Racing Cyclocross in the Cold: The “Don’ts”

The “Don’ts”
The preface: Of all the blogs I plan on writing about racing cyclocross in the cold, this is the one that will be the most controversial. This is because when you write about “don’ts” it’s mainly because people are already doing them. I mean really, I don’t have to write about things like, “don’t use dragon flames to keep yourself warm before a race”, because nobody is doing that. No, when it comes to “don’ts” people are doing them because they have rationalized to themselves that what they are doing is right. Often times, they have their own or other’s (pros?) anecdotes to support their reasoning. Having preset beliefs challenged often leads to people being upset, which makes debunking such beliefs difficult to do with simple things like facts and/or scientific evidence… at least that is what the scientific studies about human nature say. So without further ado, I give you the “don’ts” of racing cyclocross in the cold, I hope you find the blog informative.

The biggest hot button topic in cold racing “don’ts” is the use of embrocation or warming cream (also known as “Belgian knee warmers”). The idea behind these creams is that they have an irritant in them that causes blood to flow to the cutaneous where they are applied. This causes a warming sensation in the area. Unfortunately, this warming sensation does little besides provide a placebo effect and actually has the potential to be detrimental to performance. The first nail in the coffin for embrocation happens when a search for scientific literature dealing with it and cycling and performance is done. There is no published data (at least not in the major scientific databases) that supports the claim that embrocation can improve your cycling performance. This doesn’t mean that embrocation cannot improve your performance, it just means that none of the claims out there for embrocation as a performance enhancer are substantiated with actual scientific research.

The second nail in the coffin for embrocation actually deals with how it most likely cannot improve your performance. This can be explained through basic anatomy and physiology. As established in the previous blog about warm-ups, a warm muscle (and the connective tissue around it) performs better than a cold muscle. It was also mentioned that the best way to ensure that the exercising muscles were warm was to look for signs of thermoregulation, like sweating. Part of this is because, unlike skin, muscle has no thermoreceptors (nerves that signal temperature to the brain). This means that sensations of heat from the leg may or may not mean the muscle is warm. In the case of embrocation application the muscle is most likely not going to be warmed-up until it has actually exercised sufficiently. The blood causing the skin to be warm did not first travel through the muscle capillary beds (warming it and dropping off oxygen on the way) and then move onto the skin- it went directly to the skin. Once the blood reaches a capillary bed in the skin or the muscle it has to return back to the heart before it can be used again for thermoregulation or to supply oxygen. Which brings me to another important point that was touched on in the blog about the basics of thermoregulation- shunting blood to the skin has the potential to decrease performance. So, it should be somewhat obvious that applying a product that encourages blood to flow to the skin doesn’t make a lot of sense. Now, to be fair, like there are no studies that say embrocation use will increase performance there are also no studies that say it will decrease performance, but this is not how we justify the use of a product (kind of like there are no studies that say wearing clown make-up will increase or decrease your cyclocross performance, but how many people do you know have fake red noses in their race bag?). In my opinion, given these facts, it’s probably best to save the money you’d spend on warming creams and buy some sweet knee warmers.

The next big “don’t” is over-dressing. Cyclocross is generally raced in cooler temperatures, which offers a great advantage during intense exercise. A greater temperature gradient provided by the environment allows for heat generated by exercise to be lost at a greater rate. This reduces the need for performance robbing thermoregulating processes such as sweating and shunting blood to the skin. If you over-dress you reduce the advantage provided to you by the environment while many other competitors are still taking full advantage of it. One scenario that exemplifies this is the early season long sleeve skinsuit wearer. So, you get that sweet looking team skinsuit and, oh man, the bike just slides up and down the arms with ease when shouldering it at the run-ups… but it’s 60 degrees out and you’re sweating buckets. For most people, it’s probably best to wait until later in the season to bust out that long sleeve skinsuit. The other scenario that exemplifies over dressing is the person who dresses the same for a race as they would for a training ride at the same temperature. The chances are really good that you’re going to be over-dressed if you do this because the intensity of the exercise (and therefore the heat generated) is higher during a race than during a “normal” training ride. The caveat to the “over-dressing don’t” is you obviously don’t want to under-dress because, as alluded to in earlier blogs, being too cold can cause you to perform just as poorly as if you’re overheated. Also, equally as important, extremities that are too cold run the risk of getting frostbitten, and that’s no bueno. With dressing for races it comes down to finding a balance, which is something I plan on addressing in my next blog.

Lastly, some real quick “don’ts” that most people are aware of, but I figure it’s best to mention anyway. First, people have been known to drink at cross races. Use booze for fun and as a social lubricant to meet possible dating partners, but don’t use it for warming up your extremities prior to a cross race. It’s just a bad idea and it doesn’t work. Also, don’t wear cotton and exercise in the cold (or better yet, just don’t exercise in cotton). Cotton is a death cloth.

Tipton, C. M., Sawka, M. N., Tate, C. A., Terjung, R. L. (Eds.). (2006). ACSM’s Advanced Exercise Physiology. Philidelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

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