I took a Wim Hof method Fundamentals course back in early December. I was (and remain) skeptical of the wild claims people make about reversing their depression, getting rid of autoimmune diseases, and being able to run around in shorts in freezing temperatures. But I have always had problems in the cold, so I was willing to try something to improve the situation.
My Terrible Cold Tolerance
I was liable to make horrible shrieking noises during cold water crossings. My cold hands make it hard to put up my tent at camp. During the winter before the pandemic, I’d started developing numbness in my toes in the cold. I would bike about an hour to the gym when it was in the 30s and a couple of my toes would still be white and numb by the time I finished climbing an hour later. This seemed like the beginning of Raynaud’s, which could really hinder any future Denali attempts. When I read Scott Carney’s book, What Doesn’t Kill Us, I was intrigued that there might be a way to improve this.
Wim Hof Class
I’d done a couple of cold showers, and those hadn’t gone well, with cold toes and feeling like I was going to die. In the Fundamentals class, I learned that the key was gradualness. The instructor told us to start with 20 second cold showers, and work our way up before the class. I think I had gotten to a minute before the class, and felt pretty proud of myself. Ha!
We did two minutes in Lake Sammamish (about 45 degrees) and I hyperventilated for probably the first minute and a half. It was really hard to catch my breath, but eventually I was able to slow it down. I learned that dropping all the way to my neck quickly actually helps me adjust faster than going in slowly. I certainly didn’t notice any immediate improvements in my cold tolerance, but was willing to keep trying.
Getting in the Water
I live in the Seattle area, where there is an abundance of cold water, so I started “plunging,” I.e., standing in the Puget Sound for a couple of minutes. I mostly just felt cold. It seemed like other people were getting something out of this that I wasn’t. I once plunged with a large group. Some of the people stayed in for 20 minutes! I got out after 5. It was a personal record for me, but I was the first one out. Afterward, people seemed really calm and happy and blissed out, even when they were shivering. I felt…cold.
But, I continued to read about the benefits of open water swimming, and given that there was a lot of water nearby and this activity didn’t seem very time consuming, I decided to just start open water swimming. I went with a group in Seattle that meets regularly, full of strong swimmers who can stay in way longer than me and swim further and faster. But they are nice! At some point, I decided to do a triathlon. Swimming had always been my weakest discipline, and here I was, swimming (albeit slowly, in breaststroke).
Some Thoughts on the Wim Hof Method
I’m definitely going to keep doing the breathing exercises. I actually just did a few rounds of breathing right before I wrote this, and I’d compare it to caffeine without the negative side effects (which for me are substantial). Just now, the breathing exercises got rid of the migraine that was starting, and I feel a lot more awake. Maybe it’s just laying down. Maybe it’s like meditating but it’s easier for me to focus. Whatever it is, it works, even though I generally only hold my breath for 40-50 seconds.
I did notice some small improvements in my cold tolerance by the end of winter. I could walk around without gloves more often, and even rode my bike 10 miles in 48 degrees and rainy without gloves and my hands were fine. My toes stopped going white sometime in February, even after being in pretty cold water. I can also get into cold water without hyperventilating, which is a nice skill to have. The improvements haven’t been nearly as drastic as a lot of the claims I’ve read, but they are improvements. I also kind of like cold showers now, or at least how I feel after one. So I may keep doing some of this, but likely won’t be going out of my way to get into cold water. It is actually far more time consuming than I initially realized, especially with having to clean and dry my gear afterwards.
Also, I still hate swimming. So I’m probably just going to plunge!