Can “Deep Breathing” Turn You Into a Super Athlete?

Wim Hof climbed Everest in shorts. He thinks you can, too.

By The Editors
March 7, 2016 9:00 am

When we interviewed champion big wave surfer Laird Hamilton last fall, we asked him to predict the next trend in men’s health.

His reply: “Breathing.”

And we were like, “Breathing?

And he was like, “Yeah, breathing.” Deep breathing, as taught by Wim Hof, aka The Iceman.

Wim Hof is a Dutch athlete who has designed a breathing exercise — The Wim Hof Method — that allows him to do some remarkable things. Like climb Everest in just his bathing suit. Or sit submerged in an ice bath for more than two hours while maintaining his body temp at a normal level. Or run a desert marathon without taking a sip of water.

He even claims he can exercise control over his immune system to defeat illness.

Sounds like a carnival show, for sure. But it’s all documented. Major Dutch news organizations have hailed his practices. Efficiency savant (and InsideHook partner) Tim Ferriss is a fan. Vice did an episode on him, sending reporters to climb Mount Sniezka in Poland in the dead of winter in nothing but shorts.

They did it. It worked.

So L.A. correspondent Reuben Brody decided to give it a whirl, and six weeks into the 10-week course, his results are impressive.

The Methods to the Madness

Without going into too much detail (head over to Wim’s site if you want a proper introduction to his techniques), here’s the skinny: every morning, I sit for a series of breathing exercises for about 20 minutes. Then I do a series of yoga stretches for about 10 minutes, followed by about 10-20 minutes of meditation. Then I hop into an ice cold shower for five minutes.

That last part used to be quite hard to do, but now it’s refreshing. I only take hot showers at night to relax.

The intensity of the course grows in the last four weeks, with the addition of long runs in the cold wearing only shorts (hard for me, living in L.A.) and 10-20 minutes in ice baths or cold showers (also difficult, given the drought). I go to Burke Williams to use their ice bath because I want to see how far I can take this. As Wim says, “the cold is the greatest teacher.”

The Results

The results go beyond a love for cold showers. Before beginning Hof’s practices, I could hold my breath for just 35 seconds. Six weeks later, I can hold it for about two minutes and 35 seconds. One especially helpful exercise involves doing push-ups while holding your breath — it’s designed to train your mind and body for deep dives. At first I could only do 15; now I can do about 40.

More anecdotally, I recently swam in the Pacific (in February) for more than 10 minutes sans wetsuit. I also practice Transcendental Meditation, and have found I can reach far greater levels of relaxation using the Wim Hof Method.

The Takeaway

So, should you do it? If you’re a big wave surfer like Hamilton and there’s a chance you could get pushed down deep and will need to hold your breath for more than two minutes, then absolutely.

Will I continue to do the training after the 10 weeks? Sort of. It’s incredibly time consuming, but the benefits (improved focus, deeper relaxation, greater endurance and an enhanced cardiovascular system) make the 30-40 minutes every day worthwhile.

Ed. note: There are people online who have divulged some of Hof’s techniques and passed them off as free ways to learn the Wim Hof Method. Please be advised, there’s more to it than what these sites say, and if you’re looking to hold your breath for long periods or do some of the more dangerous feats Hof has (Everest in undies, staying underwater in Arctic waters for long periods of time), you could risk serious injury and possibly death. We don’t recommend taking shortcuts.

–Reuben Brody, LA Editor

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