Wim Hof – The Iceman

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.

Deep Breathing

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.

Cold Showers

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.

Caution

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.

“Breathe mother****ers”

“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.

Twenty-five years in the making

I realised on finishing the “How to Improve” series that I’ve spent the past twenty-five years trying to understand the principles of endurance. It was November 1995 when I bought a copy of John Douillard’s “Body, Mind and Sport” which made grandiose claims of being able to play sports effortlessly, run fast while barely getting out of breath and get ‘in the zone’ by retraining the body with nose-breathing and a heart-rate monitor. But it wasn’t purely a book about playing sports easily, it detailed a whole system for health based on your body-type and the ancient system of Ayurvedic medicine. The idea of getting ‘into the zone’ appealed because I wanted to settle my mind while playing volleyball and for a while I got strange glances from volleyball teammates as I warmed up with yoga Sun Salutes and nose-breathing.

I spent the following summer running half marathons as well as my first marathon, and in training used his method of nose-breathing and keeping my heart-rate low for some months. But all I did was tiptoe up and down the beach promenade at slow paces. The book had promised results of improvement in a matter of months with examples of Catherine Oxenberg running 8min/miles at 130HR after three months of retraining and Warren Wechsler running 6 min/miles averaging 124HR after 18-months of training. My reality is that even when I was capable of running sub-19 at parkrun, I’ve barely been quicker than nine minute miles at these heart-rates; I don’t have the physiology to allow me to do this easily. But back then it was a mystery to be solved and I was intrigued enough for many years afterwards to periodically return to the book’s wisdom and unsuccessfully try to get its methods to work for me. I didn’t realise it then, but this book was promoting the secrets of endurance training and the aerobic base.

John Douillard’s 1995 book

I had run before this. I’d run cross-country in PE lessons at school – I was terrible – I used to finish second to last, but I was also at the back of the sprints. I was the proverbial big slow kid.  As a teenager I went orienteering with my friend Malcolm and his parents. The 5K courses took me 45-mins to complete albeit I was trying to navigate myself around difficult forest and moorland terrain. I dreaded the idea of running the longer courses that came with older age-groups and the thought of the 10Ks that the senior men ran terrified me. Eventually I stopped going when I got a job working Sundays at Broadstone sports centre, now The Junction, so the issue of going past 5K never reared its head.

But I always played sports and my bicycle was my main mode of transport so I had a reasonable level of fitness. Once I started fulltime work, I began to play sports with my colleagues and squash, basketball, 5-a-side football all gave me incidental running skills and fitness.

I entered my first 10K race in October 1992, ran 48 minutes and was into running for six months before shin splints were too painful to even walk across the beach. My training system was non-existent. Jump on the treadmill and run at 9.5mph for ten minutes gasping for breath. Run round the streets near home to complete a twenty-minute route as quickly as possible. No warmup, just hammer off down the road from the moment I started the stopwatch. Enter a 10K – train for it by going out and plodding the distance to make sure I could complete it. That was all there was. My highlight of those days was running 3 miles on the treadmill at its maximum speed of 10mph – 18min10 – it took the extra ten seconds to get up to full speed. I remember being awed by the fastest runners at work who could run 35-36 minutes for 10K. My 10K of 48-minutes put me two-thirds of the way down the results lists of races. Nothing about my life experience up to this point said I was any good at running. Even when I put some effort in, I finished in the lower half of the field far behind the best runners I knew, and far behind the winners.


Let’s break down the training for my early attempts to train for races. My training had three components – building speed, stamina-building runs and over-distance runs.

  • I built speed from playing sports which involved many shorts sprints. In a game of squash the court measures 9.75m from front to back, 6.4m across its width so you only take a maximum of five or six steps in one direction before pausing. Volleyball is movements of a few steps, but repeated powerful exertion when jumping to hit or block. The court where we played 5-a-side football and basketball was around twenty-five metres in length. That’s all I did lots of maximal paced sprints over short distances usually for 30 to 60 minutes at a time..
  • Stamina came from the runs of up to twenty minutes either on the treadmill (which was forcing the pace), or round the local streets where I’d start fast and hang on. These street runs also threw in hills and corners so it was never one-paced.
  • For over-distance runs, I jogged easily to ensure I could cover the race distance. My first block of running in 1992-93, I only entered 10Ks so I over-distanced to around eight miles. I remember getting from my standard four mile run up to eight was difficult. When I later did half marathons and even full marathons, it never felt as hard to increase the distance of runs past eight miles.

Even now when I analyse these, they’re effectively the three core types of training you get recommended to do. Although runners may talk about hill sessions or track speedwork they still fall into the first category of speed building. We might go out to do threshold or tempo runs but they categorise as stamina-building and finally long runs are categorised as over-distance runs. It’s very hard to discern what’s wrong with this training.


Yet I wasn’t able to go faster at any of my races. My 10K each came in around 48-mins while a quarter marathon (10.5K) came in at a similarly paced 50-mins. My half marathons came in 30-seconds either side of 1hr51. The most notable thing was breaking 1hr50 (1hr49min55) a couple of years later yet this is still in the same vicinity as the others. I always believed this would be as good as I got at running.

What I never tried to understand was why this wasn’t enough. I thought that to run fast, you had to train fast. That to get faster you had to keep going at top speed and hang on. It was only when I read Douillard that I began to learn there was a different way to train. But I tried it and it didn’t work for me because of how endurance is created. I continued to play other sports while trying to be a runner and those sports kept pushing down my endurance and taking me back to the speed that would be more appropriate to a sprinter. I now know it takes a couple of months for endurance to start showing up and even then you have to keep working at it and avoid overdoing the speed side too much. While my “train hard, play hard” mentality was great for playing team sports, it didn’t help my running.

I tried Douillard’s nose-breathing and low heart-rate method one more time in 2009 but again I found myself ambling along. Eventually I took off the shackles and began running regularly however I liked. Long distance running still wasn’t easy but I was getting out three to four times each week. I still had the stamina runs two or three times each week with 6K at lunchtime but – and this is the critical component – I no longer played team sports and thus did much less speed-building. Early in 2010, I ran a 10-mile race and surprised myself with a fast-finishing time of 1hr16. Three weeks later, I set a half marathon PB of 1hr38min30 – over ten minutes quicker than any I’d ever done before. Six months later I ran a 3hr41 marathon despite having missed a month of training due to a calf injury. I still hadn’t conquered endurance but I now realise less speed-building and more regular running were critical to the improvement.

The truth is, I still didn’t understand what endurance or aerobic bases were but I was running faster. When I got involved with parkrun and began running almost daily, it didn’t take much to see my times get even better. Sub-19 for parkrun, 41-mins for 10K, 1hr09 for 10-miles and 1hr31 for half-marathon in the first year. Eventually I began to see the low heart-rates Douillard had promised and my runs felt easy. But it took until 2017 for me to finally understand how to really create endurance and be running how Douillard had promised. The details are however, another story waiting to be told.