Like any self-experimenter worth their salt, I couldn’t wait to give the Wim Hof method a try. Not a whole course. Just the basics I could learn from reading about it on the internet.
I originally heard about it from a friend I went to visit who told me (in his cute Australian way) that he’d been spending time doing “a breathing technique that’s from a guy called Wim Hof and I have found it to be really really responsive for improving myself.”
My First Time Wim Hof Breathing
A few days into our visit, I found myself sitting a hundred yards from the ocean on a warm, breezy Australian afternoon while kind of hyperventilating with my friend and a few of his neighbors. He told us to breathe in deeply and exhale quickly 30- 40 times. On the final exhale, we were to breathe comfortably out and then try not to inhale for as long as possible. Once we could no longer resist inhaling, we were to inhale deeply and hold the fresh air in our lungs for 10 – 15 seconds. When we released the air from our lungs, we were supposed to breathe out until we couldn’t breathe out anymore, squeezing every last morsel of air from our bodies.
Repeat 3-4 times:
- 30-40 deep breaths with short exhales
- normal exhale on the last*
- hold until you can’t anymore
- breathe deeply in and hold 10-15 seconds
- fully exhale, squeeze every last drop of air from the body
It took a good ten minutes. I felt dizzy at the end of each of my 30-40 breaths in. I discovered, to my great surprise, that holding was effortless. I didn’t feel like I needed to breathe at all. I didn’t have to resist inhaling. I felt really calm and peaceful. While holding, I also felt like someone had rubbed menthol inside my skin – this amazing, cool, tingling feeling.
*I learned from this amazing book on breathing that a huge part of the benefits of Wim Hof breathing come from the hypoventilation (underbreathing for this short stretch). So holding with the lungs on the empty side is very important! Otherwise it may be harder to enter a deep state of hypoventilation.
Wim Hof Training & Day Three Results
After our second breathing session, my friend sat us down to watch the 40 minute VICE documentary on Wim Hof. I immediately understood my friend’s enthusiasm for freezing morning swims in the ocean just out his front door. I’d been joining him, giggling gleefully at the ridiculousness and also the empowering feeling one gets from such an intense physical experience.
Turns out the Wim Hof method wasn’t just a breathing technique. There’s a reason Wim Hof is known as ‘The Iceman.’ Cold exposure training is a big piece of how he’s nabbed 26 world records, many for being mostly-naked in the snow climbing mountains or being submerged in ice baths for longer than most toddlers nap. (Although his feats extend to running a marathon in the desert without water, too. NBD.)
On day three of Wim Hof breathing, my friend grabbed a stopwatch to time my last hold. Once I’d finished, he made me guess. How long could I hold my breath after three days of Wim Hof breathing? I don’t know. It felt like… maybe… 45 seconds? 50? Nope. A minute and thirty seconds. In just three days, I could comfortably go for three times longer than the average person can hold their breath. It sure made me wish I had taken a baseline!
Then Wim Hof Breathing Stopped Working
I’m prone to obsessing over data, so I began timing all my Wim Hof breathing sessions as soon as my friend put the idea in my head. By day seven, I hit two minutes! But then my times started dropping. On day 12, I didn’t get past 1:52. On day 14, I couldn’t get above 1:06. On day 16, I didn’t pass 1:25. Why is my Wim Hof breathing not working all of a sudden?
I started playing with how I was executing my 30-40 breaths. Previously, when I’d hit two minutes, I was doing something I’d heard a yoga instructor refer to as a three part breath. I imagined first filling my chest, then lower lungs, then my belly with air. Maybe I had started breathing too deeply in? Maybe the three part breath was taking too long and using up the oxygen that was supposed to be saturating my tissues? Maybe my exhales were too slow? Maybe I was exhaling too much? Or not enough?
I tried to mimic what my friend had done when he first taught me, sort of a gaping fish-mouth breath in that moved his whole body (he was seated demonstrating, I’ve done most my Wim Hof breathing lying down). That didn’t make a difference. Then I watched Wim Hof demonstrate the breathing himself in this video. Nothing got me back to two minutes.
Then I tried Wim Hof breathing on a flight. Whoa. The worst hold times so far! 0:41, 0:36, 0:55. Yuck! I tried speeding up my breath cycles, which still didn’t allow me to break 1:30. Then I went on a camping trip and tried sitting up. 0:46, 0:54, 0:56. Nope. I tried laying down. 0:35, 0:45, 0:40, 0:40. Holy, holy nope.
Hey. Wait a Minute.
And then I realized something. I’d started Wim Hof breathing at sea level. Sure, maybe changes in my breathing technique or adjustments to my environment caused my initial backslide. E.g. I’d tried breathing on a bed instead of the floor and with music that ended up amping me up instead of calming me down. But on the flight, I was breathing at 30,000′ 19,000m in a pressurized cabin with who knows what for oxygen levels. On day 19, I flew to 2730′ 2832m and couldn’t get longer than 1:23. On day 22 I traveled to 4800′ 31500m for a few days and couldn’t break a minute to save my own life. In fact, I desperately wanted to breathe in just a few seconds after I started each hold.
After ten days at 2730′ 4832m, I was finally breaking a minute again with the Wim Hof breathing method. And then I flew to 5,100 feet 51500m. (Um, I travel a lot. Oh, how do I afford it? I thought you’d never ask. For starters, I get free flights, and you can, too. The rest is in the FAQs.) Once I’d doubled my elevation, my hold times plummeted again. 0:33, 0:35, 0:50, 0:53 and 0:45, 0:53, 0:50, 0:30. I still hadn’t had the elevation revelation, so I tried everything I could think of. A thin pillow to relieve any pressure on my throat. Breathing with my legs resting against the wall. Breathing sitting up with my back against the wall. Nope.
