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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 b