If you've ever watched a cold-weather bike race, particularly a cyclocross race, and wondered how cyclists can withstand competing in bare legs, the answer is simple. Though they may appear to be extremely tough, the athletes have probably just applied a thin layer of embrocation, or a warming oil, to keep legs loose and warm during competition.
Embrocation can mean either the act of applying a liquid or cream to an affected area or the cream or liniment applied to the skin itself. Embrocation is similar to a product like Icy Hot, but many companies have tweaked the embrocation formulas to produce varying levels of heat or to target recovery in athletes. Embrocation is rubbed into the legs and other muscles, where it warms them for hours.
The roots of embrocation in cycling trace back to Belgium, where the sport of cyclocross demands that cyclists compete in cold, wet conditions. Cyclists rub the warming liquid into their legs and lower back to essentially create another layer between their skin and the elements. It can also be used on places like the shoulders and feet. It works by increasing blood flow to muscles and extremities, making it possible to ride longer and harder in cold conditions. It also provides a barrier between skin and the elements, which is particularly helpful in rain. Other embrocation formulas are created to help speed muscle recovery by increasing blood flow to muscles, which helps flush out toxins and speed healing.
A variety of companies manufacture embrocations, and many take pride in their "home-brewed" recipes, which are made in small batches. Most of them are thick, so as to form a protective layer on the skin and act as a second skin to ward off the elements as they keep muscles warm. Most embrocations have a base made of some type of lotion or shea butter, as well as oils like grapeseed, soybean or sesame. Beeswax is another common ingredient, which acts as an emollient. Companies use a variety of herbs and spices to achieve the product's warming effect. This can include cinnamon, capsaicin and also chemicals, depending on the brand.
Before applying embrocation, ensure your legs are clean and free of any creams. The key it to massage it into your muscles. Begin with the calf and move up the leg to the hamstring, taking several minutes to massage it in. Massage your knee and then move up to the hamstring and the quad. Don't work to rub it all in, as it provides an outer barrier. Just try to work it into the muscles. Also, apply the cream to any other areas, such as the neck, shoulders or feet to keep them warm and from feeling stiff as you exercise. If you're going to wear leg warmers, apply embrocation first. After application, wash your hands thoroughly and avoid pulling up your shorts and exposing your chamois to the cream.