Hill Climbing Domination
Struggle on the hills? Tired of getting dropped?
After chatting with numerous cyclists about the thing they want to improve the most – getting better at hills topped the list.
This training module is guaranteed to make you faster on all your local Strava segments! Start dropping seconds, and your training buddies, by mastering your technique, improving your efficiency, and following all the great tips provided.
The Completion Level of Your Training.
What You Will Learn
This module is designed to take you from fearing the hills, to dominating them. From falling off the back, to riding near the front.
Will it happen overnight? No. Some of this stuff can be implemented today…but the process is going to take multiple weeks, maybe even months. Be sure you scope the program that is included and designed specifically around becoming a better hill climber. And if you’re a flatlander, we’ll talk about how you can best train for the hills while living on the flats.
Now, don’t expect these hills to get “easier.” As a wise man once said, “Hills never get easier, you just get faster.”
Let’s get fast!
The 4 Keys to Dominating Hills
Yeah, no magic pill here.
If you want to ride up hills faster, you need to practice riding up hills.
Work on applying the technique taught in this training module. Really work to become efficient while standing AND while seated.
Master transferring the load to different muscle groups. Make sure you are FULLY engaging your muscles and firing them at the right times. Again, this all takes practice, so work on it every time you hit a hill or longer climb. Make sure you’re not always doing it on group rides, you need time to really focus on yourself and what your body is doing. This is harder to do on group rides.
Lastly, if you live where there aren’t hills, see the “Flatlanders” section.
2. Maximize Efficiency
The most complex part of going faster up climbs is maximizing efficiency (technique). Improving efficiency is cheaper than a new bike, doesn’t really require a bunch of threshold intervals, and is easier for most than dropping 10 pounds.
Make sure you are constantly analyzing what your body is telling you. What muscle groups are working? Which are fatiguing? Then work to ease that load with what you’ve learned about pedal stroke and the technical aspects about climbing we will cover in this module.
3. Drop Some Weight
The steeper the climb, the more weight matters.
The heavier your bike + person + equipment combination is, the more power you will have to put out at a given speed.
Ever notice how tiny those Tour de France climbers are?
Going fast uphill is all about your power to weight ratio.
Losing weight can mean getting a lighter bike. Lighter wheelset. Carrying one less water bottle (or having someone else carry it for you). You get the idea.
Losing weight may also mean dropping some pounds off your body.
Or, it can be a combo of both.
But you’ll see pretty quickly that the lighter you go with equipment the more $$$ it costs, so we recommend trying to shed some of those unneeded pounds off your…self.
4. Increase Your Power
On the other side of the Power to Weight equation of going fast uphill is POWER!
If you increase your power over a specific climb and keep everything else constant – you will go faster.
Step one is to follow the program that is part of this module and boost that threshold power.
If you are in an area like Memphis where “long” climbs are under 2 minutes, then boosting short duration power will be key. You can also check out our Flatlanders Guide below for more tips on simulating longer climbs in your training.
Pro Tips for Minimizing Your Odds of Getting Dropped
Start the Climbs at the Front of the Group
This is an easy one. Start at or near the front of the group and settle into your own rhythm.
The goal is to ride hard but within yourself. If you’re lucky, the pack will stay behind you and let you ride your own pace up the climb. That’s the ideal situation.
But, if the faster riders get antsy and start coming past you, don’t try and stay with them. Keep riding your pace and allow yourself to trickle back through the group.
When done right, this will allow you to climb the hill at a slower speed while still maintaining contact with the group.
Note: You need to know when you’re approaching the back of the group. If there’s still a long distance to climb, you’re going to have to ramp your effort. If you are near the top, you can keep riding your own pace and avoid redlining yourself.
We’ve done an entire module on proper breathing. Go check it out if you haven’t already. It is super valuable.
Big key with breathing:
- Increase oxygen uptake PRIOR to the climb.
- Focus on your exhale – big exhales when you’re on the climb will allow for more fresh oxygen to come in.
- Breathe into your stomach – no shallow breathing allowed. Pull that air down low in the lungs, force that stomach out, and consume that oxygen!
- Get in a rhythm – pattern your breathing off your pedal stroke and dial that body in.
- Keep breathing over the top of the climb – don’t get to the top and assume the effort is over. Keep the breathing focus until AFTER you have recovered.
- DO NOT grab your water bottle and take a big drink while you are still breathing heavier. You need that oxygen! Wait until after you have recovered.
The Top is Not the End
This one is huge – especially if you are suffering on the climbs.
Mentally, do not treat the top of the climb as the “end” of the effort.
The end does not come until you are back in the group and/or fully recovered.
