On January 26, 2007, a Dutch athlete finished a half marathon in two hours. The fact would be banal if it weren’t for the fact that he did it in Oulu, Finland, on an ice rink and completely barefoot. That same year he came close to reaching the summit of Everest, wearing only sneakers and sports shorts. He retired at 7,200 meters due to a foot injury. In 2000, this same athlete had broken the ice swimming record, traveling 57.5 meters. A day earlier, during rehearsals, he almost suffered a serious mishap when the cold froze his corneas and he went blind under the blocks of ice.
This extreme athlete, born in Holland in 1959, is called Wim Hoff and with his experiences at the limit he has created a training method – or personal challenge – that thousands of sports fans have introduced into their routines. In addition, a good handful of celebrities practice it regularly and have become the best brand image of the system. The Herculean Liam Hemsworth – who plays ‘Thor’ in the movies –, Orlando Bloom, David Beckham, Lady Gaga and Elle MacPherson are part of the list of public figures who have signed up for this practice to the limit.
According to Jorge López García, from the IRIE training center in Las Arenas (Bizkaia) and organizer of courses to delve into the practices of the method created by the Dutch adventurer, among the benefits of this system are “improvement of the immune system, an increase of sports performance and important advantages for sleep quality. “It also reduces stress, achieves better tissue regeneration and activates brown fat, which accelerates metabolism and helps you lose weight.”
It’s not magic
Despite this entire list of advantages provided by the Wim Hoff method, Jorge López insists that this practice “is not magic.” “In a way, it is going back to our grandmother’s life, that she was used to being cold as a normal part of her daily life and that she walked everywhere, whether it was snowing or sunny.” In addition, this method also serves to acquire healthy habits that have been practiced for years. “Something as healthy as bathing in the sea every day is an easy habit to acquire after having taken the Wim Hoff course,” he explains.
What is the method? In the courses organized by IRIE, they begin with training in the breathing devised by the Dutch athlete. His techniques include, among other practices, what is known as Tibetan ‘Tumo’, a form of inhalation and exhalation that raises body temperature and has been practiced for centuries by monks living in the Himalayan mountains. This practice also includes meditations and some oriental movements similar to tai chi.
Subsequently, the practitioner enters a pool full of ice blocks. “Previously, the music, the fact that there are other people who are going to go through the same situation, that sense of tribe… that whole atmosphere makes it easier to get into the ice water,” explains Jorge. Some of the precautions taken in the courses, for example, is that the head and hands remain off the ice, to avoid the discomfort that novices may feel when daring to go on the ice. In any case, it is a practice that must always be carried out with the supervision of an expert who takes into account the personal circumstances of the person who is going to undergo an ice bath.
According to the instructor, the goal of the Wim Hoff method is “for you to do things that you thought were impossible. “That, in a simple way, you submit to a challenge that may scare you.” Therefore, in addition to the physiological benefits that cold generates such as tissue regeneration, its anti-inflammatory capacity or the improvement of metabolism, Jorge also defends “the deeper changes, which can lead, for example, to adopting healthier lifestyle habits.” but also to increase self-esteem and, in some cases, to know how to control oneself in situations in which we feel anxious.
Behind the Wim Hoff phenomenon lies a concept known for years in medicine and called hormesis. This principle maintains that there are medications that in large doses would be lethal but that in small quantities have a curative effect. In the same sense, it is now considered that a certain level of stress is positive for keeping the body activated, without forgetting that, in large doses, it can be harmful. The Wim Hoff method seeks to subject the body to a natural stressor such as freezing temperatures. But not everything has to be so extreme. For those who want to get to know this system little by little and without great risks… you can always start with cold showers.