• Alex

Embracing the Cold - My Experience with the "Wim Hof Method"

Do you hate the cold? If you're anything like me then the answer is probably "Yes, of course!". I always used to feel too cold and it caused me to lose focus and procrastinate! Well, this may be a symptom that something is wrong with you (poor circulation and an inability to efficiently heat yourself back up) which, as usual, is a result of our overly cushy modern lives. It turns out the cure is to go outside (literally) of our comfort zones. Learning to embrace the cold has whole host of health benefits including feeling warmer the rest of the time...

Prior to 2020, I had heard of Wim Hof before only briefly through some of my parkour coaching friends, what I briefly knew was that he was someone crazy enough to swim icy lakes and even in the arctic, This didn’t appeal to me as I liked being warm and hated the cold with a passion. (Hence many teenage battles with my dad over the thermostat!) The idea only started to catch my attention during the first lockdown when all the swimming pools were closed for a long period of time, and I thought to myself "Wouldn’t it be fun to be tough enough that I could just go find a lake to swim in?"


(Due to living in the UK, finding a non-disgusting body of water nearby would turn out to be a bigger challenge... but I hadn’t thought the reality of this through yet!) Many useful ideas came as a result of my “Lockdown Boredom”. I started off by acclimatising myself to daily cold showers, after coming across a 20 day challenge in the Wim Hof app. Each day I would take a warm shower and at the end turn it to cold and see how long I could tolerate. The first week I just did 15 seconds each day, then 30 the next week, until I was quite happy doing the last 2 minutes of my shower under cold water. I wanted to experiment with pushing it further. During the first lockdown I was doing once weekly long 10k runs around the local footpaths and fields near my house in loughborough. At the end of one of these runs, when I was very hot at sweaty, I decided to try a post-workout Ice Bath. Being submerged in cold water is much more effective at dropping your body temperature than the cold shower technique. Due to the increased surface area of your whole body in contact with the water there is more contact for the heat to escape and transfer out of your body. This means your body has to work harder to bring its own temperature back up, which is the response we are trying to trigger. Ice baths proved to be fairly unpractical as I had to wait to fill the bathtub with water and lacked enough freezer space to have a lot of ice to put in it! Another added downside was waking up my housemates with all the noise I would make as I tried to tolerate the extreme cold when first getting in. So I found a makeshift alternative, I found a spare wheelie bin, gave it a good clean out, and then filled it with fresh water from the hose and added some pool treatment chemicals to keep it clean just like I would for my hot tub. This was then kept in a shady corner of my garden with the lid on, so that no sunlight would ever heat the water up.


It wasn’t as cold as an ice bath but it was deep enough that I could get my whole body submerged under the water. At the time I could only bring myself to do it once my core temperature was already raised from some vigorous exercise. Over the summer I would occasionally jump in to tolerate a few minutes after working out before I went inside to have a real shower to get clean. I hadn’t yet really understood how the "Breath Holding" part factored in to the method. I had played with the exercises on a few occasions being able to only hold my breath for about 1 minute and 40 seconds at first, but it just seemed rather time consuming when I could just “man up” and fight myself into the cold. Eventually I felt brave enough to tackle some wild swimming, so one day me and my friend Luke set out to find a lake or river to swim in. This turned out to be the biggest challenge of all, as most of the water we could find nearby looked horrible and polluted. It took us all day of cycling to different locations until we found somewhere with remotely clear water. We finally settled on a spot to do our challenge at 5pm as the sun was going down. While it was hard to get in, once in the water we felt so alive and free being out in nature. The shock of the cold brought us into the moment and made us leave the water feeling invincible and having a great time. We did this twice more over the summer, finding a great spot to cliff dive on my birthday as it happened to be the hottest day of the year.

This is where I thought the story would end, having culminated in the freedom of having a fun outdoors birthday even when many places where still closed. However it was just the beginning of my journey with the Wim Hof Method. For my birthday I got the book “Breathe” by James Nestor, and while this could be a subject for a whole other blog, This book highlighted the importance of breathing properly and had unexpected links to Wim Hof's method and research. Noticing that breath control had been an underlying weakness of my own, I began doing the breathing exercises daily. Now with improved purpose I persevered and pushed myself to improve my breath holding past the 2 minute mark, but I was still doing it infrequently and separated from the cold exposure.


It wasn’t until I moved out to Spain for the winter that I started putting the two together and began to really understand how they work together. When I first got to Spain, it was October and it still felt like summer here so I was eager to hit the beach and have a swim. I told myself I would do this every day of the winter, finally living the dream life I had always wanted. By the end of November the water temperature had dropped and my friend Michael bought a wetsuit so that we could keep up our watersport adventures. Being too tight to invest in one myself, I tried to persevere in just my swim shorts while he was nice and warm in his wetsuit meaning we stayed out in the water a long time. This wasn’t the cleverest choice and resulted in me getting what is known as “The Afterdrop” When we go into cold water our bodies use a process known as vasoconstriction to reduce the blood flow to our extremities so that we don’t lose as much heat through them. Basically we allow our limbs to get colder as a sacrifice to retain as much heat as possible around our essential internal organs. When we leave the cold and start exercising or moving again our blood vessels open up again into order to pump blood to the muscles and as a result all of the cold blood that had been pooling in your limbs (losing heat) then gets pumped back into your heart causing you to feel colder AFTER you get out of the water than you did in it, this is what is called the Afterdrop. Once this happens your body will panic and do anything it can to regain core temperature. One way the body can heat us back up is through shivering. These rapid contractions of muscles generate heat through movement. However this can be quite annoying and distracting while your body is doing it. The other way involves burning body fat for heat. Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT) is a special type of fat cell that burns normal “white fat” cells in order to convert them into heat. When we are born we have high density of these cells, but as we grow older we seem to lose them through lack of usage now that we wear clothes all day and live in climate controlled environments. However individuals who regularly expose themselves to the cold have been found to have more child-like levels of these cells proving that its a use it or lose it type of deal. The purpose of Wim Hof method breathing techniques is to train you to calm the body in order to overcome the autonomic responses and resist the urge to shiver so that the body is forced to activate these BAT cells. Over time as you develop more of these cells the body will become more efficient at reheating itself to the point where you don’t feel any urge to shiver and can just get on with your day like normal.