It happens A LOT where mentally you hit the top, assume it’s time to ease up, and that little gap that formed between you and the pack balloons into a big one.
Keep pushing to stay with the pack until you are back up to speed and safely back in the group before you allow that “relax” to happen. Those few extra seconds of effort may just save you from getting dropped or having to burn a lot of matches chasing back on.
If your goal is to maximize your avg speed (like you would in a time trial or if you’re late for dinner), this rule still applies. You need to get all the way back up to speed before you allow yourself to recover. You will lose A LOT of seconds if you ease off too early over the top of a climb.
Get up to speed, then recover.
Your mind is a powerful thing.
Tell yourself you’re not a climber and that hills are hard and guess what? They are going to suck and you’ve already set yourself up for quitting.
When it starts getting tough, use your mind to pump yourself up.
Tell yourself you CAN make it up. You WILL hang onto the wheel in front of you. Your legs hurt because they are supposed to hurt on climbs. Accept it and get on with it.
Know that everyone else is hurting as well. Even better, tell yourself that if you’re hurting, everyone else is likely hurting more than you!
Start thinking of yourself as someone who is good at hills, that likes hills, and soon you’ll find yourself powering up them.
When You Run Out of Gears
Yeah, this can be a mentally deflating thing. You go to shift easier, only to find out that you have no more “easy” gears to shift into.
Step one is to go back to the previous point of positive self-talk.
Step two is to run through the technique.
When the quads start burning, focus more on the upstroke and pull through.
When the hamstrings start suffering, focus more on the downstroke and kick over.
Spend some time standing – especially since you’re now a standing pro!
But whatever you do, don’t give in and don’t get down on yourself.
Step three is to look into different gearing.
If you find you’re out of gears often and mashing at a really low cadence, it may be time to increase your rear cassette size or decrease your front chain ring size. See the equipment section for more on this.
Master the Technique and Boost Efficiency
Climbing While Seated
There are two ways to climb, seated and standing. We recommend you become proficient at both and utilize both. In this section, we outline the proper technique for mastering your climbing while seated. We recommend you throw your bike on the trainer and follow along with us. And don’t forget to prop that front wheel up!
Don’t have a trainer, then make sure you really envision and put yourself on the bike in your mind while watching this. Knowing what to do is one thing. FEELING what to do is another.
And to get a little visual of what it looks like out on the road, here are a couple examples from one of the “massive” Memphis climbs.
Climbing While Standing
This is one of the tougher techniques in the sport to master. But, once you do, you’ll be amazed at how much better and faster you become on the climbs.
Standing allows you to generate more force, change the load on your body, AND has the added benefit of taking pressure off your saddle and allowing you to “stretch out” your back. Win, win, win.
But…this only happens if you’re efficient at it!
Pedaling squares, overloading the quads, and spiking the heart rate are common issues most cyclists face when they try and stand. As a result, many never work on it.
Do not expect to master this the first time out. But, over time, you are going to be dancing up the hills like a pro!
Follow along with these videos, absorb the info, try it on the trainer, and then take it outside and PRACTICE!
This can be huge.
Dropping a chain on a climb can ruin a ride, blow an entire century, or end a good result in a race.
Not only that, it’s MUCH easier to wreck when you drop a chain at slower speeds because there’s sometimes just not enough time to unclip. Dropping a chain while standing is even worse.
All that said, follow these tips and your odds of a ride or race ending issue will greatly decrease.
- Know what gear you should be in BEFORE you start the climb.
- If you are going from the big ring in the front to the small ring, first shift 2 gears harder in the back, and then shift to the small ring up front. That will give you a similar cadence.
- Do not shift under “load.” Do your best to soft-pedal and decrease chain tension BEFORE you shift. That 1 second of coasting really decreases the risk of a miss-shift.
- Time your shift – learn how long it takes to shift gears on your bike and then practice timing that shift for the top/bottom of the pedal stroke rather than the down/upstroke. This relates to the point above about not shifting under load.
- Shift BEFORE you stand. When you stand the cadence will drop. Shift 1-2 gears harder right before you stand. This will allow you to maintain speed and provides a smoother transition.
- Do not throw your bike backward as you stand. See the video below.
- Shift as you sit. Try giving 1-2 harder pedal strokes right before you sit. Then as you’re sitting (this is usually quick) shift the 1-2 gears easier while you soft-pedal, and then settle back into the effort. This whole process should take 1 second or so.
- Practice on your own – there are a lot of wrecks that occur in packs from people not being smooth on the climbs. Practice it while you are solo and then put it to use on your rides.
