Who is Wim Hof and why should I care?
Wim Hof is an extreme athlete from the Netherlands who has set multiple extraordinary world records and defied scientific expectations.
His records include climbing 22,000 ft up Mount Everest… wearing just shorts and and a pair of open toed sandals.
His other records include running a half marathon around the arctic circle barefoot wearing just shorts, swimming under ice down to 66 metres, and being neck deep in an ice bath for longer than any other human.
The secret to his godlike ability? A mixture of his unique breathing technique, focused meditation and gradual exposure to cold known together as the Wim Hof Method (WHM) which he teaches on the internet.
As well as resistance to the cold, Wim Hof claims that his method has a host of other benefits such as avoiding getting ill, reducing stress, fighting depression, improved willpower, energy, endurance and sports performance.
What is the Wim Hof Method?
With benefits like that, it’s worth a try right? And best of all, you can feel some benefits from the first time that you try it.
To try his breathing technique, take a deep breath in, fully filling your lungs, then breath out, but not all the way out. It should feel like you’re taking in more air than you’re breathing out. Do this 30-40 times in a row.
At this point, you’ll feel a little lightheaded as well as feeling some tingling in your extremities. Don’t worry, this is normal.
After the 30-40 breaths, immediately take a deep breath in, then fully exhale. At this point, you should hold your breath for as long as you feel you can. Once you feel like you have to breathe in, take a deep breath and hold it for 10 seconds.
Congratulations! you’ve completed one round of the Wim Hof breathing. You should immediately do one or two more rounds after your first in order to get the maximum benefits.
If you time how long you can hold your breath, you should find that you can hold your breath for longer each round.
For the best effect, Wim Hof recommends that you combine the breathing technique with meditation. Hof states that a strong mindset is essential to achieve the required concentration and focus, so that the techniques are correctly executed even in extreme situations.
You should also aim to do the technique on an empty stomach. When doing the exercise, try to breath into your stomach, as this will help fill the deep ends of your lungs.
Finally, make sure you’re either sat down or laying down when doing this, and not in a shower, swimming pool or car, as there’s a slight chance of passing out.
The other part of the WHM is the exposure to cold temperatures. For the average man, who isn’t aiming to climb Mount Everest or run marathons around the arctic circle, then just swapping your hot showers for cold showers should do the trick.
If you want the best results from your cold showers, make sure you’re consistent with it, as well as having your shower temperature on the coldest setting available.
Personal experience with the WHM
What you’ll notice immediately after completing the breathing technique (apart from the lightheaded feeling and tingling in your feet) is the immediate stress relief. The feeling is similar to when you’ve just finished meditating.
Even if you weren’t stressed before you’ll feel like there was a weight lifted off your shoulders, and a better clarity of mind.
While I can’t comment on the claims that the technique fights depression, I’ve recently tested the effect of the method on my energy and stamina.
A recent addition to my gym routine has been running back instead of walking back in order to improve my stamina. While I can run the whole way back without stopping, I find the run pretty challenging and end up out of breath by the end of it.
But since doing the research for this post, I decided that I would try out Wim Hof’s breathing technique on the run, to test whether it would improve my stamina.
The results? Not only does the run feel a lot easier, but by the end of it, I barely feel out of breath.
While there isn’t any literature that can scientifically back up my personal experience, several top athletes have also felt their stamina and endurance have improved as a result of the WHM.
As for the cold showers, I was introduced to the concept just over a year ago. Initially I was sceptical, I mean the temperature of your shower can stop you getting ill?
But I tried it anyway and stuck with it. What I discovered was incredible. Throughout the whole year and a half that I had been taking cold showers, there had only been one instance where I became ill.
Even when everyone in my house came down with a flu or virus, the cold showers made me immune. It felt like a superpower.
I’m not sure how much of this is down to placebo, but it feels like adding cold showers to my routine has definitely hacked my immune system.
Finally, the other big benefit of cold showers. Willpower.
