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Science:Pre-race preparation and warm up

Alan Milway who knows a thing or two about training and preparation for downhill races was at Llangollen Halo BDS the other weekend and has put pen to electronic paper about his thoughts and observations on the importance of warming-up before your race run.

Words and photos: Alan Milway.

Downhill racing has always had a combination of elements that come together to give an event that not only tests, but thrills in equal measure. The UK scene has risen to become one of the dominant forces on the World Cup circuit and the proving ground for these riders is the annual series of National races held across our fair land.

What has been interesting to see this season is how the riders prepare on the national circuit, and also the World Cup circuit. For some of the top pros the Nationals are a warm up for International competition and not their main focus, but for most of the start list this will be the sharp end of any racing they do.

This past weekend in a hot and dusty Llangollen, I was interested to see a real mix of approaches to racing with an equally diverse range of outcomes. On arrival in the pits there was the monolith wagon of the Athertons – a motocross spec truck that clearly showed  that their approach to this race wasn’t going to be any different to any other weekend (on the surface at least). The Hart’s motor home was at the finish line as ever. These were the expectations. However, the privateers are stepping it up too with bigger motor homes, caravans and pimped transporters making more of a mark than I have ever noticed. Not a motocross paddock yet but not a million miles off.

The bikes have reached a level at which there is very little to choose between them, or to even be envious of a pro’s bike. Gone are the days of standing on the sideline to hear the whoosh of Dave Hemming’s Tioga disc drive wheel as he rode past, or waiting around the finish arena to ogle a Hope disc brake. I feel the developments in bike technology are now more refinements and subtle suspension changes. Bikes might be pretty much as expensive as motocross bikes but the standard of bike in the cattle truck is much higher across the board than it ever used to be – the preparation of race equipment is certainly taken seriously by racers.

Danny Hart warming up at Llangollen

However, how you prepare yourself before you race will also make a difference. The term ‘warm up’ might have once seemed far too athletic a term  a decade ago for a group of riders atop a wet Welsh hill all trying to nonchalantly pretend it will be pure natural talent alone that will get them down the hill faster than you. Today on the World Cup circuit there are rows of turbo trainers at the top, all humming away with the sound of intention and the smell of Olbas oil. However, at the National races there are now the provision of warm up bikes (provided by Watt bike) to get you ready for your race run.

Watt bikes provided at nationals.

This sounds like a step forward for certain, but even the world cup riders who would usually have a turbo trainer at the top didn’t bother for Llangollen. No need for this track or a return to the aforementioned attitude? Either way, a warm up could make a difference to the final time – and when the times were so close, could it have been the difference required? Why bother at one race but not at another?

A warm up serves to act as a transition between rest and maximum effort exercise. When you consider the lengthy gaps between practice, seeding run and then final run, there was an awful lot of resting in the sun going on. Physiologically a warm up gets the blood flowing to the working muscles, increases body temperature to optimum levels, increases the speed of nerve transmission and increases the amount of blood the heart is sending out to the areas that need it. In practice this will mean a good length of steady pedaling to cause this redistribution of blood flow and increase in working temperature.

Added to this will be short periods of close to race intensity power – to prepare the biochemical systems in the body that need to cope with the race effort to give maximum power from the onset and stave off fatigue as the run progresses.

Psychologically, a warm up gets you ready to race – focuses you after sitting around for what might have been hours and gets you ready to put it all together for your one shot at glory. Mentally rehearsing your race run in your head could also form part of your warm up.

Rachel Atherton in race run visualisation mode at Rheola.

Rachel Atherton and Damien Spagnolo are two riders who do this routinely. If you ever are at the top when Mr Spagnolo is warming up, he shuts his eyes and is very animated in his mental ‘run through’ of the track – hands waving around and body twisting the turns of the track. Think of a bobsleigh driver and you’ll have the idea.

In the hot, hot sun of Llangollen, many probably considered themselves warmed up already – and in fact a vigorous warm up in the sun might have put them over the edge in terms of core temperature, but to forego a warm up altogether would be a mistake.

Tour de France warm up- using cooling ice vest.

This photo from last year’s Tour de France time trial shows the efforts professional road cyclists go to warm up and keep the core cool at the same time – ice vests to keep core temp down whilst allowing the warm up to give the other beneficial effects. And a warm up might almost be more relevant for downhill if you consider the popular training mantra regarding warm ups: ‘the shorter the event, the longer the warm up’.

Perhaps a lack of real understanding regarding pre- race warm ups contributes to sticking with the ‘spin about at the top for a bit, and then as I wait in line I’ll just backpedal’ attitude?  Or is it still the worry of looking like you spend a lot of time getting fit but not enough time riding down hills fast?

For those that have spent a lot of time, effort and money getting themselves to the race and want to give it their best shot, it is worth considering pre-race preparation.

When the bike prep, travel and practice are all done to get you to the start line, it’s probably worth making sure you’re fully ready too.

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