Let’s Talk Cadence
One of the biggest mistakes we see from newer cyclists is trying to mash a giant gear going up hill. While it’s generally better to ride harder climbs while spinning a higher cadence (when you can), it’s usually better to start mastering the techniques at a lower cadence, and THEN speed the movement up. This goes for standing and seated climbing…and general pedal stroke work for that matter.
Slowing the cadence down at first will help you FEEL the different muscles firing during their respective phases of the pedal stroke. It’s easier to figure out where transitions happen between muscle groups, and get the general timing of the movements. It also allows any muscles that aren’t currently well activated to “get with it”.
Once you feel comfortable with the technique at a slower cadence, start working higher cadences. Once you feel comfortable with both high and low cadences, play around with varied sets of seated, standing, high, and low cadence climbing. Often times, you can find a pattern that works really well for your body so that you can continue to sustain a specific effort.
Coach Tip: On hard climbs, especially those where he is out of gears and low cadence is inevitable, Coach Dale likes to do 1 min of seated climbing, and then 30-45 seconds of standing. That’s just what he has found works for him over the years. Work to figure out your sweat spot!
There are a lot of options when it comes to gearing. Since we are talking about climbing hills, there’s a good chance that you need a gear combination that allows you to climb at a comfortable cadence range.
If you have a great power to weight ratio, you likely don’t need to worry about having lower gears.
If you never climb anything steeper than a 3% grade, again, having lower gears probably isn’t an issue.
But, if you find you’re “running out” of gears on a regular basis, you’re going to need a lower gear ratio.
Step 1 – Get a compact crankset if you do not already have one. Not sure what you have? Count the small chainring on your front crankset. If the number of teeth on that small ring is 34, you’ve got a compact. If that number is 39, you’re on a standard crankset. Spend the money and get a compact and right away you’ll be spinning nearly 15% faster at the same climbing speed.
Step 2 – Get a “wide range” rear cassette.
Not sure what you’re currently running? Well, count the number of teeth on the biggest rear cog, which is attached to your rear wheel. The larger the number the better there IF you are running out of gears on climbs.
For a hilly ride or race, I make sure I have a 28t (tooth) cog on my rear cassette.
If you do not have a 28, then you need to buy one and have it installed.
If you already have a 28, move on to step 3.
Step 3 – Upgrade your rear derailleur to allow for super wide range cassettes.
There are now “long and mid cage” derailleurs that will allow you to run a 30, 32, and even a 34t rear cassette. If you’re climbing up hills at speeds less than 6 mph, you’ll need to be investing in this. If you already have a 34t cassette and you’re still running out of gears, it is time to just focus on improving your power to weight ratio so that your body can handle climbing at faster speeds.
As we chatted about, the lighter the Bike + Rider combination, the less power it will take to get you up a hill at a given speed (assuming everything else is equal).
Although you won’t get “huge” time savings, a potentially easy upgrade is investing in a lighter wheelset.
Typical characteristics of a climbing wheelset:
- Lightweight materials
- Lower profile rim
- Lower spoke count
- Lighter hubs
Just remember, at a certain point your wheelset may be “too light” for the type of rider you are. Coach Bryant, at 185 lbs, will destroy the super light “climbing” wheelsets. He won’t ride wheels that don’t have at least 20 spokes.
Tires and Tubes
Now we’re getting pretty “weight weenie” when we’re talking about equipment, but there’s a chance you may end up shedding up to a pound or more by going to a lighter weight tire and tube combo.
There is always going to be a tradeoff between weight and puncture resistance. Running a lightweight tire and latex tubes may save you some seconds on a climb, but if you have to stop and change a flat, you’ll be losing A LOT more time than you would have saved.
This is actually an area where you may stand to gain the biggest weight savings.
If you are currently riding a 30 lb steel bike and you upgrade to a 15 lb carbon fiber climbing machine, you’re going to notice a big difference on the climbs.
But, you’ll also notice a big difference in the weight of your wallet because light weight bikes aren’t cheap.
If you are looking to upgrade your bike and climbing fast is your goal, then pay attention to getting a lighter weight bike that fits your needs as a rider. These days, there are bikes out there under 15 pounds with pedals and bottle cages. If you are predominantly riding a time trial bike, light is around 17-18 pounds. Many TT bikes are 20 pounds with pedals and cages.
Pro Tip: Don’t be fooled by cheap carbon bikes. They can be just as heavy or heaver than a nice aluminum frame. If weight is a selling point for you, make sure you check the frame weight!
We could go on and on about all the different equipment options you could go with to shed weight and improve your hill climbing times. For you long course triathletes out there, you could carry 4 bottles instead of 5 on your bike and you’d shed over a pound. Think about it!
But, the truth is, most of us can stand to lose A LOT more weight off our bodies than we’d ever drop off our bike.
