Wim Hof is not just the toughest man you’ve probably never heard of; he might just be toughest man ever, period. His numerous feats of human endurance have secured more than two dozen world records while bagging him the nickname that is very nearly the literal definition of cool: The Iceman. He is living—but seemingly never shivering—proof that matters of apparent physical impossibility really can be conquered by the mind (and specialised breathing). Hof is adamant that his techniques can “bring people back to tranquillity”, alleviating, and perhaps even curing all manner of diseases and ailments.
It was way back in 1999 when the extreme athlete first made headlines in his native Netherlands not just by swimming under a frozen lake on TV, but then jumping back in to rescue an onlooker who had taken a tumble into the waters. His unusual skill began its development 20 years earlier, when, as a teenager walking alongside an icy Amsterdam canal, Hof felt the overwhelming compulsion to plunge right in. By doing so, he says, he elicited an “inside connection” with his body that also freed his mind of “gibberish”. He continued with his daily dips, gradually increasing how long he spent in the frigid waters and now holds the world record for time spent immersed in an ice bath (one hour, 52 minutes and 42 seconds). The impact of such cold, Hof says, “makes you aware of your deeper physiology”: “This is something we have lost in modern life,” he tells Conrad Magazine. “But we can rediscover it with practice.”
Developing a breathing technique based on Buddhist meditation that was to become known as the ‘Wim Hof Method’, the athlete’s self-imposed challenges became evermore extreme. In 2007 Hof ran the world’s fastest half-marathon with bare feet across snow and ice (it took him two hours, 16 minutes and 34 seconds), and in the same year he climbed 24,500 feet up Mount Everest in nothing but shorts and shoes. The following year, wearing the same (lack of) gear, Hof scaled Mount Kilimanjaro in less than two days (most do it in five to nine), and has also completed a half marathon through the Namib Desert without consuming a drop of water.
Why Wim Hof pushes—some might say, punishes—himself so can perhaps be explained, in part at least, through personal tragedy. In 1995, his wife, who had been suffering from schizophrenia, jumped to her death from the eighth floor of their apartment building. Son, Enahm, says that “everything started there” while Hof admits that though he has learnt to “master grief and pain”, he will still cry when talking about her, and believes his work can help relieve similar “unnecessary suffering” in others.
However, how Hof does what he does is a different matter entirely—and it has attracted the attention of doctors and scientists. A study published in the journal, NeuroImage, found Hof’s body either “by accident or by luck” has the ability to “hack into the physiological system” to activate “an internal painkiller function”. When exposed to plunging temperatures, Hof’s brain, seemingly at will, is able to release opioids and cannabinoids that not only block pain, but create euphoric sensations when most would experience physical stress. “Your brain has the power to modify your pain perception,” study co-author Dr Otto Musik of Wayne State University’s School of Medicine tells Smithsonian. “The placebo effect is real.”
The possibilities of ‘mind over matter’ aside, what does have scientists stumped is how Hof manages to fend off biological degradation such as frostbite, or run more than 20 kilometres through a desert without drinking water. Other studies have even shown him able to maintain his core body temperature while immersed in ice, and remain symptom-free after being injected with an E coli endotoxin. Arguments that he may simply be a freak of nature fall apart when confronted by the fact that some of his students too have developed similar, seemingly superhuman, abilities. Hof believes that his breathing method and regular cold water immersion can cure everything from depression to diabetes to arthritis to mental illness and even cancer.
Professor Peter Pickkers of the Netherlands’s Radboud University Medical Centre, responsible for the E coli tests, reveals that Hof’s breathing technique greatly effects not only oxygen and CO2 levels, but raises adrenaline levels higher than those “observed in people who bungee-jump for the first time”, increasing Hof’s anti-inflammatory and immune response. Though, Pickkkers strictly cautions against claims Hof holds the secret to curing life-threatening conditions. “Assuming there is a beneficial effect, my guess would be that the effects can only be there as long as you practise the techniques,” he tells the Guardian, “likely not longer than a day.”
Such musings have done little to quash Hof’s self-belief, of course. “Live your body, stimulate your body… We need to be stimulated to help fight disease,” he says.“… That’s what nature meant us to do, breathe deep when we are stressed.”
Tips from the Iceman
The Wim Hof Method is built on the “three powerful pillars” of cold therapy, breathing and commitment, said to, among other things, increase energy, improve sleep, boost mood and enhance the immune system.
Hof calls the cold “your warm friend”, with exposure to it resulting in the destruction of (bad) fats and the production of ‘feel good’ endorphins. He recommends taking a one-minute cold shower after your hot one to stimulate your vascular system.
Breathe mindfully, taking deep, conscious breaths: “We’re always breathing, yet we’re mostly unaware of its tremendous potential… more energy, reduced stress levels, and an augmented immune response that swiftly deals with pathogens”.
Be patient and dedicated to the practice. Mastering your own body and mind doesn’t happen overnight, but believe that you can, and believe that you will: “That’s the natural sate of our being: happy, strong and healthy.”