Wim “The Iceman” Hof can run marathons through snow and desert without a blink of discomfort. The 59-year-old Dutchman has climbed Mount Everest in Nepal and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania wearing shorts.
He has also run a half marathon through the Namib Desert without drinking any water. Hof was recently tested by scientists at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine to see if they can unlock the secrets to his endurance capabilities.
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The Iceman's brain analyzed with MIR
Otto Musik, a pediatrician at Wayne along with his fellow researchers put Hof inside a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine while exposing him to cold water and analyzed what happened inside his body. The results have been published in a study in the journal NeuroImage.
It seems Hof is able to artificially induce a stress response in his body that helps him resist the effects of cold. The extreme athlete has superior control over his brain and physiological state that allows him to effectively switch on an internal painkiller that allows him to expose his body to extreme conditions.
He reaches the state through a routine of deep breathing and relaxation techniques. “By accident or by luck he found a hack into the physiological system,” Musik says.
Hof says anyone can be like him
The researcher team tested Hof’s responses alongside around 30 control subjects. Hof says his technique, which he calls The Wim Hof Method, involves a series of breathing exercises that anyone can replicate.
“I had to find the interconnection of my brain together with my physiology.”
Hof says he taught himself the method through trial and error and lots of time in nature. “I had to find the interconnection of my brain together with my physiology,” he says.
The method starts by getting into a relaxed position lying down and beginning deep breathing exercises. This should prompt a kind of tingling in the body associated with low carbon dioxide in the blood.
“That’s what nature meant us to do, breathe deep when we are stressed,” Hof says. Musik’s research in part supports Hof’s own theories.
Deep breathing the key to brain control
As part of Musik’s research Hof went through his breathing method before lying down in the MRI machine, in a special suit. They then blasted his body with ice cold water and hot water at 5-minute intervals and measured his brain response.
It was discovered that when exposed to cold, Hof was able to release opioids and cannabinoids into his body. These components can inhibit the signals responsible for alerting your body to feelings of pain or cold, and instead, trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin.
Musik says this ability means Hof can feel a kind of euphoric effect that lasts for several minutes allowing her to undergo his extreme sports.