Possibly the most common question that I have gotten in the past month is regarding practicing Wim Hof Method and getting sick. There is a wide variety of comments and questions I get about this topic, and I will address them all eventually, but today’s post is focused to the most dire of the comments.
An example that I will point out, which is a common thing that I have heard this month especially, is – I want to practice Wim Hof Method, but I keep getting sick. What should I do?
The culture that surrounds the Wim Hof Method is very diverse. Sadly, the people who most new adopters hear from when learning about Wim Hof Method are generally new adopters themselves. This means that most new learners of Wim Hof Method are learning from a giant game of “Telephone.” There are many seeds of truth that have grown into misunderstanding about the method, and this can cause people to get frustrated. Today, I want to write to those of you who are confused, and we can hopefully un-frustrate those of use who have become frustrated too.
There is a commonly held belief that if one practices the Wim Hof Method, one will never get sick again. This is a myth that has been fueled both by a misunderstanding of some of the research that has been done on the method and the claim that Wim Hof has made, that he has not been sick in 30 years. I am not going to address this myth in this post, but to those of you who are not experiencing this supernatural ability of never getting sick again, please allow me to offer you some comfort. Nothing is wrong with you. Your efforts to practice the method are most likely just as earnest as those who claim that they never get sick anymore. The fact that you are getting sick does not mean that the Wim Hof Method is bullshit or that it requires some kind of religious devotion. You are okay. So, let’s just start from there and work our way from where you are to a healthier happier you -one that is able to use the Wim Hof Method daily to achieve the levels of happiness and health that you have heard so much about.
So, let’s get a few things straight. There are some things we need to hash out when discerning why we keep getting sick when trying to practice the method. Here are the most likely issues that you are running into and how to overcome them.
Common Reason Number 1: If you are new to cold training, you might over-exert yourself without knowing it, which could possibly lead to your catching the cold or flu.
The cold doesn’t give us a cold. This is true. However, in order to strengthen the immune system, we must challenge it. It’s just like any other growth response in the body. You must provide just the right amount of stress so that your body will grow back stronger. Too much might cause harm, and too little won’t provide the stimulus for growth. It’s like Goldilocks and the three bears; it has to be just right! Veterans in any fitness practice are familiar with their bodies’ feedback and can gauge when they are nearing their limits. This is a learned skill of listening to the body that novice’s often do not possess. Just as it is with many other forms of exercise, novices who train in the cold often push themselves past their bodies’ limits without knowing it. Add this to the cold and flu season, a time when the immune system is already likely to be challenged by viruses and bacteria, and you may find that cold training leads a novice to catch more colds and flus.
Let’s remember that there are different theories concerning why we catch colds and flus in certain seasons in the first place. Some link the reduced sunlight to lower levels of the hormone, Vitamin D, which is responsible for a plethora of functions in the body, including supporting a healthy immune system. Others point to the theory that different areas have seasons when cold and flu viruses are especially prolific. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter why your likelihood of catching a cold or a flu is higher in one season or another. The point I want to make is that if your immune system is being challenged by viruses and bacteria already, a novice with gusto for the cold might over-train in the cold and weaken the immune system enough to give the virus a beachhead to mount an attack.
Here is how to get around this:
- Go slow. Go slow. Oh please hear me when I say that you can just go slow!
The fitness industry has caused a lot of harm to our expectations. You’ve seen the ads: “Lose 20 pounds in two weeks!” “Gain 20 pounds of lean muscle in a month!” “Just one simple trick!”
Sadly, we just don’t have any patience anymore. It’s a real shame too, because I think these warped expectations are what frustrate people into giving up on their health and happiness altogether. The reality is that progress always takes longer than we want, and it is always going to be a little harder than we wish it would be. The Wim Hof Method is simple, but that does not make it easy. And it certainly does not mean that just by doing a workshop or a 10 week video course that everyone will be at the level of the Iceman himself! We are all on our own paths, and that means that we have to respect each of our bodies’ pace. So, for starters, just finish each warm shower that you take with cold water. Maybe add a little extra time each day. But never allow yourself to get so cold that you shiver and are miserable. Get out of the cold while you still feel strong, while you still feel great inside and out! Don’t try to cram a week of cold showers into one day. Cold adaptation takes time, and it will come. The point is to live a long and healthy life, right? Well, just think of how long you have to work on this? You have your whole life!
- Take occasional days off, especially in your first 6 months of training.
To be honest, this is a rule that I still follow, years into my practice. Why? Well, why do we take days off from running, from weight training, from swimming, from martial arts? The body needs some days off to repair and to recover. I know it doesn’t seem like the same thing, cold training, but I highly recommend that you treat it the same way. Part of the reason why we take days off from any kind of training is simply to give the CNS a break. Give yours a break at least once a week in your first 6 months, and you will not only progress in times and intensity, but you will likely succumb to fewer colds and flus as well.
Common Reason Number 2: You are rushing back into the cold before you are actually over your current cold or flu.
