TL/DR: Wim Hof breathing techniques and cold training are definitely worth checking out for recovery and building grit.
I don’t like the cold. Let me say it again, loud and clear: I DO NOT LIKE THE COLD. I often joke that I’m Thai, and I grew up in Houston, Texas; therefore I’m built for hot, sweaty, humid weather. So, when I started hearing about this crazy Dutch guy named Wim Hof years ago, I thought, “Yeah, that’s cool, but I’ll never, ever do that.” Fast forward a few years, and there I was, voluntarily signing up for an in-person workshop.
Who: Wim Hof is probably best known for his extreme-cold adventures, like swimming underneath the ice, running half-marathons barefoot in the snow, and hanging out in tubs full of ice on the regular. They call him “The Iceman” for good reason.
What: The Wim Hof Method includes the pillars of cold therapy, breathing, and commitment. I attended an in-person workshop the second weekend in January with nearly 40 other people at a Bikram Yoga studio in East Austin. It was led by Elizabeth Lee, a Level 3 Instructor, who was playful, professional, and best of all, practical.
Why: While the WHM is still met with some skepticism, it claims to relieve symptoms of several diseases due to its effects on one’s physiology. However, within athletic circles, the touted benefits are improved recovery, increased sports performance, more energy, and a boosted immune system, among others.
Before attending this workshop, I watched the Vice documentary about Wim Hof so I’d have some idea of what to expect. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know that some footage seems a little over-the-top. Nevertheless, I decided to have an open mind about it and to give it a solid effort. After all, why pay money for an in-person workshop if I’m just going to act like a grumpy skeptic the entire time?
The first portion of the workshop was on breathing. We jumped right into the practical application of it, and while I know a bit about breathwork and practice frequently, I’d never gone as far as this. We laid on the floor, and we deepened and sped up our breath for 10-15 minutes, and before I knew it, my hands started to curl up (T-Rex style), my face was going numb, and I felt my entire body start to buzz. It was nuts. In my head, all I could think was WTF, since I genuinely couldn’t believe that focused breathwork could make you feel so… well, high. Wim, being the character that he is, says that’s energy moving through your body and “getting the s*** out.” The lack of scientific explanation (hyperoxygenation) is probably one reason his methods are met with skepticism from many, but I’m touchy-feely enough to be okay with the layman’s version!
Then, segueing off of that breathing exercise, we started playing with “power breaths” and holds. Holds are when you take a big breath in, let it out, and hold there for as long as you can before having to take the next breath. We did a baseline measurement, and I got to 20 seconds before wanting to take another breath. To be fair, I was trying to do what felt natural without turning myself blue. We followed that with the breathing exercises and took three more measured holds, and I ended at 1:42, 1:51, 1:46. Again, all I could think was WTF.
Then came the part that had made me the most anxious in the week leading up to the workshop: the ice bath. We preceded it with 20 minutes in horse stance to get ourselves revved up and warmed up for the 32-degree ice-water (yes, they measured the temp exactly). I won’t drag this part out, but it was… really freaking cold (duh). If you want a good laugh, just watch the video of me freaking out and struggling to breathe for the first minute, and then eventually surrendering to it. I never got my arms into the pool because the bottom was slippery, and I was just trying to keep myself upright. In any case, once I’d settled in, it wasn’t so bad. I was totally invigorated and proud coming out of the tub, having toughed it out for a full two minutes. I even danced through the water a few more times to celebrate with my classmates!
The Takeaways: The big question coming out of this workshop is what I would do with what I learned. I am definitely going to learn more about the breathing exercises and their supposed benefits, so stay tuned for that. I’m still not fully certain how or why I should be creating a daily practice for this. As for the ice bath, I am 100% going to incorporate that into my recovery routine. There’s a reason athletes do ice plunges regularly! For me personally, the mental toughness is just as important as the physical recovery. The cold training will never be fun or easy for me, but I can almost guarantee it’ll be worth it. As a CrossFitter, I also know that doing hard things is almost always easier with friends, so be on the lookout for community cold-plunge days at CrossFit Austin!
Further Reading: The Way of the Iceman by Wim Hof and Koen De Jong and What Doesn’t Kill Us by Scott Carney are both on the bookshelf in the office at CrossFit Austin!