Breathe Like A Superhuman

The Wim Hof Method takes root in surfing by the likes of Kelly Slater, Laird Hamilton, and Koa Smith

Photo: WikiCommons / Innerfire
One of Wim’s world record attempts at The North Pole, where he held his breath for over six minutes below ice. Photo: WikiCommons / Innerfire

There’s an almost crazed look on Wim Hof’s face. Aggressive and curious, the ice-blue eyes of the 57-year-old dart as he speaks to a crew from Vice about his self-proclaimed breathing method that can enable everyday Joes to do incredible things. According to Hof, who hails from the Netherlands, he’s found a way to ward off disease and redefine what the human body is capable of—all by controlling his breath. It’s easy to be a skeptic, but as Hof has gained more attention in the past few years, he’s amassed quite the following, including a handful of world-class surfers.

Here’s the CliffsNotes on how it works: According to Hof’s method, we can tap into special parts of our brains, change our pH levels, and release adrenaline at will by utilizing his controlled hyperventilation technique. The results of his breathing method, followed by submergence in a cold shower or an ice bath, enable the body to perform on a higher physiological plane and bring focus to the mind. Of Hof’s many followers, the likes of Koa Smith, Laird Hamilton, and Kelly Slater have utilized his method.

Now, if you’re anything like me, when someone tells you that you can fight off disease and accomplish superhuman acts by altering the way you breathe, your bullshit meter goes full-tilt right about now. But take a moment, catch your breath, and look at Hof’s history. The man’s actually accomplished some pretty jaw-dropping feats over the years, including climbing Everest in shorts, running marathons in Namibia without water, and submerging himself in blocks of ice for just under two hours, all of which he credits to his technique. He also holds more than 20 Guinness World Records for things like swimming under arctic shelves and other forms of sketchy shit that normal people aren’t physically capable of doing. All of which begs the question: Is there any actual science to back up his claims? Surprisingly, the answer leans toward yes.

A recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences injected 24 participants with E. coli (fun, right?), half of which were trained in Hof’s methods for breathing, meditation, and cold-water exposure. Interestingly enough, the study concluded that the dozen participants that Hof trained fared far better in fighting off the disease than the others and had markedly different hormonal, inflammatory, and immune-system responses. Although this study hardly validates his entire method, it’s helped to sway a few converts, including the likes of Slater, who was seen using the method in Fiji.

Before his Round Four heat at Cloudbreak, Slater could be seen in the channel, breathing heavily and looking focused. In the next half-hour, he would go on to eviscerate the lineup, posting a 19.77. Was it Wim Hof that brought Slater back to form, or was it just Slater being Slater?

Koa Smith, another surfer who’s embraced the Wim Hof method, also vouches for the strategy. “It’s pretty fascinating stuff. I do it every day. I’m sure there are a lot of skeptics out there, but for me, I can feel a difference from using this technique.” But does the Wim Hof method actually enable you to surf better? According to Smith, not directly. But it does help to calm his mind. “I don’t think it necessarily makes me a better surfer physically, but it’s so good for my mental clarity in helping me with my focus.” Smith went on to say that, prior to a big heat, he would often be plagued by nerves. By going through the breathing exercises, he’s been able to quiet his anxieties and simply focus on surfing his best.

It can’t be denied that the Wim Hof method has produced some very interesting case studies, and clearly, more research needs to be done. But with some of the world’s best surfers falling in line behind it, there’s a good chance you’re going to see some heavy pre-sesh breathing going down in the parking lot at your favorite spot soon. But do I expect it to actually make me a better surfer? Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath.

Studies have yet to prove that the Wim Hof Method can spit you out of a Mainland Mexico Bomb like this one from Koa Smith. But the prospects are enticing, no? Photo: Kenworthy
Studies have yet to prove that the Wim Hof Method can spit you out of a Mainland Mexico Bomb like this one from Koa Smith. But the prospects are enticing, no? Photo: Kenworthy