We’ve all been there, sailing along through life, things are going well, and our training is going better than ever. We’re setting records in the gym every week, and feeling great doing it. Then, ever so slowly, you start feeling tired, a little run down, lethargic, maybe even a sniffle, then BAM! The cold from hell fills your sinuses, every muscle in your body aches, and you want nothing more than to lay under your duvet for a week. By the time you return to training, you can’t match the intensity that you could before, you’re snowed under from a week off work, and get tired playing catch-up, and as a result, your mood dips for a few weeks whilst you struggle to rediscover equilibrium. The good news is there are some quite simple methods by which you can avoid this, the bad news is, they’re a little bit bonkers!
For the sake of this article, though they certainly have their place with respect to resistance to illness, improved sleep and a stronger immune system, we’ll leave out nutrition and exercise related improvements, as we frequently deal with them in other articles. In this instance we’re going to focus on the slightly less obvious, and more socially awkward, ways to boost your immune system.
First up, we’re going to revisit the topic of breathing. Only recently, I wrote about different breathing techniques, breath holding, and the impact on health and fitness. One area I didn’t delve into during that piece, but one that definitely warrants attention, is the impact of breathing techniques on the immune system. Based on the work of Wim Hof, the Dutch guy who climbed Mount Everest in just his shorts, breathing exercises have been shown to be one of the contributing factors to him being able to control his immune system. He practices various breathing techniques, most of which involve controlled hyperventilation, often interspersed with periods of breath holding.
The other main pillar of Hof’s teachings is cold exposure. If I haven’t already lost you by recommending you voluntarily hyperventilate, then hold your breath, then this just might tip you over the edge. Cold exposure, though, has been shown to stimulate brown fat growth, which in turn burns more fat, balance hormones, strengthen the immune system, improve sleep and increase endorphins. Hof recommends starting with short bursts under an ice cold shower. I have found that first thing in the morning, having a warm shower then finishing with a 15-20 second icy burst works wonders!. You can progress this though, as your shower will only tend to be around 18 degrees centigrade.
As with most things, your body will increase its tolerance with repeated exposure. Methods vary depending on the climate people inhabit, but range from dips in natural ice springs, several monasteries are known to have practised this for generations, to me current method of filling a chest freezer with cold water, and jumping in! This can of course be graduated using the temperature settings. As bonkers as all this seems, it does seem to work on everyone, regardless of current health and fitness levels.
Aside from the thousands, maybe more, Wim Hof disciples roaming the planet being studied by various human biologists, and simultaneously rewriting the medical textbooks, there are my own personal results for me to behold. Whilst these are not yet as drastic as some you can read about, they are at worst marked improvements. The main difference is the sense of being awake which hits you almost as soon as you immerse yourself, and seems to grow once you’re out and have dried yourself. This invigorated feeling is not short lived either, it last much longer than I’d anticipated. Good results aside, I’d be lying if I said it was easy. The first few mornings were hard! I’m truly glad I persevered though, as the benefits, and my tolerance, just keep improving! I’m down to 14-15 degrees with a comfortable 2 minute immersion to the neckline.
Telling you these things will help is one thing, convincing you to try, another entirely. With that in mind, it’s always good to think of any positive lifestyle change as being measurable on a sliding scale. Where you’re at now is most likely somewhere in the middle. You know you could do far worse, and that is what the bottom of the scale would look like. But equally, you could do much better, and can probably envisage perfection. That would represent the top of the scale. If you can’t achieve what’s required to reach the good end of the scale, then adding a small improvement in will still move you one step closer than you currently sit. A few weeks, or months down the line, when this small change is now just a normal part of life, you’ll probably find you’re able to add in another small change. This is how we chase perfection, one step at a time.
Before starting any breathing exercises, or adding cold therapy into your routine, it’s essential that you conduct your own research to decide whether it is suitable for you. Additionally, consult with a medical professional to make sure that neither practise will place you in danger. For further research, I’d recommend reading What Doesn't Kill Us by Scott Carney, Wim Hof's Website and The World's Fittest Book by Ross Edgley.
Whether you’ve tried cold exposure or breathing techniques before, or you try them going forward, I’d love to hear your experiences, good or bad, and any tips you might have.