The Wim Hof experiments

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.

Hands with blood in the fingertips after five minutes of icepack holding

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

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.

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.