How the Wim Hof Method can improve your surfing - Andrew Cotton & Andrew Blake
Imagine improving your resilience to stress and injury just by simply learning to breathe efficiently? The Wim Hof Method is a breathing technique originally introduced to help swimmers embrace incredibly low temperatures during cold water immersion.
By using the breath to influence your physiology and neurochemistry, the Wim Hof Method has many benefits, attracting the curiosity of athletes from a range of sports including one of the most extreme sports on the planet, big wave surfing.
In 2017, big wave rider and dryrobe® Ambassador, Andrew Cotton introduced the Wim Hof Method to his training routine to support his recovery after breaking his back surfing in Nazaré .
We were keen to ask Cotty about his relationship with the Wim Hoff Method and how he uses it with cold water swimming for training and recovery:
I first got into the Wim Hof Method after I broke my back, I found it a good way to meditate and reset as a form of recovery and mindset change.
I think it’s enabled me to understand the importance of recovery but not just physically also mentally which sometimes as athletes we neglect.
The health benefits can range hugely depending on what exactly you’re doing but just the breathing has benefited my sleep and ability to meditate and slow things down and the cold water has been a huge help to muscle and injury recovery after training or big wave sessions.
You have to really buy into the breathing, at first I was a little reluctant and didn’t really believe the benefits but by embracing and believing it’s really made a difference.
We were excited to speak to Cotty’s trainer Andrew Blake about how the Wim Hof Method can be used to remain calm under pressure and improve psychological resilience.
Andrew Blake is a fitness and wellness coach and the founder of Bay Fitness, providing an extensive range of activities, techniques, and therapies to his clients on their fitness journey based in the UK. Alongside Cotty, Blake has worked with some phenomenal athletes in the sports industry including big wave surfer Garrett McNamara, world surf champion Gabriel Medina, WCT surfer Miguel Pupo, professional female surfer and model Alana Blanchard, England Rugby players, and double Olympic gold medal cyclist Victoria Pendleton!
Andrew shares with us how he has used the Wim Hof Method alongside other techniques to help his clients improve their performance, manage fear, elevate mood when injured and reset the mind.
How did you first get into practicing the Wim Hof Method?
When Cotty got injured, we started using the Wim Hof Method with him. It was a really nice way of elevating his mood because the most challenging thing for athletes that I've worked with is often injury.
The hardest part of injury isn't the body, it's the mind because you get so used to the chemical release you get from exercise - all the endorphins, serotonin, and neurotransmitters. When you're not getting that, and when it's your job as well, it's easy to get down or depressed.
The Wim Hof was just one of the many methods that we used, but it was a great one for giving Cotty a routine, giving him purpose, and elevating his mood.
We both were invited to do one of Wim Hof’s courses a few years ago in Paris - it's really simple stuff but really effective. The Wim Hof Method is just active pranayama (a breathing technique used in yoga) called Tummo, which is a form of active breathing where you're hyperventilating. You're expelling a lot of CO2, which creates hypoxia in your mind. It basically creates a lack of oxygen in your mind, which means that you get a change in your chemistry, and you get an elevation in your mood.
How does a typical Wim Hof Method session work?
Wim Hof talks about three pillars, and they are breathing, cold therapy, and commitment.
The technique is 30/40 active inhalations with passive exhalations and three exhale breath holds and 15-second inhale holds.
After an exhalation, your blood oxygen saturation is lower and the Wim Hof Method is easy to hold your breath.
When Cotty is under a 50-foot wave, he never really has to hold his breath for longer than 30 seconds and most people who do the Wim Hof Method can hold their breath for a minute.
And it's because your gauge to breathe is not a lack of oxygen, it's your carbon dioxide. With the Wim Hof Method, you're expelling carbon dioxide. So once you get rid of all the carbon dioxide it’s easier to hold your breath.
So you hold your breath on the exhale, and then you breathe in and hold it for 15 seconds. And then you repeat that whole thing again, three or four times. And that creates a little bit of a change in people's mood, chemistry, and physiology. But there are different benefits of doing it (and when to do it) but it should be combined with the rest of the day doing so low, deep nasal breathing. If you're doing the Wim Hof Method, I would say is important for the rest of the time to be working on your breathing efficiency alongside it.
How does the Wim Hof Method differ from just regular cold water immersion?
Cold water is a shock, it is another stress on the body. There are many reasons cold water could be beneficial - like any stress is beneficial. Stress is bad for you when it becomes chronic. But if you can have some small stress on your body, your body adapts and grows and develops.