After my experience with the afterdrop it made me realise the importance of connecting the breath work to the cold and so I started developing a daily routine. Each morning I get out of bed and after some light stretching / yoga, I do 2 or 3 rounds of the breath hold exercise. This usually takes about 10 minutes to do (up to a max of 15 as my breath hold times started to increase). This is great to take some time to be mindful and meditate, but also to be in the moment and become aware of my body and how I feel that day. After that I go straight into the water, the cold shock habitually brings me back to the deep breathing which helps to calm myself down. Once I feel calm sitting submerged in the water, I set off swimming out to where the water is deeper and dive under the sea. Coming back out of the water every day is when you truly feel awake and alive! It makes you feel like a new person. "You may not always like the person going into the water, but I always like the person coming out". After my swim I jog back to the house and have a nice warm shower to help my body warm back up and avoid the Afterdrop. I also find a post-shower cup of Hot Chocolate is really nice on those colder days to help me speed up the process by heating me from the inside out. As my body has become more efficient at heating itself up, I have felt less need to hurry to the shower as soon as getting out of the water. So I started doing some other exercises and skills that I have been working on while I wait for myself to drip dry off before going in the house. I have found this is a great time for me to do bodybuilding style exercises where getting a “pump” is the goal such as training my arms. I seem to be able to get more reps done while I am cold as my mind is more focused and tolerates the "burn" of the last few reps much better. Due to the results I was seeing, my friend Michael soon returned his wetsuit to the store and began joining me for my morning routine. This earned us a bit of a reputation amongst the locals as “Gringos Locos” (Crazy Foreigners!) as we would be out in the water every morning when everyone else was out walking in winter coats. We even got out for a swim on xmas day! (See the photo at the start of this article).


Over time this reputation started to gather the attention of others in our area who took an interest in what we were doing and wanted to give it a go. Eventually we had our own little group that meets every morning. The community aspect of this really helped with consistency. Meeting others at the start of the day throughout the winter gives you a reason to “just get on with it” even when the weather looks grim and cloudy. Being accountable to others is an effective way to ingrain positive lifestyle changes.


Conclusion

I have now consistently kept up this routine every day for 3 months so I thought I would finish this article with a summary of some of the benefits I have experienced: I have definitely noticed a general improvement in cold tolerance throughout the day, I feel less need to have the heating on and find it easier to not be distracted by the cold. I have also improved the circulation in my hands though doing a more intense localised version of the practice by submerging my hands into buckets of Ice water in order to “Reset the thermostat” to this area of the body. I used to wear fingerless gloves all the time but I don’t feel the need to anymore. Some of the biggest claims of this process are that it improves your immune system and burns body fat. Both are these are hard to me to assess because my health was already very good and my body fat fairly low, however, I haven’t had a cold all winter and I didn’t put on any body fat even when indulging on a few too many treats over the holiday period, so it might have helped but its hard to say for sure. My ability to hold my breath increased substantially my current record is now 5 minutes and 45 seconds! That is a massive jump up from my starting score of 1 minute and 45... For me by far the biggest benefits of this practice are psychological. I have always been someone who struggled to get into meditation, having a busy mind I always found it hard to make the time. However the challenge of the breath holds and cold water exposure both give a purpose which results in a similar form of meditation. In order to make improvements on your breath hold times you have to learn to slow your heartbeat down and really clear your mind and relax, which results in a form of meditation. The shock of the cold water really forces your mind into the present moment, clearing your mind of any distractions or worries. It’s a great way to start your day, feeling alive and connected to nature. What I have found most useful is how it improves your mindset towards overcoming other challenges in your day. Starting the day with something that always creates a moment of fear (The “Do I really want do to this?” feeling) has a knock on effect to how your approach other challenges. When that fear feeling passes and you realise your feel great it is a great way to teach yourself to not always listen to the fears of your mind as “just do it”. I have found this helps me when attempting to achieve a new skill or weightlifting 1RM. Any doubts that may pop into your head are much easier to brush aside when you can say to yourself: “yeah but you were a wuss this morning and that ended up being great fun! so shut up mind, you don’t know what your on about!”. The ability to clear my head and focus on right now has been a game changer for me. Hopefully by now you are "warming up" to the idea of getting cold. I'd definitely recommend it as a great way to start your day, feeling alive and connected to nature! Get out there and give it a go!

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