Being a bike guide based in Prague, it is very hard for me to train in winter. I really struggle cycling in the cold. After just an hour, my hands and feet would go numb and I would often get sick. So, instead of cycling, I do a lot of running and cross country skiing but those are different sports and although they give you a good cardio preparation, it is not enough to arrive well prepared for the start of the season – and I really need that. I guide people not only in Central Europe but also in the Alps. Our first advanced bike holidays start in May and they are tough rides including, for instance, the Grossglockner and Stelvio passes. Very often our clients come from warm places like California or Australia. There, they can train all winter long and they come very prepared for the starting line. As a result, the first departures for me are always very challenging. If only there was a way…
I first heard about the Wim Hof method from Tim Ferris’ book “The Tools of Titans” and I was immediately very keen on knowing more. I have a notion that we are totally losing touch with our bodies and I am on a path to reconciliation with mine but what really intrigued me about it was the idea that maybe I could improve my resilience toward winter cycling.
Then my 40th birthday came and with it a Wim Hof workshop here in Prague as a gift from my wife. I was really excited but soon I also got pretty nervous and, therefore, started to read as much as I could on the topic. The two books I found the most helpful were The way of the Iceman by Wim Hof and What doesn’t kill us by Scott Carney. Thanks to those books I could start the with the method ahead, albeit superficially, and I could prepare at least a bit for the workshop.
The day came and it was great. Being in a group of 20 people was really motivating. With two official instructors, Emma Estrela Corrie from the Lake District in the UK and Tereza Kramerova, the local ice guru based in Prague, we went through all three pillars of the method: cold therapy, breathing, and commitment. We mixed theory with practice. Not only breathing but also hand and feet immersion and, finally, full body immersion in icy water. I cannot recommend enough to start with official training. Not only does it give you the bases to practice the method properly but it is, most of all, truly inspiring. Meeting people that are already into it for years like Emma and Tereza and hearing their stories first-hand was crucial for me to later commit day after day for months.
One of the things that really stuck in mind was when Emma told us about her experience with breathing and running:
“I discovered the power and true mastery of the WHM when I discovered I could tap into cellular breathing at my own will. I was so confident that I used the WHM to run my first marathon and weeks later my first ultra-marathon without any conventional training. Now I love sharing my experience and seeing other people explode into their own full potential. My only advice is to trust the process and break through your conditioned mind”.
At first, I couldn’t grasp the concept but she showed us immediately how it works putting it into practice. We did push-ups without air in our lungs after a power breathing section. I was stunned when I found out that I was able to do twice as many push-ups compared to normal conditions (with oxygen in my lungs) and I didn’t feel any fatigue. That was the moment I understood that I was onto something great.
Fast forward to today, I have been doing the WM method for about 4 months and the results are incredible. You can actually see results after only a week which really motivates you to keep going but, of course, the biggest benefits come after months or years of practice, so I am really looking forward to going on and, as Wim Hof says, to witness.
So in a nutshell, what is it that I am doing every day to implement the method?
- Outdoor meditation
- Hand and feet exposure to ice water
- Bare-chested running or hiking
- Full body immersions in ice water
- Wearing one less layer of clothes for some time during the day
Please keep in mind that I really decided to dedicate myself to it as much as possible, but you don’t have to do all the things I do in order to practice the method and see the results. Only breathing and a cold shower would do you great and it is not as time-consuming as my routine. Also, this is all about winter months when the average temperature here in Prague ranges between +5 to -5°C.
I try to wake up way earlier than my family so I can have silence. I start with breathing. This process allows me to change my body chemistry and energize me in preparation for the cold water. I use a YouTube video with Wim Hof’s voice that helps me a lot. 30/40 deep breaths followed by breath retention for as long as I can hold it (I improved a lot by going from 1 minute 30 seconds to 2 minutes 45 seconds). When I cannot hold my breath anymore, I breathe in and hold for 15 seconds. That’s one round. I do it 3 or 4 times.
