Summary: This post is really about trying to fill in gaps for people who have already started or plan to start learning the Wim Hof Method (perhaps through the 10-week course). It’s not really designed to repeat what is in the course, but instead add context to what’s there. After some feedback on this post, I made a new post that is more focused on “why do WHM.” The ten-week course is more about “how to do WHM” and this post is about “understanding and doing WHM better.”
I have been doing WHM for 3+ months now. I tried it back in 2012 after a WHM seminar in San Francisco, but it was fairly unstructured back then (no 10-week course) and I didn’t come away with any real direction or expectations. I also misunderstood a lot about WHM and the physiology behind it. It fell out of interest for 3-4 years.
I picked up the 10-week course for a few weeks last year, but got distracted by a new job. This year, I took it more seriously and have been at it for 3+ months. I wanted to share how much my view of WHM has evolved since 2012, which can hopefully shed some light and set realistic expectations for those looking to start WHM (and the 10-week course).
Keep the Cold and WHM Breathing Separate (at first)
The 10-week course seems to be explicitly structured so that you don’t combine any WHM-breathing with cold exposure for at least 6 weeks. Your body has a lot of natural adaptation to do for tolerating cold that is innate in all of us, it just requires brute force exposure for a few weeks to invoke natural physiological changes (cardiovascular, pain receptors, stress response). Further, trying to combine WHM techniques during that adaptation phase would probably be fruitless (difficult to focus while under such stress) and potentially dangerous (inexperience with strong breathing techniques in water can lead to passing out and drowning).
Consider the cold tolerance and breathing to be two separate skills that are to be developed independently for a while. You will need to be good at both, and both only require a good mindset and regular practice. You will combine them eventually.
You Don’t Need WHM to Tolerate Icy Water
I recently met someone who takes cold showers every day, and 4-7 minute ice baths when convenient. He had never heard of Wim Hof before I told him about it. He does no special breathing or routine around it. After meeting him, I searched the internet and found lots of random stories of people who take regular cold showers/baths without any notion of Wim Hof or WHM. Ice swimming is fairly common in the northern parts of Europe:
With that in mind, I’m not telling you to just “wing it” with your cold showers the first few weeks. I like to do the WHM breathing and stretching 30 min before an icy shower or bath. I do lots of slow, deep breathing before and during the exposure. But it is for relaxation and mentally maintaining control under stress, not for WHM-style body oxygenation.
Also, it is good know that this is a safe activity if you are a generally healthy person. Polar plunges are popular around the world in winter time. Water rescue manuals indicate that even in 30-32 F water, most people will be able to stay conscious and pre-hypothermic for 5-15 minutes. Most people will stay alive for 45 minutes as long as they keep from drowning*.
For water above 40 F people will survive for up to 3 hours. Therefore, you’re not likely in danger taking a 50F shower for 0.5-10 minutes (but of course, check with your doctor, especially if you have heart problems!).
*One of the manuals said that if you fall through the ice on a lake and can’t get out within 10 minutes, you should try to let your arms freeze to the top of the ice surface before you lose consciousness, to keep your airways above water. Not at all relevant to this discussion I just thought it was super interesting advice!
Cold Progress is Fast but it Will Not be Easy (at first)
The moral of all this is:
- There is no way to really avoid being miserable in the cold shower for a few weeks until your body adapts. This is normal and the hardest part of the course.
- There is also no way to really avoid making progress — your body will adapt to the cold as long as you keep exposing yourself to it, no matter how much you do WHM, breathing, etc.
- The breathing and meditation can help you control your stress response, making this adaptation phase easier to tolerate. But it’s not strictly necessary.
Only once your body has adapted to cold water (and developed some extra brown/beige fat–takes 6-8 weeks), then WHM can provide the facilities for not just tolerating cold but actually generating heat to counteract it.
This last point is the source of most of the profound things that Wim Hof does. It’s not just generating heat, it’s releasing hormones that help improve muscle efficiency, reduce inflammation, activate brown fat, keep us alert, among other things. But gaining this control takes time. And stress! I have not learned to activate these abilities at will like Wim does, but I get more profound progress when my body is in physical stress — such as ice bath, walking in snow barefoot, running shirtless in winter.
