest organ – the skin. Every inch of the skin has to improve its vascularisation to be able to learn to withstand the cold. When I compare this to running, the majority of the aerobic benefits are found in the legs because that is where the running muscles are located. The best track and road runners in the world have been measured to have a maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) of around 85ml/kg/min yet higher values have been achieved. Ultrarunner Kilian Jornet who specialises on mountain trails is measured at 92. The highest VO2max ever recorded is 96.7 by cyclist Oskar Svendsen closely followed by Nordic skier Bjørn Dæhlie at 96. Here we get some insight into why they have higher values – because they are using more muscle. They develop their upper bodies as well as their lower bodies. So, if you challenge the whole body with cold, you are improving your aerobic system significantly. It’s a workout for your body which doesn’t quite seem like exercising. Yet there are strong similarities – anyone taking up an exercise programme knows it hurts in the beginning; likewise the first days of standing in a cold shower is not pleasant.
Of course taking cold showers to improve your aerobic system isn’t going to turn you into a champion runner but Wim is not trying to teach you to become one, only to improve your health.
Using the Will
The final pillar of WHM is using the mind. When you do the cold showers, it is not a case of instantly feeling warm and the experience being comfortable. Every time you set the shower to cold and the water comes out there is a short period where the cold gives you discomfort. It becomes bearable as the body responds but you still sense the cold is there, but you don’t necessarily feel it as uncomfortable.
Another of Wim’s exercises is Horse Stance (p.118) where you standing feet wide and squatting down. There comes a point where the body begins to tell you to stop. You have a choice, quit or go through it. This is the essence, of using the mind; it may tell you it wants to stop but you can keep going. As I’ve experimented with this, I’ve found I could go for a minute or longer from the time when it began to get difficult.
The power of the mind to achieve more has interested me throughout my life. When I played sports almost daily in my twenties, my mind drove me to overcome pain and keep playing and training hard. I was fascinated by the idea that sport psychology might enable me to go further, reading all manner of books. What I didn’t realise is sport psychology books are generally written for the people who give up at the first hint of difficulty. I was already pushing my limits and there was no sports psychology that would enable me to go further.
Sports psychology and motivation have become big areas of research over the past twenty years. It’s one of the areas left to look at with runners with Tim Noakes’ Central Governor and Samuel Marcora’s Psychobiological Model trying to explain what causes runners to slow down.
Wim Hof – guru?
Hof says he is not a guru and yet because of his life story and approach it is easy to mistake him for one. In the first chapter he tells how doctors never realised his mother was pregnant with twins and so, once his brother had been delivered they were dismissive of her belief there was another baby. But having already delivered four older babies she knew what she was experiencing postbirth wasn’t normal. Even though Wim was in deep, she pushed through the fear to push him out. Wim was born in a cold hallway, purple because of near suffocation. Then he took his first breath and it’s hard not to see the parallels between all this and his work on breathing, the cold and overcoming fear as almost a missionary would. In fact just prior to his birth she yelled “Oh God, let this child live! I will make him a missionary!” (p.2)
So although Wim says he is not a guru, quotes like “Love will restore the beauty of life to your consciousness, and then you reflect it.” (p.103) or “I’m here because of the light. It has guided me on a mission to reveal the true nature of humanity, which is love. It’s time to wake up to that love.” (p.148) do nothing to dispel this idea.
WHM for performance
Chapter 8 is about using the WHM for performance and starts to explain how the training will give you more energy, reduce recovery time and therefore athletic performance. I know if this book had been available when I was in my twenties, I’d have been following it to the letter. That’s because I read John Douillard’s “Body, Mind and Sport” which promised to make your exercise “jet-fuelled” and help you get in the zone. Where Hof has deep breathing as a key pillar of his method, Douillard uses diaphragmatic breathing to the same effect, breathing through the nose to fill the lungs to their maximum and a deliberate expulsion of air to empty them. Where Douillard learned this from yoga and Ayruvedic medicine, Hof discovered it for himself perhaps through similar routes as he was something of a hippy. Both methods ultimately taking you to the same place of having an improved aerobic system to support a healthy body.
