Increasingly, we hear about athletes who believe that immersing the body in very cold water can speed recovery by reducing the blood flow and inflammation in muscle tissue.
Last August I had the opportunity to attend a one of a kind 4 day ‘retreat’ to learn what is known as the Wim Hof method, lead by the Dutch daredevil – Wim Hof (the ‘Iceman’) himself. The retreat covered the 3 pillars of his method: breathing techniques, cold exposure and mindset. It was one of the most unique and empowering experiences I have ever had.
My reasons for going were a mix of curiosity and timing. My kids were old enough for me to take a few days off and I needed some ‘me time’. My husband and I had dabbled with the Wim Hof online course, so I jumped at the chance when I heard he was going to be in Australia.
Wim is an incredible man holding over 20 world records for his ability to withstand extreme cold, all pushing himself both physically and mentally beyond what anyone would think possible.
Meeting Wim was quite surreal. I was well aware of the mind-blowing things he had achieved in his 57 years and I was fascinated by him. These include:
- Climbing to 6,700 meters (22,000 ft) altitude at Mount Everest wearing nothing but shorts and shoes
- Running a full marathon (42km), above the arctic circle in Finland, in temperatures close to −20 °C dressed in nothing but shorts
- Holding the ice endurance record in by standing fully immersed in ice for 1 hour and 52 minutes and 42 seconds
- Running a full marathon in the Namib Desert without water.
What interested me the most about the Wim Hof method was the science behind it. The method, involving breathing techniques, cold emersion and mindset has shown to influence the sympathetic nervous system and immune system, once believed to be systems that could not be voluntarily influenced. (1) Some of the benefits, even the short term are:
- Increased endurance
- Better quality sleep
- Increase pain and cold tolerance
- Improved cardiovascular conditioning
- Increased white blood cell count
- Suppression of inflammatory cytokines
- Reduced stress levels
- Mood improvement
- Weight loss
There were 60 people on the course and I was one of eight women. Needless to say, the girls bonded quickly. We were all there for different reasons. Some wanted to use the method in their work, others had chronic conditions such as autoimmune diseases and cancer, others with depression and anxiety. Everyone was there for some level of self-improvement, so with a common cause we all became close very quickly.
On day one, after a late breakfast, we headed into a small hall and sat facing Wim who was strumming a guitar, chanting and singing his message. It added to the atmosphere and anticipation of what was to come. When we were settled, we lay down on the floor and followed Wim’s instruction to focus on our breath. Wim’s voice gained momentum and encouraged us to breath ‘Fully in! Let go!” His voice encouraged us to breathe harder and deeper each time.
Not long into the breathing, the tips of my fingers tingled and my head felt light. After three rounds of this controlled hyperventilation technique, we concluded by doing as many pushups as possible while holding the out breath. My normal full push-up number is around 8 but after this breathing I easily managed 20.
That afternoon, the ice baths were set up outside (it was in the middle of winter too!) and after another round of the breathing I spent 5 minutes in a 2 degree celsius ice-bath. I must add, I hate the cold so I was completely out of my comfort zone! By doing the breathing beforehand and breathing deeply while submerged, my pain receptors were shut down and blood flowed to my inner core to keep me warm (my belly actually felt like I had a pleasant warm fire burning in it). My extremities were cold, but I felt a sense of control and calm. I felt energised afterwards.
Over the next four days we practised the breathing, the ice-baths along with yoga and lessons from Wim. Many of us tapped into childhood pasts (it can go deep) and we able to let go of any past experiences holding us back. There was often heightened emotions over those four days, and at the end we all felt amazing.
It’s important to emphasise that this doesn’t have to be something you practice in ice baths at a retreat There is evidence to suggest that cold showering, something you can do regularly at home, will reduce your susceptibility to sickness. A recent Randomised Controlled Trial conducted in the Netherlands showed that 30 days of cold showering (hot, followed by either 30, 60 or 90 seconds cold) resulted in a 29% reduction of self-reported sick leave from work.
There are now universities around the world doing research on the Wim Hof method, revealing that we can now influence much of our physiology that we once thought was not possible. When anyone in our family feels like we’re coming down with something, we practice the Wim Hof Method to tap into our immune system. If we’re stressed, have trouble sleeping, it’s a go-to practise. It’s incredibly powerful. All you need to do is be open, practice regularly and be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. You’ll be left feeling amazing afterwards!
If you’re interested in the Wim Hof Method, you can download Wim’s APP, which is called “Wim Hof Method” from the APP store or Google Play.