In psychology, I was doing this thing with Jenny Jones recently. She was at a snowboarder retreat and she had a sports psychologist there, and she was calling it systematic desensitization. It basically means the more you expose yourself to stress, whatever that stress is, in this example, the cold, the more your body gets used to it.
When your body gets used to it, you teach your body to stay calm under stress. You can teach your body to actually enjoy stress.
So cold water is a great way of controlling your physiology and your chemistry. So if I go into cold water now most people would experience cold water shock. You'd have a big gasp of breath and then the next minute be breathing really heavily.
If you can slow down your breath simply and breathe four seconds in and six seconds out, you breathing in six times a minute instead of 30 times a minute, and immediately you're changing your body's response to stress just by simply breathing less - to less volume and less minute ventilation.
And you're training your mind to not attach yourself to the cold. There are a few different elements of it, but a lot of it is training the mind not to attach to the cold.
A key point is that it's applicable to any stress - because your body doesn't know the difference between a physical and a psychological stress. So once you mastered that, every time stress comes up, you can have that same awareness.
What advice would you give to anyone who wanted to start using the Wim Hof method?
Anyone can do it - there are a few exceptions such as heart conditions and pregnancy but anyone can do the Wim Hof Method.
But first of all, the most important thing is to learn how to breathe efficiently.
Efficient breathing means good posture. When you've got a good posture, you breathe deep.
The most important breathing muscle is the diaphragm, which creates calm in the body. It also creates good posture and it also creates stability - it protects your hips and your back. Use your intercostals so you want to breathe out and in rather than up and down.
So posture, stability, and efficient breath would be the first things.
And then learning to breathe through your nose because that has many benefits when you sleep, when you exercise, for performance, the ability to use oxygen and to extract oxygen.
Your nose is a natural filter and it creates a lot of nitric oxide, which opens the blood vessels and it's really good for your immune system. For example, in hospitals, when people get COVID, they’d use nitric oxide to try and open the blood vessels and its antiviral properties.
You can create a lot of nitric oxide by nasal breathing, humming, and long exhalations.
So, one single breath can be enough to change your state. One single breath can take you out of panic, for example.
How have you worked with Andrew to assist him in his performance?
I started working with Cotty just on his physical performance - that was just to get as fit as he could, specific to his big wave surfing.
We then soon realized that one of the most important elements of big wave surfing was the mind - when you're in the performance managing your state. For him, it was managing fear.
Cotty and I were running courses in Nazaré before COVID and our little slogan was surrender, accept, embrace.
So the first step was to surrender, to let go of what you can't control.
Accept, to be present, and then embrace and to learn to enjoy the fear and the stress.
The breathing and the mindfulness stuff for him was pre-performance and before going to the big waves to control his state, to control fear, and to have a positive relationship with fear.
And then in performance to be more present, to be able to extract more oxygen and open the blood vessels and tolerate stress better. Psychologically be in the moment more and access to flow state more.
And then the recovery was quite key for him - resetting the nervous system after an extreme high and extreme stress. For adrenaline, it is quite important that the nervous system and brainwaves are balanced.
The other aspect was was injury resilience. He's had a few injuries over the years. So firstly, how he manages those injuries, both mentally and physically, but also how he makes his body more resilient to injuries in the future.
So strength and stability to prepare his body for the massive forces and massive impacts that you post through them.
Even now it's still something that he's working on. In those two big competitions this year, and the first one I was there, we woke up and he's got so much going on because you've got the jet skis, the team, the wetsuits, or the equipment, or interviews with WSL stuff. There was so much going on on the day of the competition that I sat down with him and did 30 minutes of breathing, movement, and activation - both physical and mental.
And then as soon as that finished, I think he drank too much coffee and he went back into hyperactive mode. So I said that the next time, you've got to try and apply it to the whole morning, not just for that half an hour. And he did and then he came third in the next comp, which was amazing.
We realized early on that managing fear and managing stress and priming his state before a big wave surf enhanced his performance during it and improved recovery after it - and a lot of that was the mind
But then also, we realized that it's applicable to many people.
All these techniques that Cotty uses for managing stress and managing fear, if he can do it with a hundred-foot wave, anyone else can do it with whatever their stress and fear is.
We can learn not to resist fear, but to lead into it and then eventually learn to enjoy it, as Cotty does.
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