For performance, Hof has athletes sit and do 3-4 rounds of power breathing (sixty inhalations/exhalations each round) before going for a long distance run or cycle. Douillard take the approach of making the warm-up active using yoga Sun Salutes and then starting exercising very slowly, listening to the body and only increasing pace when it is comfortable to do so. Personally, I follow Douillard’s approach of starting slowly but don’t bother with Sun Salutes or nose-breathing.
By Hof’s own admission he isn’t a genetic freak or special, he is simply listening to his body to get the best out of it, the same as Douillard suggested in the 1990s. There is nothing new in either method, it’s simply that most runners or athletes don’t appreciate the benefit of a controlled warm-up. When you come down to it, the idea of building the aerobic base was popularised by New Zealand’s great coach Arthur Lydiard and led to the jogging boom when he explained it to Bill Bowerman.
The danger of books like this is they talk in generalised terms that depend on where you’re coming from. For the average couch potato, the promises are great. When I read Douillard’s book it seemed to promise that I could become a great athlete or runner, partly from how he talked but also the cherry-picked examples he used. At times, within the WHM for Performance chapter I began to get a similar feeling but, of course, I’m better able to contextualise and more self-aware than I was and Hof explicitly states “This isn’t to suggest you will become Lionel Messi or LeBron James, but you will see a marked improvement in your endurance” on page 155 to dismiss any delusions of grandeur.
When I look back at the Douillard book and how physically fit I was in my early twenties, it would for the most part have been difficult to make many gains solely based on aerobic fitness. Wim states you’ll see your resting pulse drop by 30 beats after a few weeks as you remove the stresses and anxiety in your body. I hope that’s not the case because my heart-rate has been measured as low as 28 !! But, this is my point, I’m already a fit, healthy person through running so I can’t expect to see much change. The average couch potato often has a resting pulse of 70-80 if not higher and if they follow the method perhaps it can lower it.
The other area where I struggled with WHM is that he likes the idea of science. His book talks about “aerobic dissimilation”, “vascular system”, “interoception”. He thinks it’s very important to get the backing of science for his ideas because modern people are inclined to trust science. This is not a bad strategy as, prior to research, people saw him as a genetic freak or simply disbelieved his claims. But I’m also aware science only ‘believes’ what it can measure. While this seems sensible, in running the science focuses on the three variable of VO2max, Lactate Threshold and Running Economy yet in truth you cannot successfully train to be your best simply by focusing on these three measurables. There are so many things science cannot prove because limitations of the method make it impossible so we’re left measuring what can be easily measured which can easily miss the nuanced stuff that matters.
“People come up to me with questions like, “Should I breathe through the nose?” or “The diaphragm this or that,” and I just say “Yeah, breathe mother****ers! Don’t think, just do it!” (p.45)
This quote resonated with me because every new runner feels they need a plan or guidance or the right kit before they can run. I’ve never understood it. You want to run? Just lace up your trainers and go round the block. If you can do one lap, go a little further the next day. If you feel tired, maybe leave it and go out the next day. That’s how I got started – a simple 15-min run to the bottom of the road and back as fast as I could, breathing hard from start to end.
There was no end goal of “running a 5K” or a marathon, it was just train to get fit and it seems to me this is the case with WHM. There is no measure of fitness or goal to his method. He’s not setting you a target of being able to sit in ice for an hour or get your pulse down to 35; it’s not goal-oriented, it’s health-oriented. It’s done at your own pace with a commitment to twenty minutes of deep breathing and a couple of minutes of cold showering each day.
I believe, especially in the modern world, there’s a lot to be said from doing things as part of a routine rather than to achieve a goal.
Having picked up a copy of “The Wim Hof Method” because I needed an extra item to get free delivery from Amazon, I was actually quite pleased to have read it. Like the Maffetone method, I think WHM is open to bastardisation. People cherry pick the headline bits and don’t dig further. Or don’t commit to it longterm. I spoke to one running friend who said he tried the cold showers for a few weeks but didn’t feel it did anything for him and gave up. I suspect it’s the case that because he’s already fit and has a good aerobic system, it’s unlikely to help him.
I appreciate the candidness and straightforward approach of Wim Hof, his book is less about marketing and selling a method for profit than about helping everybody become healthier.
In the next post I’m going to tell you about what happened when I tried two of Hof’s experiments over the past month.