Can using sport balms replace a good warm-up on the bike?

Credit: Anton Want/Allsport
Stand in the staging area of any bicycle race on a cold and damp day and you will smell the aroma of menthol in the air. The source of the scent is a tube of Musculor, Cramergesic, Ben-Gay, Icy Hot or one of the dozens of other products on the market.

Technically known as analgesics or counterirritants, they have become a part of pre-race preparation for the cyclist. Their use in cycling is strictly to aid in "warm-up" or as a source for relief for muscle soreness.

They are known as counterirritants because they produce a slight irritation of the skin and therefore create a sensation of warmth ranging from mild to intense. As we will see later the heat that builds up in the leg muscles is a result of the massaging action of the trainer or by the pre-race riding is greater than that caused by the use of the analgesic itself.

Analgesics are made in varying strengths. The perceived strength of a particular analgesic is dependent up on the sensitivity of the skin on which it is applied. Putting a mild analgesic such as Icy-Hot on one cyclist will produce a particular sensation. The sensation may not be the same on a cyclist whose skin is not as sensitive.

Also, a cyclist would not use a "hot" counterirritant such as Red Hot on both their thigh muscles and neck, because these areas have different sensitivities and will react differently.

The most popular ingredient in analgesics is methyl salicylate, found in wintergreen oil or else prepared synthetically. When put on your legs, it causes the skin to turn red and produces a feeling of warmth. Methyl salicylate is safe when used no more than three or four times per day. But a cyclist, who is sensitive to aspirin, should monitor the use of methyl salicylate since it is related to aspirin.

Menthol is the second-most widely used ingredient in counterirritants and is produced synthetically or extracted from peppermint oil. Menthol stimulates the nerves that perceive cold while depressing those that perceive pain. The immediate effect is a sense of coolness, followed by sensations of warmth.

With this combination of menthol and methyl salicylate a mixed sensation of cold and warmth is sent to the brain, which diminishes the perception of pain. Which is why these products are used after a hard effort when you experience soreness in your muscles. The fragrance of the menthol also acts psychologically to take your mind off your sore muscles.

Whether or not these products aid in warming-up is a question that has been raised for many years. Studies conducted at the University of California, at San Diego measured the effect of rubbing Ben-Gay on the legs as an aid in warming-up before strenuous exercise.

Two groups of runners were used the studies. One group warmed-up and applied Ben-Gay to their legs. The other group warmed-up without Ben-Gay. The runners then engaged in a prolonged treadmill run. The runners recorded the amount of discomfort they were encountering at various times during the run. The runners who warmed-up with Ben-Gay ran with significantly greater comfort for a longer period of time.

The researcher concluded that Ben-Gay is an effective aid to warm-up and that proper warm-up with Ben-Gay can help one exercise more comfortably for longer periods of time.

While the results of this study are significant, one should not forget that a proper warm-up on the bike is important to good performance. The sensation of warmth produced by the analgesic may make some cyclists think they are ready for racing when, in fact, their muscles may be too tight for all-out exertion.

In cool, damp weather a product with an oil or Vaseline type base will also help keep the rain off your legs and block the wind. It is wise to have a coach or masseur apply the product to your legs since it is not wise to start the race with these products on your hands. If you rub your eyes or lips you'll soon learn not to apply them yourself.

Rubbing alcohol and an old towel are the best cleaning agents to get an analgesic balm off your hands or to clean off your legs after the race.

Never apply analgesics to bruised or abraded skin, since absorption into the body can produce unwanted effects. If a rash develops, stop using the product and try another one. Finally, avoid using counterirritants near sensitive areas as lips, eyes and crotch area.

In addition to the legs in cold weather do not forget to roll up your cycling shorts to get the upper thigh and roll down your socks in order to get the Achilles tendon. It is also wise to apply some to the lower back if it is sore and arms if you are wearing a short sleeve jersey.

So, while counterirritants will add in warm-up and help you recover from muscle soreness, they are not a replacement for a good warm-up on the bicycle.

Warming up prepares the entire body for the hard effort of racing. It prepares the cardiovascular system by gradually increasing the demand on the body's systems so that when the race starts (such as a hill climb) it can be better accommodated by the cardiovascular system. With the musculoskeletal system, a proper warm-up increases metabolism in preparation for faster and more forceful muscle movements.

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