Then on my 8th day at 5,100 feet, I finally broke 1:15. Then 1:30 the next day. Then 1:45 two days after that. I was on fire!
Like That Time When…
I thought back to my days on the university rowing team. My school’s elevation was a mere 430′ 6131m. During Christmas break I was sent with a list of workouts to my hometown, more than ten times higher – 4500′ 71400m. For a month, I trained. When I returned to school, I was shocked to discover I’d gone from the middle of the girl’s pack during our team runs to the front of the boys pack.
Then I learned about a little thing called hemoglobin. It’s a red protein responsible for transporting oxygen in the blood. To keep up at elevation, one’s blood produces more hemoglobin. Building it up takes a week or two. When the added elevation challenge drops away (e.g. returning to school), it takes a few weeks for those hemoglobin levels to drop. It’s the reason people don’t climb Everest in a single day, but rather spend time acclimatizing at a succession of base camps. It’s the reason that I didn’t stay at the front of the team pack for longer than five or six practices.
It’s seems that my changes in elevation have to do with a majority of my struggles with Wim Hof breathing. But not all.
Wim Hof Breathing Not Working? Try This.
I do think the different ways I was a breathing had a big impact on my hold times. Before my elevation challenges, I tried:
- natural deep mouth-breath in; slightly faster natural mouth-breath out
- breathing in extra deep through O-shaped mouth; relaxed, fast mouth-breath out
- deepest-possible nose breath in, relaxed, fast mouth-breath out
- mouth breath in, focusing on “three parts breath;” letting about half of the air in my lungs out
- mouth breath in, focusing on “three parts breath;” letting most of the air in my lungs out
- breathing in as deep but as fast as possible through an O-shaped mouth, fastest breath release possible
The latter is what’s worked best for me to achieve maximum hold times. Breathing in fast seems slightly more important than breathing in deep, but you need both. I breathe out until I don’t feel any pressure in my lungs.
In a no-longer-available PDF on the Wim Hof Method, the breathing technique is described as basically “inhaling deeply and exhaling without any use of force.” Wim is quoted saying:
“By not breathing out entirely, you come to a point where a residual of air remains in the lungs. After doing this thirty times, you exhale again without any use of force. This time though, you don’t immediately inhale again, but wait with inhaling until you sense your body needs new oxygen. After this, the whole process starts again.”
Now, it’s interesting to note the Wim Hof is well known for training people in just a few weeks to be able to climb a mountain in Poland in just their skivvies and a pair of sneakers. Presumably the climb involves a serious altitude gain. So maybe if you do the in-person Wim Hof course, you learn how to supersede the challenges of altitude as well. Maybe you’re actually learning to influence your own hemoglobin levels?
Wim Hof Breathing Explained
Update 2021: Thanks to the commenter who pointed out I hadn’t updated this article with what every dedicated Wim Hof Breathing participant eventually discovers. The point of Wim Hof Breathing is not to maximize hold times!
Sure, at first the miracle of comfortably holding one’s breath for minutes is captivating. The new bodily feelings and awareness this magic brings are exciting. When hold times start decreasing, it’s easy to worry the magic will disappear with that change.
Not so, my friend!
The magic has many components, which physiology labs have labored to quantify, label, and explain. I’ll leave that research to you.
From my perspective and experience, Wim Hof Breathing is another technique to pay attention to more ways your body works, to notice how choices you make affect what’s happening in your body, to increase your conscious ability to affect the connection between your brain and your body – especially allegedly subconscious systems.
With that in mind, I hope your pursuit to understand changes in your hold times is underlain by a curiosity to understand more about yourself and how your body works. If you’re focused only on maximizing hold times, that focus might blind you to learning and noticing the many ingredients that contribute to the Wim Hof magic.
Here’s what Wim has to say about changes in hold times.
Why I’m Still Wim Hof Breathing
To paraphrase another part of that (no-longer-available) PDF, breathing is one of the easiest tools we can use to influence processes in our bodies that affect our health. 8The full quote: “the amount of oxygen that we inhale through our breathing influences the amount of energy that is released into our body cells. On a molecular level, this progresses via various chemical and physiological processes. Breathing is the easiest and most instrumental part of the autonomic nervous system to control and navigate. In fact, the way you breathe strongly affects the chemical and physiological activities in your body.“ Wim Hof has been invited into medical laboratories and shown that endotoxins don’t affect him as intensely as others. More importantly, students who completed Wim Hof training underwent the same procedure with the same results. The Wim Hof breathing also just feels cool. I am continually amazed at how peaceful it feels not to breathe during holds. Plus, Wim Hof breathing is making it way easier to meet my meditation goals. For awhile I was just counting the breathing session as my mediation for the day, but at the end of a breathing session I’m motivated to tack on an actual meditation session. #killingit
After doing lots of research about the rest of the Wim Hof method, I was sold on cold exposure training, too. That’s right. I’m taking cold showers and loving it… just like everyone else singing the praises of the Wim Hof course.
I’ve got a hectic travel schedule for the next several months, so I’m sticking to intro-level Wim Hof until July 2018 when I land in one place for at least ten weeks – the length of the Wim Hof course. Can’t wait!
Be sure to check out the comments to read other’s perspectives on how Wim Hof breathing and the Wim Hof method is (or isn’t!) working for them. Lots of you are reading this – feel free to talk to each other. What are your Wim Hof struggles and solutions? Please share!
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|↑8||The full quote: “the amount of oxygen that we inhale through our breathing influences the amount of energy that is released into our body cells. On a molecular level, this progresses via various chemical and physiological processes. Breathing is the easiest and most instrumental part of the autonomic nervous system to control and navigate. In fact, the way you breathe strongly affects the chemical and physiological activities in your body.“|