For Those Just Starting WHM

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.”

Background

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:

See:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Breathing Advice

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Breathing Count

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. My official advice based on #1 and #2 is this:  it will take some time to get it right, and that’s okay.  You don’t need it to connect with your body.  However, you will know it’s optimized when in round 2 or 3, you will get tingling in the tips of your fingers before you start retaining and you 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.”  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.

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “For Those Just Starting WHM

  1. Hi.
    Great post, very helpful!
    I’ve spent the last couple days extensively searching for info on the WHM, as there seems to be a lot of confusing and summarized articles, so thanks for posting this. I’m just wondering if you could answer a couple of questions before i finally consider doing it:
    -is the breathing meant to be a specific exercise or do you eventually build it to combine it with other exercises? Example: when runing or walking barefoot in the snow. What kind of breathing does Wim do? What about you?
    -from what i understand, it seems that most of these exercises deal with the release of stress hormones. I know meditation is a way of winding down but i haven’t found much emphasis on this. Is there a counterpart to all this stress? Do you feel you rest better?
    -last one: I’ve read about people who skip a day or two and they go back to zero. Has this happened to you? My fear is for the body to become adapted to this new way of working (as with a drug), and as soon as you stop, it gets worse than before. Your thoughts?
    Thanks once more, really appreciated.

    Like

    • Hey, good questions.

      The breathing is it’s own thing, a skill that you learn on its own and then apply to other things. You do 3+ rounds of it per day, and it’s generally a period for you to relax and connect with your body, much like meditation. Throughout the course, you learn to combine the breathing (or variants of it) with stressors such as exercise and cold exposure, in order to activate mechanisms consciously that you otherwise wouldn’t have control over. This might include raising your body temperature while cold, or releasing extra adrenaline to deal with pain. Although I haven’t mastered any of it, it seems that you learn these techniques through stress and breathing techniques, then once you have achieved a certain level of skill doing it, it becomes easier to activate at will without the stress itself or the heavy breathing.

      The breathing exercises that you do daily are like meditation and are supposed to be relaxing. However, there are variants of the breathing that look very similar to an observer, but might be regarded as “active meditation” (I saw one research paper on the topic use that term). During this time, rather than relaxing, you are releasing these hormones, including adrenaline to your system. More alertness, less pain, less inflammation, more heat generation, etc. I don’t yet understand all the mechanisms, but I know I’ve felt it.

      I definitely have not experienced the “skip-a-day-reset” phenomenon with respect to WHM. I *have* felt that before starting WHM when trying to keep up a stretching routine. I feel like all incremental improvements in flexibility are erased quickly if I’m not diligent about it. With WHM, I have actually been pleasantly surprised at not only the cold exposure remaining easy across multiple off-days, but my body seems to be more forgiving with stretching and exercise. Missing a few days of cold showers doesn’t seem to affect my next cold shower. Missing a few days of stretching doesn’t seem to reset it, other than making me work a little harder the next time to make up for it. I recently didn’t do the pushups for a week, and then did the most pushups I’ve ever done the next time.

      However, as mentioned in a previous post, I did take 9 months off, and that was close to a full a reset. It was quicker to get back into the cold exposure, but it was only about twice as fast. First time took me 20-25 days to get up a 10 minute cold shower. Then the next year it took me about 10 days to get back to the same part (unfortunately, those 10 days were a lot of suffering… I feel motivated not to take a long break anymore because I don’t want to have to go through that “retraining” again!)

      Like

  2. Pingback: How WHM Has Improved My Life | The SOAR Blog

    • My apologies, I must have forgotten to approve it and then forgot about it. However, I can see it in my email, and it won’t let me approve it anymore. I’ll paste it here and respond after:

      Wow, great post, informative and well-written. Covers a lot of ground. Hope you don’t mind if I bookmark this and come back and ask you questions occasionally. I have a couple now if you don’t mind. Some background – I am on week 3 and have been practicing for almost 4 weeks. (I extended week one and two slightly just to make sure I was getting it down thoroughly.)

      – Meditation – Week 3 is the start of meditation. While trying to see the light I feel a bit as if I am approaching an abyss. Like I might kind of leave my body, become completely unaware of my body and surroundings or “get lost” including possibly falling over (I am sitting cross legged). It is kind of scary. I have heard the sometimes amateurs meditating without guidance can encounter Dissociative Identity Disorder where they have a hard time ‘coming out of it’ and things continue to feel unreal afterwards and they feel disconnected from reality. I have never crossed that boundary fully but I feel like I get closer and closer to entering that ‘space’ entirely. Any thoughts/advice on this?

      – Phrasing – “Retention” – Does this refer to empty lungs breath holding or also full lung breath holding or am I off base entirely?

      – Breathing – Watching the week 3 video it seems like the people practicing in the background don’t spend much time in between exercises with empty lungs and breath held. If I want to hold my empty lungs till I feel a distinct need to breathe then my hold time will be over two minutes and possibly over three minutes. Am I just weird? I am tall and do have big lungs – twice now I have had a chest x-ray and they had to re-take it since the operator misjudged where my lungs ended and missed the bottom part of them on the film.

      – Push ups – Not a question just a comment, but the people in the video do some pretty half ass pushups lol. Pretty shallow. I am surprised Wim doesn’t enforce a more strict, chest touches ground push up. Kinda odd. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

      I have never reached the level of meditation that you mention, or anything like Disassociative Identity Disorder. I will mention that meditation is relatively new to me and I have mind that likes to race (always thinking about problems I need to solve). It has taken me a long time to get the depth that others may have found quickly. I have seen the “stroboscope” a couple times, but not as much as I should have.

