Life

Preparing for a Marathon? Start With Cold Showers.

And other tips for enduring pain from Wim “the Iceman” Hof.

Photo illustration of an ultramarathon runner
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Sophie Power, a British runner who famously breastfed her 3-month-old son during an ultramarathon, is no stranger to pain. But even she needed to brace herself for the 268-mile Montane Spine Race—and that’s where How To! came in. To help her prepare for this challenge, host Charles Duhigg called in the “Iceman” himself, Wim Hof, an extreme athlete known for feats such as swimming under ice and climbing mountains wearing nothing but shorts. This excerpt of their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Breathe.

Wim Hof: She might be a lot better conditioned than 90 percent of the people. But if you go 260 miles, which is bloody, bloody much, she has to work on how to supply more oxygen when the reserves are exhausted. You will have to face the fear. And the fear is a signal that your body is telling you, “You cannot do this.” I do understand.

So it is very simple. Breathe in, fully in, exert all you got and fully, and follow the belly, the chest, down into your heart. Then you let go. Don’t go fully out—you just let it go. Then you get it fully in again. Letting go. If you do that 40 times, carbon dioxide is being blown off. More oxygen is able to bind into deep tissue. It is very simple.

She has to do it in the morning when the race is coming—do this breathing and you become alkaline. Then when the race is starting, learn to tune deeper, with deeper breathing patterns into your body. We are actually mammals and built to be able to keep on going. That’s why we are able to go into these extreme challenges. It’s actually going back to our primordial nature.

Charles Duhigg: Let me start by fully acknowledging that some of the stuff that Wim says is a little eccentric. Not all of it is rigorously peer-reviewed. But he has this theory that humans, like all mammals, are actually built for huge amounts of endurance and huge, extraordinary physical activities. But most of us live these comfortable lives: We put on parkas before we go outside, we wear shoes when we run. And if we can simply get more in touch with, as he puts it, our primordial nature, our bodies are actually designed for really, really hard physical things.

Embrace the cold.

Hof: Cold water is merciless, but righteous. It brings you right there. You’ve got to learn, one way or another. Learning how to deal with stress, even in extreme conditions. Are we able to do that? Yes, my teacher is the cold.

So day one: one-minute cold shower. “But I don’t like cold.” I say, “Fuck you.” You want to get rid of your fear of doing 260 miles? Begin with that, and within 10 days she is able to go at least five to 10 minutes into a cold shower.

The condition of the vascular system grows fast into its innate capacity because we don’t expose to the cold. We always are dressed up. That’s why it’s like a muscle that is not trained, so the condition gets less. I tell her, “You want to really perform? Get your vascular system the right way nature meant it to be.”

Duhigg: There’s a lot of science behind why we use cold exposure. Wim describes that what we do is we help our vascular system, we help contract a lot of the smaller capillaries, and we move heat into our core. But the other part about it is teaching ourselves that we can withstand this pain, that we can choose pain, and teaching ourselves ways to cope with ignoring it.

Sophie Power: It’s the same thing with run training. You put yourself through difficult periods of run training on the sprint, intervals, and you’re dying at the end. You know that in the race you can say, “I’ve been here before, and I’ve gotten through it.”

Duhigg: And just to put it in context, it’s five minutes in a cold shower. Even as I’m saying it, that sounds so unpleasant. But Wim actually immerses himself in ice baths for hours at a time in order to train his body and his mind to withstand this. If it’s a terrible experience for you, you can just blame the Iceman.

Power: I’m going to blame him. I guess this is kind of like me, too—I run these ultramarathons and I say to my friends, “You could run a 5K.” He’s basically saying to me, “I do two hours. You can do five minutes.”

Program your mind.

Hof: Do the breathing, do the cold showers, and the most important one is learn that you are able to program yourself in your brain and find peace. And peace means it’s not stupidly “I’m going to do the 260 miles. I’m going to do it because I’m this, I’m that.” No, in your gut, you feel you are up to it.

Duhigg: In other words, you should listen to your fear. But you should recognize that it’s not just telling you to be scared—it’s telling you that you need to do something. You can decide ahead of time, I’m going to program my mind so that when I’m in pain, I can breathe more deeply or I can meditate. As long as you have something to do, then that pain becomes your friend.

Hof: Fear is a great signal. It’s like a pain signal. Hey, look at me, look at me. Get your focus right over here, at the pain. So this is what I tell her: Go to that gut feeling and feel the peace—it’s there.

Duhigg: Does that sound like something you’ve struggled to master before?

Power: I think it’s something I have actually done really well at before, in some races. But I’m struggling with it now, and I don’t know why I’m struggling with it now. I think maybe in this one I’m going to have to switch my mind off to enjoy the journey—because it is a journey, maybe, rather than a race—and try to enjoy it. If it’s in the middle of the night, then hopefully it’s a clear night and I can see stars. Because I’m going to be so remote that the sky should hopefully be full of stars. So hopefully if it’s dark, that’s somewhere I can go to in just looking up.

I think the translation of what he’s saying is to program my brain to be positive and logical as to why I will be able to finish this. It’s really hard, but everyone’s finding it really hard. Actually, I’ve prepared well enough to finish the race, so I think that will probably give me the confidence. Also, as I pack my bag, that will, before the race, program me into saying, Everything has been thought of. Oh, my head torch batteries, my maps, my compass, everything, my chafing cream. There’ll be things that I can’t predict that could stop me: if I have a bad fall. But it shouldn’t be my mind and my body that let me down. I’ve got to be aware that it’s about 50 percent completion rate.

Duhigg [to Hof]: Let me ask you this. Sophie’s at Mile 200, let’s say, and her brain is screaming at her to stop. She’s in pain and hurts so bad, and she’s scared. And I say to her, “Well, just relax.” I think she’s going to say, “How?”

Hof: By following the breath, deeply. Following the breath.

Duhigg: So by doing those 40 deep breaths?

Hof: Yes, or until she feels the difference, and we are built to make the difference. You talk about Sophie after 200 miles being exhausted. Never should have done this. I’m going to quit, no matter what. That’s it. The whole motivation is gone—you’ll curse everything. She is just paralyzed and in pain. Is she able at that moment, to make a difference? Yes, you are. Now, breathe again. Just stand still, breathe deep, and reconnect into the depth.

The power of your mind is to find a solution for the biochemistry and make the change. You see that? The magic happens. It’s amazing.

Duhigg [to Power]: Are you feeling more ready? Do you still feel really anxious, or do you feel less anxious now?

Power: No, I feel a lot calmer actually. The breathing helps. I feel a lot calmer. I think having someone that’s external say, “Do this, this, this, and this,” and making me reflect on the fact that actually there’s no reason to be scared. When it gets really bad, just think, I might be in the middle of nowhere, I might be emotional, I might be slightly lost. At least I’m not having a cold shower.

Duhigg: Exactly. It could be a lot worse.

To listen to the entire episode, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.