I was out shoveling snow off the front walk after one of last winter’s foot-deep dumps when a neighbor drove up with his window down. “I’m sorry,” he began. “I was driving down the street; now I KNOW that if I don’ take a picture of you, I’ll go home and tell my wife, who I’ve been married to for 34 years, and she will have me F***ING COMMITTED. I almost crashed!” I stood there, shovel in hand, and chatted a moment, barefoot in my underwear. Such are the things my neighbors endure since I began practicing the Wim Hof Method (WHM) last December.

So who is Wim Hof and what is his method? He’s a pretty way-out-there Dutch dude who paired a breathing exercise with cold exposure to improve strength, vitality, and emotional equilibrium. Wim himself has set more than 20 world records doing things like climbing Kilimanjaro and (almost) Everest, swimming under oceanic ice, and running Arctic marathons—all in his underwear. 

Just to clarify, all WHM practitioners claim poetic license for the term “underwear” when they are probably just wearing shorts—probably. Over the last couple years, WHM has become popular among endurance athletes as well as people with autoimmune issues like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and allergies. I’d like to chat with a cyclist working with it, because as yet I’m the only one I know who is. I felt good enough after two weeks that the 711-mile Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Race seemed like a good idea. I took eighth place.

Illustration by Justin Short

The breath exercise is quick and simple: Take 30-40 deep breaths, then exhale and hold that exhalation as long as you can. You’ll probably get around 45 seconds your first round. I now average a little over three minutes on my third round. Wim can hold his for 10. When your body is ready to breathe again (it will tell you), take a deep breath, hold again for 10-15 seconds, and then release it. That’s one round. Do three or four rounds, but don’t do it in a place where you might be in danger if you pass out, because you might. Best to do it on the floor or a couch, because that way if you need to fall down, you’re already there.

Cold exposure makes WHM a tough sell, but it begins gently enough with brief cold showers after running hot water for as long as you like. 30 seconds becomes a minute, then three minutes with no hot water, then five. Somewhere in there you begin two-minute ice baths with your hands and feet and graduate to full body ice baths. And then there’s the endorphin release. How good would you have to feel to wander around in the snow, barefoot in your underwear?

If you’re interested in learning more, run down to Auntie’s Bookstore and get a copy of “What Doesn’t Kill Us” by Scott Carney, a dude who initially set out to debunk Wim Hof as a charlatan. You can also sign up for the WHM Fundamentals Course at wimhofmethod.com or come to a WHM workshop and mid-winter river dunk with Seattle-based WHM instructor Reed Wasser, date and location TBA. 

Justin M. Short is a local rider whom you might meet commuting at some obscene hour, tearing up the jumps at Beacon, or grinding gravel in the middle of nowhere.