I have been guilty of this. If you have been practicing Wim Hof Method for any period of time, you are likely quite pleased with your progress into the cold. I will never forget the feeling of getting to a 10 minute cold shower. I just never wanted to lose this new strength that I had found! Then one day, after bragging to my friends about how “I don’t catch colds anymore because I practice Wim Hof Method” (yes, I used to propagate the myth too), I came down with a cold. It wasn’t a bad one, but it really hit my ego hard. It was especially crushing because no amount of breathing or meditation would make it go away. I had a cold, and I had to accept it. I felt like a total failure. I felt as though I must have been practicing the method wrong or that maybe the method was just a bunch of “woo woo” nonsense. Then, a friend of mine set me straight. He said that all that the cold proved was that I was still mortal. I had seen lots of benefits of practicing the method, so to abandon the method because I caught a cold was silly.
While I felt better about the method, a couple of days into my cold, I began to worry that my cold tolerance would fad away quickly. I feared that I would have to start all over again, and that bothered me.
This cold went away much faster than any cold I had ever had before. I was doing the breathing exercise each morning, but I refrained from cold showers until I started to feel better. The cold was almost gone when I got back into the shower and pushed myself to do a 10 minute cold shower. It felt like a great moral victory, but I paid the price by getting sick again. The cold came back, and I felt like a fool. For some reason, this is how I always seem to learn lessons.
Here is how to get around this:
- Wait a day longer than you believe that you really need to.
When you go back to the cold, go with full strength. Remember that you need to be strong enough to be able to resist a challenge to your immune system. And don’t worry; your cold resistance will come back quickly. You won’t have to start over from the beginning unless you were only a week or two into your practice. In that case, refer to the tips I already mentioned above.
- When you return to the cold, ease back into it.
Seriously, go easy with your return! You will regain your cold resistance faster if you go slow and steady than if you try to push yourself too hard and have to take another break. And speaking of breaks, don’t forget to give yourself some breaks as you reacclimate to the cold. When Wim says “no force,” remember to apply it to all of the aspects of the method. We want to gradually grow stronger because there is actually no other way to grow stronger. We literally cannot rush growth, but we can rush harm. Go slow when you return to the cold. You’ll be glad you did.
Common Reason Number Three: Too many stressors to handle.
I have said it may times; today is the best day to begin practicing Wim Hof Method. The method has changed my life for the better, and I will forever be grateful that I have made it a part of my daily life. Wim Hof Method has enabled thousands of people to take control of their health, and it does this through training the practitioner to take control of his or her stress response. We literally train our minds and bodies by stressing them through breathing and through cold exposure. It is the synergy of cold training, breathwork, and mental focus that allows us to improve our quality of life in such profound ways.
Having said this, I have trained many people who are beginning their practice during times in their lives when they are taking on too much stress in every direction. This overwhelming stress can cause us to suffer in many ways, and one of the ways that stress causes us to suffer is through weakening our immune system. For many of us, we are unwittingly asking for it; we take on too many responsibilities and we don’t allow ourselves to relax and find peace. Many people look at the breathing exercise and the cold training and forget about the third pillar -mental focus. This third pillar is the driver of the other two, and it should be present in all of our actions in life. Even the most skilled and experienced WHM practitioner can succumb to overwhelming stress, and that can cause us to succumb to all of the things that overwhelming stress can do to the mind and body.
How to get around this:
- Refocus and reduce needless stressors.
I would love to tell you that you can always get around overwhelming stress, but I can’t. However, the good news is that we can usually get around this issue be refocusing ourselves around what is really important and by stopping our worrying about things that are not. Turn off the news, put down your phone, log out of social media. Be with yourself. Be with your loved ones. Be present in this amazing thing we call the human experience and practice gratitude. When we refocus ourselves we are practicing the third pillar of the Wim Hof Method. We are taking control of our thoughts, and when we do this, we are taking control of our stress response by reducing the noise, reducing the chatter.
- Don’t give up! Follow your breath.
Life is full of good times and bad times. It is possible that there is no way to reduce your stress load right now. You might be going through a difficult time. This is when we do the best we can until we can do better. It’s as simple as that. You don’t have to climb Mt. Everest in your shorts like Wim Hof to practice Wim Hof Method. Simply do your best. Don’t worry about anything but getting through today. When you wake up, try to breathe three rounds or so. When you shower, try to end with a little cold water. Throughout the day, try to listen to your body and get to know it better. Just take it one day at a time. You might be surprised at where this will take you.
Are we capable of far more than what we have been conditioned to believe? YES! However, we don’t have to be discouraged if we have some bumps along the way to health and happiness. This is normal. This is good! Without these bumps, how would be learn? How would we appreciate the smooth spots?
I want to send a message of encouragement to all of you who have been reaching out to me this past month. You are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you. The Wim Hof Method is a treasure that has enriched my life and the lives of thousands of other people around the world. However, it is not a panacea. If you catch a cold or a flu, it does not mean that the method is a fraud. It just means that you caught a cold or a flu. For now, sleep well. Relax your body and mind. And when you are well -wait a day. Then get into that cold shower and smile! You are alive! What a marvelous gift!