Stress, Recovery & the Wim Hof Method
The Role of Recovery in Stress Adaptation
Note: This article is an unofficial part two on the role of recovery in the stress adaptation process. I highly recommend reading part one first.
Alright, let’s continue...
If you’ve ever taken a deeper dive into the Wim Hof Method, or maybe you’ve been to a workshop or followed one of the online courses, you may have come across the term hormetic stress, most likely to do with the benefits of cold exposure.
Hormetic stress or hormesis is the “what doesn’t kill you (might) make you stronger” type of stress. The important distinction between this and ‘bad stress’ lies in the dose. Think of it like “some is good, but more is not better”^.
Within the context of the Wim Hof Method, there are two key hormetic stressors - the breathing technique and the cold exposure - and when it comes to teaching, that’s where the majority of the focus is placed.
However, when it comes to using stress to help us adapt, become stronger and more resilient, the stressor is only half of the equation. In order to reach the adaptation phase, we must first pass through the recovery phase.
This graph shows what I mean.
The recovery phase
As you can see from the graph above, recovery follows a homeostatic disruption (a fancy word for stress) and within the Wim Hof Method there are two stressors - the breathing technique and the cold exposure. Below we’ll break each one down and show you where and how recovery activities can be added. But first, two important points on recovery.
1) When determining your recovery requirements it’s important to consider;
The type, frequency and duration of stress you’re aiming to recover from
Your level of experience with the stressor
The state of your physical and psychological health
How fully recovered you need to be before applying the stressor again
What other stressors are at play in your life
2) It’s important to remember that the recovery process determines if and how much adaptation will take place.
While anyone who has practiced the breathing technique may come out of it feeling blissful and content, the underlying basis of it is as a stressor. The controlled over-breathing, in combination with the breath hold retention activates the sympathetic nervous system, in particular the adrenal medulla, triggering the release of large amounts of adrenaline into the body (Knox et. al., 2014)^. This is one of the key reasons we include a meditation component at the end of a session.
Normalising your respiration rate after the breathing rounds helps you shift state from sympathetic (‘fight, flight & freeze) to parasympathetic (‘rest, digest & restore’). You can supercharge this by activating additional parasympathetic triggers including;
Breathing through your nose
Activating your diaphragm when breathing
Make your exhales longer, aim for a 1:2 ratio of inhale:exhale
Take 5-6 breaths per minute
Personally, I aim to return to a complete state of relaxation before getting up and continuing with my day.
How long that recovery meditation takes depends on all those recovery factors I mentioned earlier. For myself, 3 rounds of 30 breaths will require less recovery time than 6+ rounds of 40+ breaths. It’s also important to consider your state of health. If I’m feeling stressed prior to the session or perhaps have some niggling soreness, I might choose to spend longer recovering (as well as adjusting the length and intensity of my breathing session).
In terms of deciding when to do another breathing session, you can again consider the recovery factors. Given that under most circumstances the stress dose from a breathing session is far milder than an ice bath, your recovery window will be short.
Note: I recommend no more than 15 rounds per day as mentioned in this article (which, as I hope you’re aware, is an epicly large number). Additionally, the 2014 Radboud study showed that adrenaline levels of experienced Wim Hof Method practitioners were higher than those caused by a bungee jump, so a reminder that not every breathing session creates only a mild stress response!
According to stress appraisal theory, people differ in how they interpret what is happening to them and their options for coping, viewing stressors as either harmful, a threat or a challenge^ and how an individual interprets a stressor determines how they cope with or respond to the stressor^.
Freezing cold water is a powerful stressor. For the majority of people, their interpretation is that an ice bath is a threat (an interpretation of harm would imply that the event has already taken place). Others view the stress of an ice bath as a challenge and an opportunity for stress-related growth, or as it’s more commonly known, thriving.
However, the cold exposure experience is not entirely psychological. In response to a decrease in body temperature, our hypothalamus sends a signal to release noradrenaline, which in turn triggers events designed to protect us and warm us up including reducing blood flow to the extremities, shivering and brown fat activation (bringing us back into balance again).
While short-term these are largely beneficial responses, for anyone who’s sat in an ice bath, you’ll know it doesn’t feel warm (at least not straight away). That’s because the thermoreceptors in our skin that detect temperature, respond more strongly to greater differences in temperature and the same fibres that mediate the cold sensation are also responsible for prickling heat pain. This helps explain why the sensation of cold may feel more intense at lower temperatures.
So what does all this mean for recovery?
The first priority is warming up safely and slowly which is why we teach the horse stance technique (shown above), which serves two purposes;
Squatting down low and activating the muscles of your lower & upper body helps to generate heat;
Synchronising the movement with the breath helps to maintain focus when coming out of the cold (or beforehand). The length of time I spend in horse stance is proportionate to the length of time I spend in ice water.
My goal is to finish my cold exposure session without shivering. I’m not saying that shivering is a bad thing, or that you’re less of a Hoffer if you shiver, rather I use shivering as a measurement of my level of focus and of sufficient time spent in recovery.
My next priority, just like at the end of a breathing session, is down regulating my nervous system by recruiting as many of the parasympathetic triggers I mentioned earlier as possible. I’m looking to restore balance, and move into the parasympathetic ‘rest, digest & restore’ state as soon as possible once I’m safe and warm.
What about deciding when to experience cold exposure again, and for how long?
Refer back to the recovery factors mentioned earlier, specifically considering the temperature of the water you were in, the time you were in for, your health at the time and your level of experience with cold exposure. For myself, a 10 minute swim in the ocean will generally take less time to recover from than a 5 minute ice bath. Given the cold is such a powerful stressor on the body, taking each of these factors into account, will allow you to recover sufficiently and have you ready for your next session.
Note: there are times you may want to delay shifting to a parasympathetic state following the breathing or cold exposure, for example if you want to harness the increased alertness or energy that accompanies being in a sympathetic state. However, remember, that at some point you will need to recover in order to properly adapt, and to avoid burnout!
The beauty (and the power) of the Wim Hof Method is that it uses stress, in a controlled way, to push the body to adapt. It wouldn’t be the Method without this element.
It’s ok to stress the system slightly* during your breathing sessions and when practicing cold exposure, just remember to build in adequate recovery as part of your practice.
*Safety and personal responsibility are paramount. Remember not to use force and to listen to your body. It’s not a competition.
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