I did WHM breathing for a long time before I felt like I “got it.” I had to experiment with many different patterns. The key phrase is repeated over and over again by Wim Hof in his materials: “Fully in, Let Go”
- Fully In: You want to expand your lungs as much as possible without triggering any discomfort. Actually move your chest out when you inhale to give your lungs space (you can see Wim do it in the videos). However, do not go 100%, only until you feel a mild stretch in your lungs. I would guess it is 95% lung capacity on each inhale.
- Let Go: Don’t force the exhale, just let your lungs push the air out due to the fullness of the inhale. It will feel a little bit like you’re pushing the air, but the important part is to not empty your lungs fully. You don’t want your lungs to go past neutral pressure and work to keep air out. This applies to each breath and the final exhale retention. The end of the exhale is probably 25-30% lung capacity.
- Circular: Try to make the transitions at the top and bottom smooth and the whole thing circular. Avoid “jagged” breathing.
In terms of breathing speed, there are two competing factors:
- You need to be relaxed. Your oxygen will last longer with a slower heartrate, and connecting with your body during retention is easier when you are relaxed. You do not want to be breathing so fast and hard that it is exercise.
- You need to breathe fast enough to shift the chemistry of your blood: oxygen will go up (a little bit) and CO2 levels will go down (a lot). This helps you store oxygen in your body to last you longer, and delay the onset of your breathing reflex. This is also what creates the tingly and lightheadedness that is expected in the later rounds of breathing.
My personal preference is to do breathing a little slower in the first round (one inhale-exhale per 2 sec), which helps bootstrap my body’s relaxed state for the entire session, at the expense of a shorter first-round retention. Then I pick up the pace in the later rounds a little bit to favor the blood chemistry component (one inhale-exhale per 1.5 sec). The best experience is when I can get tingly by the 30th or 40th breath (usually in the later rounds).
Retention Times are Not Crucial
The 10-week course has you tracking your retention times, which I feel like places too much emphasis on trying to eke out as much time as you can on every breathing round. This becomes counterproductive when people push themselves through pain and discomfort to hold longer, which is not good for the relaxed state you are trying to achieve. They justify it by saying they want to go “deeper.” Here’s my advice:
Retaining longer doesn’t make you go deeper — going deeper will help you retain longer!
You should only retain until it becomes obvious that your body wants you to breathe, and only a few seconds longer. Do not feel bad about short retention times, especially in earlier rounds. As long as you always end your retention at the same physiological time, you can track your progress consistently. The best way to improve your retention times is to focus on releasing all the tension in your body, and get deep into your mind and body.
One last thing about the breathing: the guidance these days seems to be “30-40 WHM breaths, exhale, and stop”. I have seen many people complain about not getting light-headed and tingly in this time, even after multiple rounds. Yet, when I started in 2012, the guidance was “breathe until your fingers get tingly.” That was frequently 50-60 breaths! I won’t run off into a tangent about why I think the guidance changed, but I can provide some context for it:
- It’s not strictly necessary to get tingly to get the benefits, at least initially. I think that the guidance changed because people were losing patience and getting sore throats from breathing so much, and it was reducing motivation unnecessarily.
- If you aren’t feeling the physiology after 30-40 breaths in after the first round (primarily tingly-ness and 1:30+ exhale retention times), then your breathing is probably not optimal. It could be technique or speed as written about above. There’s nothing wrong with doing more breaths to explore that end of the spectrum, just make sure you’re sitting or laying down in case you pass out–unlikely but possible.
My official advice based on this: it will take some time to get it right, and that’s okay. You don’t need optimal breathing to connect with your body. However, you should still experiment and find out what techniques and speed work for you. Ideally, you will get tingling in the tips of your fingers somewhere in 30-40 breaths (at least in rounds 2+), and then you also retain with empty lungs for 1:30+. That means you were able to achieve the desired chemistry while still staying relaxed. Finally, don’t be afraid to do more breaths to compensate for lack of experience, or just to “see what’s up there,” as long as you do it in a safe setting. Practically speaking, though, you don’t need it.
