Wim Hof has developed a method that promises to give you more energy, less stress and a stronger immune system. Ella Foote discovers more about the benefits of cold-water exposure.
Almost everything Wim Hof says I want to write on a Post-it note for future reference. Known worldwide as The Iceman, Wim is a Dutch extreme athlete famed for breaking a number of records related to cold exposure.
He has accomplished extraordinary feats of human endurance including swimming underneath ice for 66 metres, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, running a barefoot half marathon above the Arctic Circle, and standing in a container while covered with ice cubes for more than 112 minutes.
He has developed The Wim Hof Method which has featured in media across the world and promises to give you more energy, less stress and a stronger immune system. In his book The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Potential, Transcend Your Limits, Wim shares his life story and breaks down the practice into three simple pillars.
Bonkers from birth
Like many self-help gurus he has plenty of ‘inspirational quote’ material that could feature in cliched internet memes and until we met (virtually) I had always been a bit dubious about his work. However, as soon as we sit down to chat, everything he says makes sense to me and is totally relatable because I too am a cold-water addict.
His book took me on a journey from the bonkers circumstances of his birth to how he came to develop his work today. Page after page I found myself underlining the correlations of his findings, his method and results to my own experience of outdoor swimming.
Depth of your brain
“People who are going into cold water every day meet themselves in the depth of their own brain,” says Wim. “It has been shown that the depth of the brain is activated through cold water swimming more than people who exercise mindfulness and meditation for four hours a day.
“Going deeper into your brain more than our shallow society makes us feel and understand helps us connect to ourselves. When you meet yourself in the depth you are hooked.”
Wim swims or immerses himself in cold water every day. He lives 70 kilometres from the centre of Amsterdam and swims in the local lakes, canals and outdoor pool.
“It is a deep meditation that gives me absolute glee,” says Wim. “Swimming is a journey on its own. It usually takes about 75 strokes until I am completely adapted, then I don’t feel the difference between me and the water anymore – I am one with the water, my body is one with the water and I can swim and swim and swim.”
It all begins with breath
The three pillars of Wim Hof’s method are breath, mind and cold. All three are key for outdoor swimming and align with so much of what we experience and write about in Outdoor Swimmer.
Like swimming technique, Wim’s method explains that the breath is fundamental. “Without breath what is there?” writes Wim. “It’s where you and I and everyone else began. It’s where all life begins.”
Many swimming teachers and open water coaches will agree, that breathing is fundamental to our stroke. The combination of Wim’s breathing technique and regular exposure to the cold is the foundation of his daily routine and he argues it should be ours too.
Stimulate your insides
“We go to the gym to look nice and strengthen our muscles and we forget about the muscles inside,” says Wim. “Inside us is our vascular system with millions of little muscles that are never being exercised because we live with non-stimulative behaviours.
“Killer number one in our society is still cardiovascular related diseases, but if you want to tackle that serial killer get in a cold shower! Our society is very demanding, it has an impact on our vascular system, makes our heart rate go up. None of this helps the blood go through the system to the cells, so the heart pumps more and then the stress hormone cortisol comes, sticks around and creates diseases.” So how does cold water exposure combat all this?
“We are always on,” says Wim. “With an increased heart rate because of our non-stimulative behaviours we are constantly on. Sometimes you need to be off and then on.
“We need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Cold water helps these inside muscles work, slow down the heart rate and with that we get more energy because the nutrients, vitamins and oxygen can get through our system better.
Cold water exposure tackles so many problems, the heart rate goes down which reduces the stress hormone. Mother nature is within us. It is the physiology to the way we are built, so it should be stimulated. Just like walking stimulates our legs, if we sit all our lives don’t expect those muscles to work.
We need fitness for the inside body – that is the cold. It makes our deep physiology and our deep inner nature awaken. It is as simple as that: the blood flow is the life force. When your body is stimulated by the cold then the blood flows through you like a river!”
Cold water showers
Wim recommends daily cold showers and at least once a week a cold-water swim. This with deep breathing practice and a positive mindset can improve your mental and physical wellbeing. Super news if you are a seasoned outdoor swimmer or lover of winter swimming, but what if you are just embarking on your outdoor swimming journey? What if you have never swum in winter conditions? There are limits and even Wim faces them.
“There are of course limitations,” he says. “One day I do more and one day I do less, but I always listen to my body signals.
For me it is when I begin to feel awkward. When I feel heavy and a stiffness, I know it is the cold getting to my core body temperature, the body is not able to function if the blood is too cold. If I feel heavy, I get out! It is important to always listen to those signals.”
For new cold-water swimmers Wim encourages a gradual method and to follow your feeling.
“Start with a cold shower daily and every day, stay in under the cold water a little longer,” says Wim. “The thermal receptors under the skin will get stimulated which are directly connected to the vascular system.
“Very fast your body will learn to adapt to protect the core body temperature, build up your cold exposure practice gradually and within ten days you will be able to go into natural bodies of water. Your body will experience less stress and more energy – who doesn’t want this?”
Get high on your own supply
This is what makes it so addictive.
“Get high on your own supply,” says Wim. “Exposure to the cold is like a reset button for the system. A reset to its natural, beautiful ability and agility. Of course, once you begin it is totally addictive.”
For people trying out cold water swimming or immersion for the first time this winter, Wim also encourages them to get their breathing right.
“Once you start to get into natural bodies of water you need to proceed with deep breathing,” he says. “Put your hands on your thighs to combat the pain signals in the extremities, they will stay warmer and enable the body to adapt until suddenly it is okay. Don’t bother with putting your head under, you don’t need to. Relax and just swim – it is a deep, deep experience.”
Wim’s energy and happiness are all I need to recognise the benefits of his method. I ask him if he is always this happy and energetic?
“I am, I am, I am,” he says. “It is all down to the cold.”
All six of his children follow his lead: “They have the natural deep understanding of what nature has
to offer us on a daily basis. The logic that inner nature and nature outside are one,” says Wim.
“We live in warm houses in the winter, turn air conditioning on in summer. If we want to go someplace, we go in a car, it all builds up, this non-stimulative behaviour which disconnects us from our deeper physiology which should be flourishing.
Ice swimmers, cold water addicts – they don’t become sick. Just do it – you are built to be able to cope; it is your inner nature. You need to awaken your immune system; you can do that with cold water swimming.”
So, if Wim could swim anywhere in the world, where would he choose? “I would swim with you,” he says. “I would love to swim with you in the Thames and it will come sometime in our future!” What a great answer and I really hope we do.
The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Potential, Transcend Your Limits is out now and published by Ebury. Find out more about The Wim Hof Method.
This article originally featured in the November 2020 issue of Outdoor Swimmer.