Improve your climbing

Improve your climbing

For training to be effective, it must be progressive and cover all aspects of your chosen cycling discipline eg. mountain bikers and cyclo-cross riders need sprinting ability to get a good start in their races whereas time triallists are more concerned about maintaining a high, constant speed. Road racers need a bit of everything!

If you don't climb the hills you can't enjoy the views and the freewheeling descents on the other side! In road and mountain bike racing, climbs often decide the race. By improving your climbing ability you will improve your performance and your results, the climbs themselves will become less daunting and you'll probably enjoy your rides more too!
 

If you hate hills and always avoid them, then you will always struggle
Aim
  • Improve your climbing ability in 3 weeks
  • Kick-start you into a long term programme
  • Prepare you for a specific hilly ride or race.
Basics

Your climbing ability is dependent on number of factors:

Your position on your bike (See also Getting the right bike size). You need the correct saddle height and saddle layback.

Your mental attitude to climbing. If you hate hills and always avoid them, then you will always struggle. Yes, hills are hard work but you can climb all hills if you really want to.

Techniques such as cadence, pacing, sitting in the saddle and when to climb out of the saddle.

The most important factor in climbing is your power to weight ratio. This is a calculation of your power (measured in watts) divided by your weight (kilos). It's not necessary to know the exact figures but if you can lose weight from yourself - or even your bike - then you will find climbing much easier. (See also Nutrition).

You won't be able to lose a great deal of weight in three weeks (perhaps 1kg) but if you know you are carrying a few extra kilos then it is never too soon to start a sensible diet. Combined with this extra training you'll soon make some good inroads to lose some of that excess baggage.

The most important factor in climbing is your power to weight ratio

Specific sessions

The best way to improve your hill climbing ability is to ride hills regularly. You can improve your level of general fitness on flat routes in the same way, but on hilly routes you can improve your mental attitude to climbing, your breathing technique and your muscles will adapt specifically for to cope with climbing.

Include hills in your regular rides. For example, if you usually ride for three hours on a Sunday, then include at least five hills in this ride. Aim to maintain a sensible pace on the climbs, so that you are able to ride over the top and continue - as opposed to having to stop in a breathless heap. Note that riding hilly routes will increase the overall intensity of the ride, so make sure that you are well 'fuelled' and do not try to attack the first two or three hills too aggressively, leaving yourself unable to cope with the ride home.

To achieve the quickest results you need specific hill climbing sessions. These sessions involve a large amount of climbing in a reasonably short ride. They will be hard work but you can expect to see a rapid improvement in your climbing ability.

Hill repeats  

As the name implies, this involves riding up the same climb time and time again.
  • Choose a climb which is not too steep (less than 1 in 8 or 12.5%).
  • The aim is not to race up it or set a record but to ride at a steady but high speed up the climb and over the top.
  • Warm up for at least 20 minutes before you reach the bottom of the climb.
  • Ride up at a steady pace and continue riding hard over the top of the climb for a further 60 seconds.
  • Turn around and descend easily to the bottom.
  • Ride past the bottom of the climb for a minute or so before turning, so that you can recover from the previous effort.
  • The intensity of the climb should be hard but sub maximal, about 80% of your maximum heart rate. A heart rate monitor is a very useful accessory here.
  • Repeat the climb again and again until you have completed 20 - 30 minutes of good quality climbing time.
  • Concentrate on good technique and even experiment with different techniques, for example in the saddle or out the saddle.
Hard hills

A more intense version of hill repeats. Follow the same guidelines as hill repeats.
  • Ride the hill as hard as you can but pace yourself so that you can maintain the effort all the way.
  • Time yourself from the bottom to 100 metres beyond the top of the hill.
  • Add 10% to this time. For example for a 4.00 min climb this would give 4 min 24 secs.
  • Now repeat the climb until you can no longer stay in this new time
  • If you reach 30 minutes of total climbing, well done! (Perhaps you'll have to go harder on the first climb next time!)
Hill strength 

Climbing uses your muscles slightly differently from riding on the flat, because of the reduction in speed your cadence is likely to be lower, the gear 'harder' in relative terms and you will make shifts in your position on the bike.
  • Before you do this session make sure your bike fits correctly and that you do not have any niggling pains, especially in your back or knees.
  • Pick a hilly route for your ride.
  • On the hills stay seated in the saddle to really work the specific cycling muscles and select a gear that you can pedal at about 60 revolutions per minute.
  • Keep in the saddle over the top of the climb, then change into an easy gear and ride steadily to the next climb.
Turbo Trainers  

If you use an indoor trainer because of weather or time restrictions, you can still train for climbing (this is also very useful if you live in a flat area).

Set the bike on the trainer but raise the front wheel by 10cm on something solid like a couple of telephone directories, wood or a bricks. This will now feel like a climb you will use your muscles in the same fashion as on a climb. Raising the front wheel 10cm is similar to a 1:10 hill.
You can now do your workout as normal, but in a climbing position or you could do one of the above workouts. In the periods where you would be going downhill and recovering use a very easy gear.
This method is ideal to simulate long mountain climbs if you are preparing for a holiday in the Alps or Pyrenees.

Weekly examples

Hill climbing is hard work, not only on your muscles, but also on your knees and your body, so make sure that you have easy days between hard hilly training sessions so that your body can recover. (See also Recovery, Training)

Two hill sessions a week is plenty

Do not attempt hill sessions if you are already tired. You will not get any benefit from the workout if you are over tired before you begin. If you are a novice cyclist or consider your fitness levels to be low, then you should start by simply including hills in your normal rides. If after a couple of weeks you feel confident and more comfortable when climbing then you can attempt one of the specific hill sessions, twice a week is plenty.

If you are a confident cyclist then you can start the specific sessions straight away. Two hill sessions a week is plenty as they are very hard work and you will need a rest day the following day. On your other rides you can still include some climbs, but ride up them steadily. This will improve your technique and your confidence.

Self test

The aim of the quick fix is for you to be able to climb faster. This simple test will show you whether you have succeeded.
  • Choose a local hill, preferably one that is unlikely to be affected by windy conditions.
  • Warm up, by riding steadily, for at least 20 minutes.
  • At the bottom of the hill pick a marker, such as a tree, a road sign or gateway.
  • Now ride the hill as fast as you can.
  • Time yourself to a finish marker.
  • After three weeks repeat the test.
  • Make sure that the conditions are very similar, including the warm up and your level of tiredness.

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