Given I already have a strong aerobic system, I didn’t feel any particular need to give Wim Hof Method (WHM) a go with the cold showers. Yet as I read I began to wonder whether his method would be able to help me with the cold hands I’ve suffered from my entire life. While I’ve never been officially diagnosed I probably have Raynaud Syndrome where blood flow to the hands is non-existent in cold weather so they become like ice blocks. When the blood returns, it’s incredibly painful to the point where I’m on the verge of crying !!
I can remember it happening in the winter of 1978 when I came in after playing in deep snow in our back garden and 7-year-old me cried as my hands warmed back up because I’d put them straight on the radiator. It happened a decade or so ago, when I played golf on a January day and my hands were so frozen by the end of the second hole I couldn’t feel the golf club. In recent years, I’ve been caught on unseasonably cold autumn runs where I didn’t wear gloves and arrived home barely able to get the key in the doorlock, let alone turn it.
So I was wondering if I should email Wim and ask him about whether his method could help an otherwise very healthy me. Then, as I turned to page 34, I read Wim Hof Method Experiment #1 – “Ice-water bath for warmer hands and feet” detailing a protocol to kickstart the vascular system by putting hands in ice-cold water for two minutes.
Warming cold hands
Initially I followed Wim’s protocol by filling my bathroom basin with cold water and putting an icepack in it. Ideally the mix would have been two-thirds cold water, one-third ice but I simply don’t have access to enough ice to do this every day. So the water may have been a touch warmer than Wim would like but I plunged my hands in for five minutes each day. It never felt too bad but it became something of a hassle to stand, bent over the sink for five minutes so I changed tack after four days.
I decided I would simply hold the icepack pressed between my hands while sat on the sofa. Each day at about fifteen seconds, the cold of the ice would begin to seep into my palms and start to hurt. By around a minute the pain would seem almost unbearable and the pain spreading through my wrists down into my forearms. Initially it took the better part of two minutes for the pain to subside and then the remainder of the five minute period would be okay.
Wim Hof says that what happens is the body has to adapt to the sudden cold and the microscopic blood vessels have to open up to allow blood to flow to them and warm the hands. I also noticed I was getting some discomfort across my chest during this part of the process and wondered if it would have any effect on my heart-rate. I gave it a try while wearing my heart-rate monitor on one occasion and I’m not sure it showed anything significant. My heart-rate was resting at 40 as I began and dropped to 32 by the time I’d ended. Later when I was sat there, with the icepack now back in the freezer, my resting heart-rate was again down at the 31-32 level, so I don’t think there was any difference.
By the end of the first week of holding the icepack I was noticing the time for my hands to respond and the ‘unbearable’ pain to go diminishing until it only last a minute. By the tenth day, I was no longer finding the ice difficult to hold at any stage. I noticed my hands were much redder afterwards (a sign of the bloodflow to them) and despite feeling externally very cold when I put my hand to my face or on my thighs, I no longer seemed to mind the cold.
At the start of week three – fifteenth day from when I started the initial basin immersions – I found, as I was putting the icepack away, that a large splinter of ice dropped off the freezer compartment and split into two. Initially I threw it in the kitchen sink but then decided to try a new experiment. I picked up an ice sliver in each hand wondering whether I could melt them. Certainly they began to drip but it wasn’t a rapid melting and after three minutes, I’d had enough. I could have held them for longer but I was beginning to feel the ice affecting the skin. There wasn’t much mental pain, just some discomfort. After dropping the ice, it was noticeable my hands were very cold. I put my left hand on my other forearm just below the elbow and it was noticeable how much heat it was giving off. Yet despite the externally cold temperature caused by holding the ice, my hands didn’t feel uncomfortable. They were definitely cold but I wasn’t in the sort of pain I’d experienced all those years ago on autumn and winter days.
Five weeks on from starting, holding the icepack is barely noticeable and I’ve started applying it to the backs of my hands and forearms. There’s been a small amount of discomfort and change but I feel I’ve adapted quickly.
So, all was looking good until this past weekend (mid-September). We had our first slightly more chilly mornings and I can’t say it was encouraging for my hands. On both Saturday and Sunday I ran without gloves and, on the latter, the fingers of my right hand were feeling numb at the end of the run. It wasn’t excruciating but then it wasn’t an overly cold day. I’ll stick with the daily icepack holding and see whether I can effect a difference by the time the real winter arrives.
Warning – if you decide to try this, don’t force it. You always need to go a little beyond your comfort zone but it doesn’t have to put you in the hole. Your body will learn to adapt and so what if it takes two weeks instead of ten days. The important thing is to stay consistent and get there in the end.
Horse stance is a pose where you squat down with feet out wide. Wim Hof set a world record by being able to hold this pose for three hours.
On the first day I tried it, my legs were beginning to shake after a minute and at 1min30 I quit. The next day I repeated it and then on day three, I reached 1min45. Day four was two minutes; day five was 2min15 and on day seven – only a week in, I reached three minutes. I was surprised how quickly I had been able to double my endurance on this.
It’s not a completely unfamiliar pose to me as when I played volleyball many years ago, I would spend a lot of time squatting low in the backcourt hoping to dig and recover opponent’s hits. But playing volleyball was a long time ago so I doubt I have any residual strength from that.
It also reminded me of the couple of years where I did yoga regularly. Many stances you just hold with a bent knee or bearing your weight. These never seemed difficult then and because I only went once per week, the body adapted without me realising. Yet I recall there were other members of the class who would struggle which I believe highlights Hof’s point about needing to stay healthy for low exertion.
Hof’s explanation for this ability to hold a pose longer each time is because the body becomes able to remove the lactic acid. Lactic acid (or more precisely lactate) has always been blamed for making the legs of runners heavy and while this isn’t strictly true, it’s a convention that everybody agrees to use. As much as I dislike being inaccurate, I will stand by convention for the rest of this post.
The following weeks of my trial saw further rapid improvement – week 2 out to five minutes and week 3 reached six minutes. This was the longest pose I held and it was notable that while my legs had begun to feel discomfort at three minutes, I was able to hold it longer. Yet on day 1, I would have struggled to go longer than the minute and a half I managed. I have come to learn over the last few years is that there is a difference between when the body simply cannot go any longer due to the lactate build-up versus not being willing to stand some discomfort and push through.
What struck me about how quickly I progressed is that it’s very much what we see with new runners. Every untrained runner has untapped capacity in their slow-twitch muscle. If you use these they quickly begin to contribute. To go longer and faster, once you have reached the limit, such as when I reached five to six minutes in horse stance, needs dedicated training. That’s why runners do interval training – to be able to accumulate more time overall at the point of difficulty. Over time, the intervals begin to help the body adapt to producing less lactic acid which later enables them to move up to the next level and race faster. But that untapped capacity of the slow-twitch muscle is low hanging fruit waiting to be picked by everybody for their health.
Since reaching the six minute mark I backed off on horse stance and generally hold the pose for two to three minutes per day. While it’s good to see progress, it also began to feel time consuming, almost boring to clockwatch if I’m honest. I have no particular reason to improve at this exercise and, with running being my priority, I feel pushing to hold the stance longer may detract from the important workouts when I need my body to be fresh and ready to push.
I’ve enjoyed trying these two simple Wim Hof Method experiments. I will certainly stay with the cold hands ice training into the winter as it has huge potential benefits to me. The horse stance has less obvious benefits and while I will probably continue to do it in the future, I suspect it will fall by the wayside when I have a busy week or few days and be forgotten.