Silicon Valley’s tech elites are adopting uncomfortable habits to condition their bodies

Many tech elites are fascinated by the training regimens advocated by Wim Hof of Holland, 51, who is known as the

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Many tech elites are fascinated by the training regimens advocated by Wim Hof of Holland, 51, who is known as the “iceman.”
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REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

  • Silicon Valley tech elites are adopting some of the latest and most extreme techniques for performance enhancement.
  • These techniques include immersion in freezing water, fasting, and attending camps that have participants crawl through snake-filled boxes.
  • The basic idea is to learn techniques for coping with mental and physical stress.

From athletics to business, learning to deal with stress is an essential key to improving performance. That’s because stress can push people to perform at their best – or cause them to shut down.

So it’s no surprise that in the metrics-obsessed world of Silicon Valley, tech elites are turning to the latest in performance science and psychology to learn to adapt to stress – even by doing physically and mentally uncomfortable things.

Stress-adapting techniques for devotees of the latest in performance science include immersion in freezing cold temperatures, forgoing food for 15 hours a day, and attending training camps with elite athletes, where they crawl through snake-filled boxes or do improv.

As Christina Farr explains in a story for CNBC, this “positive stress movement,” as it’s known, is filled with “tech workers who claim that such radical tactics will help them live better and longer or – in Silicon Valley – work better for longer.”

According to Farr, start-up founder Zachary Rapp credits an early morning run followed by a freezing cold shower and the occasional ice bath as the way to be ready for the stress that comes with 18-hour workdays.

Rapp is far from the only one engaged in this sort of activity.

Red Bull Performing Under Pressure

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Garth Milan/Red Bull content pool

Pushing the limits of human performance

The notion that it’s beneficial to learn how to cope with stress and build psychological resilience isn’t new. Cultures going at least as far back as Sparta trained people by having them face a sequence of unexpected and difficult tasks.

But the modern iteration of this sort of training is backed – at least in some ways – by modern scientific research.

And while much of this sort of training has long had an appeal to elite athletes, people in the tech and business world are increasingly driven to improve their performance in similar ways.

That’s why Andy Walshe, a biomechanics expert from Australia who runs a “Performing Under Pressure” clinic for Red Bull, started inviting people like Will Weisman, an executive director at Singularity University, to train with elite rock climbers and big-wave surfers. Activities at the clinic include the aforementioned snake box, solving puzzles underwater, and facing a charging bear – all in the name of improving an individual’s response to stress.

“Better at who you are is better at what you do,” Walshe previously told Business Insider.

Red Bull Performing Under Pressure

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Garth Milan/Red Bull content pool

It’s the same idea that drives those who opt for ice baths or daily cold showers. The idea behind “environmental conditioning,” as Dutch fitness guru Wim Hof explains it, is that our bodies evolved to be challenged by factors like extreme cold and heat. Without those stresses, our overall stress response may go haywire. That’s why Hof advocates for a combination of environmental conditioning and controlled breathwork that he argues can have a transformative effect on health.

In Silicon Valley, the cold shower movement is so popular that – of course – there’s an app to help people do it.

Fasting is yet another area that fascinates both scientists interested in pushing human limits and people in the tech world. There’s some good data showing that fasting could potentially help cure disease and slow aging. A number of Silicon Valley elites have focused on various forms of intermittent fasting as one potential way to get the health-boosting benefits of a fast.

As Facebook analytics director Dan Zigmond previously told Business Insider, adopting a strict schedule of only eating during a nine-hour period each day helped him lose weight and feel like he had more energy.

“It took me a couple of weeks,” he said. “But I got pretty quickly used to this nine-hour diet. I just loved it. I almost immediately felt better. And I started losing weight.”

In many of these cases, the science behind these things – cold immersion, intermittent fasting, or just putting yourself in a scary situation – is still emerging. Some things may turn to be excellent means of performance enhancement, others less so.

But as “crazy” as some of these challenges may seem, they’re still classic examples of human performance enhancement. To get better, you have to push yourself – even if that requires being extra-creative.