Cold showers aren’t pleasant. Even over a year in, I can feel my body resisting turning on that cold shower every time. And that is the key to willpower. Making yourself do something no matter how scared you are or how unpleasant it it.
And now, I’ve become an expert at ignoring my body telling me not to turn on the cold shower.
This willpower that I’ve built up has easily transferred into all other aspects of my life and is easily one of the biggest benefits of the WHM. If you start the day facing something that you’re scared of, you’ll feel like there’s nothing you can’t do.
While the exceptional reviews for the WHM speak for itself, there hasn’t been a lot of scientific research into the method, so when we look at what’s happening, most of what we’re going to be talking about it what is most likely happening (unless the literature has been referenced).
First of all when you’re doing the breathing exercise, the level of oxygen in your body increases. Wim Hof claims this is the cause of the benefits and why you feel light headed and a tingling in your extremities.
In truth, the light headed feeling and tingling are actually a sign of hypoxia (low oxygen). I know what you’re thinking, if there’s more oxygen in your body, how is there also less oxygen?
Well, the problem is to do with Carbon dioxide, or CO2. During the breathing technique, not only do oxygen levels rise but CO2 levels drop. The problem is that while CO2 is a waste product, it’s actually required by the cells to takeup and use oxygen.
This is why there’s a risk of fainting, as the lack of CO2, means there isn’t enough for the brain to use all of the excess oxygen and can cause it to fall out of consciousness.
This is also why the breath hold at the end of each cycle is so important – it allows the body to build up CO2 so that the increased oxygen can be utilised.
The higher blood oxygen levels likely explains how the WHM increases stamina. Since there is more oxygen in the blood, the body is less likely to go into anaerobic respiration, which is a much less efficient way of producing oxygen from glucose or fat. Anaerobic respiration also causes a build up of lactic acid, which can leave you sore and fatigued.
Wim also claims that the oxygenation is responsible for the mental benefits of the method and it does seem to be the most probable explanation, given the lack of solid scientific research.
Next, lets look at the science of benefits from cold showers. And since the benefit of increased willpower is relatively self explanatory, let’s look at the improved immune response.
If we look at the mechanism of action, it has to do with the fact that the cold showers cause a drastic release of adrenaline. The surge of adrenaline releases anti-inflammatory mediators and causes a decrease in inflammatory proteins known as cytokines(2).
Cytokines are important markers of inflammation and disease, since they cause a cascade immune response. So therefore, high levels of cytokines mean that you start to suffer from symptoms of infection.
While some of the more extreme claims that Hof makes about his method (such as relieving symptoms of fibromyalgia) are disputed and haven’t been thoroughly tested, there are some benefits that you will be able to feel almost instantly.
With his breathing technique, not only can you use it effectively to improve your stamina, it’s also pretty effective at relieving symptoms of anxiety, as well as giving you better clarity of mind
When it comes to the cold showers, they’re great for your immune system no doubt. The only problem is, they’re not going to give you superhuman cold resistance on its own.
If you want to be able to run marathons in the arctic like Hof himself, you’re going to have to do a bit more. Wim claims his unique meditation course, which he sells on his site, is the key to using the techniques in extreme situations.
In conclusion, if you want better energy, stamina, immune system and willpower, you should try out the WHM as described in this blog post. Additionally, even though there isn’t as much evidence, you can definitely try it out for relief from fibromyalgia, COPD, asthma, arthritis and post trearment lyme disease syndrome as the positive reviews speak for themselves
However, if you want really cool superhuman cold resistance like Wim, you’re going to have to buy his 10 week course from his website.
(1) Buijze GA, Sierevelt IN, van der Heijden BC, Dijkgraaf MG, Frings-Dresen MH. The effect of cold showering on health and work: a randomized controlled trial. PloS one. 2016 Sep 15;11(9):e0161749.
(2) Kox M, van Eijk LT, Zwaag J, van den Wildenberg J, Sweep FC, van der Hoeven JG, Pickkers P. Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2014 May 20;111(20):7379-84.