      When I use “retention” I usually say “inhale retention” (full lungs) or “exhale retention” (mostly empty lungs). I haven’t timed myself in a long time, but I was usually getting about 1:30 on the first round and 2:00-2:20 on the last round. I hear most people report similar times, with the occasional person like you saying times out of my range. I haven’t really noticed a correlation. It seems to be consensus that if you can make it to 1:30, your breathing efficiently enough to shift your blood chemistry enough.

      You want to hold the exhale retention until your body makes it obvious you need to breathe. I learned at the course a couple weekends ago that you should hold until you feel your body panic with a shot of adrenaline. Once you feel the tingling in your body from it, then inhale (for me, this is about 3 seconds beyond starting to feel uncomfortable). The inhale with the adrenaline induces all sorts of wonderful feelings.

      Re: Pushups: Certainly it is beneficial to do pushups with good form, but generally, Wim is more concerned with setting a benchmark and having a basis of comparison. If you can do 10 crappy pushups regularly, then do 24 crappy pushups after the breathing, and 30 crappy ones next week, then you can see your improvement. It doesn’t really matter much if you would only get 5, 12 & 15 doing them “correctly.” On that note, I recently put conscious effort into doing them better after watching this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4dF1DOWzf20 . It cut my pushup count in half and I had to reset my baseline. Oh well.

      Like

  3. Thanks for the reply! Sorry if I was whiney. Since I have written that original comment I have some observations –

    – I realized the meditation abyss is likely just a form of vertigo that I am mentally ‘playing with’ in my head.
    – I am kind of squatting on week 5. About to do the ten minute shower again, figure I owe it to the program if I am not moving forward.
    – I have some issues with a bulged disc in my lower back so all the forward bending is rounding my lower back and irritating it. Hoping to calm it down and I will move forward to week 6.
    – I have seen some ‘lights’ not sure if they are ‘the’ lights but I see an amorphous blob that covers my vision. At first I can’t see the edges but as time moves forward it grows smaller until it reaches nothingness. Visually it almost looks as if I am moving away from it. Once it disappears then another one slowly appears. They are typically a blue-ish/purple-ish color. I have seen these blobs years before attempting Wim Hof. I only see them once or twice a week. Other times I will see a white jagged line or other shape but they quickly disappear. I suspect that if you gave someone a protocol for ‘seeing lights’ with their eyes closed and they practiced enough they eventually would. Whether this is pineal gland electrical activity or not I am not sure of.
    – I am scared of the ice bath… My shower water is only 59 degrees. When I read your post about your shower water being approximately 10 degrees colder than mine and the ice bath taking you off guard with it’s intensity that was kind of a wake up call for me. I thought I was a bad ass for the showering I was doing and was maintaining the illusion that the ice bath would be cold but no big deal. Now you have me believing other wise.
    – I usually get the tingling and sense of pressure in my face and not my fingers. I think I might have had finger or arm tingling during the first week or not since. I will try your focus on sensation not breath count.
    – I find that speeding up my breath interval gets more sensation typically but there are definitely times when I get it right and times when I don’t.
    – Week five confuses me since Wim changes the focus from exhalation retention to inhalation retention and I am not sure the purpose.

    On another note, I just ready your post on your chest freezer. It sounds like an awesome idea but do you have a plan for keeping the water clean? Body oils are going to eventually accumulate in there and even at temps in the 30’s funky stuff is going to start to grow. Think of what happens in your fridge…

    Thanks for your posts on this subject and allowing me to ask questions. I don’t have anyone to really talk about this stuff with or learn from so this opportunity is nice.

    Thanks again!
    Wim Onward!
    Ward

    Like

    • I wouldn’t worry too much about doing each exercise exactly. I have the exact same back problems (a bulge and a herniated disk) so I sympathize. Forward bending with both legs in front of me is the worst thing I can do. However, I can do single-leg stretches without hurting myself, so I just do a lot of that. I have just recently been able to get both hands on my foot.

      Exhale retention activates your parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest, generally more relaxed), inhale retention is the opposite, activates your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). In general, you should explore both, and expect to use inhale retentions when attempting to endure some kind of stress or pain. For instance, brown fat activation (learned in week… 9?) is done via inhale retentions. You need a burst of adrenaline and increased bloodflow to optimize the efficiency of your brown fat.

      I do plan to change the water in my chest freezer about once a month, or sooner if other people use it. So far I’ve been using it about 5 days a week. I actually started doing breathing, stretching, freezer, warm shower as my daily sequence. I kind of miss the cold showers, and think I might need to alternate… there’s more ways to play with my mental facilities and stress response in a 10 min cold shower, than there is sitting in 35F water motionless for 4 minutes.

      Like

      • O nice! Some good tips here…

        “I wouldn’t worry too much about doing each exercise exactly.’
        Gotcha, makes sense. I have been working at getting my lower back to calm down by not doing anything to irritate it and doing tons of core work. It’s starting to pay off. I think single leg stretching is the least irritating and becoming possible for me as well. Stretching the piriformis appears to be complementary to getting range in the more straight-forward forward bend so I have been working on that as well.

        “Exhale retention activates your…”
        Good tips here! I will start working on breath holding in the shower. I feel like early on in the shower regimen I was tensing my muscles and holding my breath in intervals and found it reduced the sensation of cold. Since then I don’t really it need it anymore. I typically find that the water is colder for about a second and then the sensation disappears to a large degree.

        “I do plan to change the water in my…”
        Sounds like a reasonable plan with the water, and I imagine you are right. I’m sure there are benefits to alternation with hot and cold which the shower makes easy. I try to get the hot phase painfully hot. Looks like you will have plenty of gray water available for your lawn/garden.

        w

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s