After that I go to the balcony, to the garden or somewhere nice outside just in shorts and I sit still for at least 10 minutes trying to relax and not to tremble. This is a key thing also while in water. The metabolism should be your central heating in these situations, not your shaking muscles. This is the way your body adapts to cold and later is able to react quickly to any given cold exposure. After that it starts to get more stressful as I head for the cold shower! In winter, the water at my flat comes out at about 6-7 degrees Celsius so it’s a real wake-up call. I still haven’t got used to that (and I don’t know if I ever will) but I enjoy the feeling after very much. The first time I couldn’t stay in more than 15 seconds but already after a couple of weeks, I could handle even 5 minutes and the gasping that I’d had at the beginning subsided. It is great mental training, to push yourself to do something painful that it is actually very good for yourself.
Then, almost every day, I would go for a bare-chested run. The Spartans dressed the same way every day of the year, no matter what the weather and temperature were, to get strong. I apply the same philosophy – I go out running with whatever the Czech winter would throw at me. The reason for doing this is that it’s a great way to get exposed to cold without suffering too much. In fact, while you keep your body warm thanks to the movement, your skin is in contact with cold air and send messages to your body. The key factor to not getting sick here is to do circular breathing nose/nose or at least nose/mouth and never breathe in with your mouth. But not getting sick is not the only benefit that comes from nasal breathing. In fact, you get in more oxygen and being in the aerobic threshold you develop much less lactic acid and, as a result, you can run longer (remember Emma’s story about cellular breathing!). What I find amazing is that if I start running the first minutes with the t-shirt on, I am very cold. But when I remove it, the body adapts immediately and I feel really comfortable. I started with 15-minute runs and I am now able to run more than an hour and a half in sub-zero temperatures with barefoot shoes.
I still remember the first time, though. I went by car to a beautiful national park we have here in Prague, not too far from my apartment. I was so nervous that I kept running in small loops, never being more than one km away from the car so as not to leave the nest. Remember that it is very important to have with you something that you can wear in case you feel really cold. I never go out without having a merino wool base layer in my small running backpack.
When there is snow outside, I go for daily barefoot walks in my garden for about 10-15 minutes. If snow is not available, every second day I do hand and feet immersions in an ice bucket (very important for cyclists!). I try to stay submerged for at least 2 minutes. The 2-minute rule is also important for the ice bath. On average, it is the right time for your body to react to the cold and get stronger (2 minutes in water below 5°C equals to 40 minutes of running in terms of energy consumed by your body!).
Once a week I take an ice bath. If I can, I do it in nature and fully enjoy the elements. If I don’t have the possibility, I do it at home in my bathtub. When there is snow outside, I really like to use it instead of ice cubes. It gives my bath a very arctic look. Thanks to that, I was able to reach the amazing temperature of 0°C. Then I just jump in and try to stay calm and breathe. After the initial painful phase, which is getting shorter with each bath, I really start to love it. Endorphins kick in and do a pretty good job. I leave the head until last because it is really brutal and I am still not completely comfortable with it. The trigeminal nerve, located in our face, is the only nerve that goes directly to the brain so the shock is greater when you expose it to severe cold. For now, I do a short dip just before getting out of the water.
Once you jump out of the ice water, wherever you are, it is important to move and get warm naturally. If you run immediately next to the radiator or in your warm car, the body will think that it was just a random cold exposure and will not adapt. So, what you have to do is to just get dry and start getting warm while still undressed. I like to do that by doing horse stands as recommended by the instructors.
The two questions that people ask me the most are if I got sick during the last three months and if the method is bad for rheumatism. No, I didn’t get sick but the guidelines say that the right thing to do is to take a break from the method and let your body heal. Regarding rheumatism, actually, the method helps to relieve it. More info on the topic is on Wim Hof’s website.
So, thanks to this I became friends with the cold. I enjoy training in winter much more now. Maybe my body is just a little bit stronger than when I started but for sure my mind has made a giant leap toward acceptance of cold. I know that what I see is only the tip of the iceberg and I am looking forward to experiencing what prolonged use of the technique will bring.
And the good news is that if I can do it, you can do it too! I never liked cold and I am not a big fan of water and here I am.
Embrace the cold, have fun, get stronger!
This video has the only purpose to inspire people. It is based on my physical conditions and perceptions. I strongly recommend to sign up for an official WHM workshop or do an online one. Also, have a talk with your Doc before jumping in ice water.