Cold Exposure: Give it Time
Even if you master the breathing and mental facilities immediately, it still takes time for your body to adapt. But there’s a lot of space between “full freak-out for 30s in your first cold shower” and “relaxing for 10 minutes in an ice bath”, so you should notice non-negligible improvements even on short timescales.
My shower water is approximately 50 deg F, and my progress being able to tolerate cold showers followed the 10-week course almost exactly. I gasped and shivered and my body freaked out the first few days. I got control and could tolerate increasing times over the next couple weeks. And was able to do a daily 10-minute shower by week 5. And my first ice bath at 8 weeks was a “good” experience. Not everyone will have the same experience (or same shower temperature), but I’m a wimp and I got through it. You can too.
Take note that you will have bad days. The day after I reached 3 minutes in the cold shower, I aimed for 4 minutes and ended up in full shock and getting out after 20 seconds. Something was way off that day. Yet, I made it to 5 minutes a few days later. I also had a really bad week where multiple showers were miserable, and I thought I had lost the magic. But then I did a personal-best 7 minute ice bath the next day and felt great. Don’t let a couple discouraging days ruin your overall motivation to continue.
Commit to it for 30 Days
The most important thing is to commit to doing it, and try to come up with a routine that you can follow reliably. Especially the first few weeks when it’s the most brutal, remind yourself that it is only 30-60 seconds of suffering out of 86,400 seconds in a day. And only for a couple weeks until your body adapts. That is such a small price to pay for the benefits you will get out of it!
In the first couple days, your only goal is to suppress your shiver and gasp responses and relax. After that, your goal is to focus on breathing, relaxing and edging your endurance times. Within 30 days, you will be over “the hump” and might actually start to like taking cold showers. Regardless, you’ll probably notice improved alertness and energy levels that come on after the cold shower.
In general, you will spend most of the time with the water on your back, from the neck down (avoid your head or face). Once you start extending your times, I recommend doing 30 seconds on your back, 30 on your front then the rest on the back. Once you can do 2+ minutes, alternate between front, back, left shoulder and right shoulder. Once you have extended further, you can submerge your head and face, but you will find that it is the worst (but the best for waking up and being alert after the shower!). There are nerves in the face that are extra sensitive to the cold. Also, a lot of blood runs through the head and face very close to the skin, so the cold water on it will impact your core temperature more than any other part of your body.
As Wim Hof says, don’t force anything (besides pushing yourself to keep doing it). Don’t ramp up times too quickly or put yourself through excessive pain and stress. If you start shivering uncontrollably or feel sick or dizzy, stop.
The routine I have used since the start is to spend 60-90 seconds before I start the exposure, holding onto one of the shower bars, with my eyes closed, and breathing deeply and slowly (not WHM breathing). The goal is relaxation and self-programming. I try to visualize what is about to happen, and try to plan how I want to respond to it. I convince myself that the cold and pain is giving me energy, and the more relaxed I am the easier it is to take control and absorb the energy. It doesn’t always work out the way you visualize it, but you will likely benefit from the relaxation, anyway.
Feeling is Understanding
Everyone is different, and will have their own unique experience with WHM and cold exposure in general. What I have written above is my experience, and I hope it helps others figure out how to get over the hump and start benefiting from this. Wim’s phrase “feeling is understanding” is very appropriate. Much of what you will experience is difficult to describe and unique to each person’s brain. I could talk about it all day, but many will just have to “feel” it before they “understand” it.
Update to this Post (Aug, 2017)
After taking the WHM Advanced Instructor Module, I got a lot more useful information about all the above. Most importantly, stomach breathing and inhaling through the nose was highly recommended. As always, each person is different and needs to find what’s best for them. Personally, I still prefer primarily chest breathing with a secondary focus on stomach breathing, and like to switch between nose and mouth for the inhale to cut down on dry air passages (I always exhale through the mouth, though). Please see that post for more information: https://alanreiner.com/2017/06/04/whm-advanced-course/