Just think, if you’re 20 pounds over your ideal riding weight, that’s like losing an entire bike.
Make good nutritional choices, let that weight come off slowly, and invest in the most important piece of equipment in the “bike + rider” equation, YOU!
The Flatlander’s Guide to Hill Training
What is a Flatlander?
If you are asking what a “Flatlander” is, you are likely not a Flatlander.
Flatlanders are people who live in areas where an overpass is considered a climb.
If you can ride for 50 miles and you gain less than 1000 ft in elevation gain, there’s a good chance you’re a flatlander.
This can present a challenge, especially when training for a hilly event, because a lot of things change when you hit a hill. Long low cadence efforts, altered body positions, and being forced out of the saddle are just a few issues that arise when you are actually on a hill.
If you fall into the Flatlander category, this is for you. Add these tips into your training and you will be much better prepared for hill domination.
Push Bigger Gears
During your “Hill Climb Simulation” training days, you need to get used to pedaling at a lower cadence.
It is VERY common to see cadences of 65-80 rpm on longer climbs. If your body is only used to higher, more aerobic cadences, climbs will be a shock to the muscular system.
So, get used to pushing harder gears for set time intervals.
How long should the intervals be?
Well, you need to look at how long your “climbs” that you are training for are going to be and work up to that point.
Caution: If you are not used to low cadence high force work, start SLOWLY. Give your muscles, ligaments, and tendons time to adapt to this new pedaling. As the body adapts you can start pushing out the duration.
Simulate Climbing Position
If you ride a trainer, that’s a great time to hit your hill specific intervals.
Set your front wheel a little higher to simulate being on an incline. Although the change in bike/body position is slight, it is good to get the body used to the small change.
One thing that is common on a climb is to sit more upright, open up your hip angles, and slide back on the saddle. Practice this in your training.
The second thing is your bike is on an incline, which effectively “lifts” the bars up relative to your seat. As the incline gets steeper, your body tends to drop forward more into the incline. This can change the stretch and activation through the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. It’s not uncommon for a flatlander to have their lower back wear out on longer climbs if they’re not used to this.
The Wind is Your Friend
One nice thing for people who live in flatter locations is they tend to be windier.
If that’s the case, use headwinds to help simulate “hills” and push a bigger gear into them.
Although this doesn’t totally simulate the bike/body position you get of riding UP an incline, it does decrease your kinetic energy.
(Hold on…this is where we get all sciencey.)
If you train with a power meter, you may be a person who has seen that you can hold “X” watts on the flats relatively easily, but holding that same wattage on a climb feels A LOT harder. We have coached quite a few athletes who “by the numbers” should have been fine on climbs in races but the effort really took it out of them.
The big reason for this is the difference in your kinetic energy on the flats vs on a climb.
The faster you go, the more kinetic energy you have. If you’re traveling at 25 miles an hour on the flats you have a high kinetic energy. This makes sense. When you stop pedaling at 25 miles per hour on a flat road, it takes quite a while for you to slow down. The faster you are going (the more “energy” you have) the longer it takes to slow down. So even though the wind resistance is pushing against you, you have a lot of “energy” helping you move forward.
From a pedal stroke perspective, you do not need to fire your muscles as long and your forward movement actually helps you get through the phases of your pedal stroke a little bit more. You can get away with firing through just one phase of the pedal stroke or firing quicker through each phase.
On a climb however, when gravity is pulling you downhill and your speeds are generally much slower, your kinetic energy is less. Ever stop pedaling on a climb and almost come to a complete stop immediately. Or worse, ever fallen over because you stopped so fast?
This lower kinetic energy combined with gravity trying to pull you back down the hill means you now have to generate force for a longer period of time during each phase of the pedal stroke to avoid decelerating. If your muscles are not used to firing longer, or you are really weak during certain phases of the pedal stroke, you are going to suffer on the climbs because your muscles just aren’t going to be used to that type of load.
And since it takes more energy to accelerate and object than it does to maintain velocity, if you are not able to generate force throughout the full pedal stroke then you are going to be forced into numerous “accelerations” during each pedal stroke to keep your speed up. Some of these may be so small you don’t notice them. Other times, especially at low cadences and speeds, you probably notice this mini-accelerations and decelerations more.
For us flatlander types, you have to make the most of what you’ve got.
That may mean using an overpass and riding up it multiple times. I’ve even heard of riders using parking garages to get some vertical gain in their legs.
Here in Memphis, we have quite a few little hills but not much that’s longer than about 90 seconds in duration and most are A LOT quicker than that when ridden “at speed.”
So in order to “lengthen” the duration of the hill, you need to start the climb at a much SLOWER speed. Don’t roll into it at 20 mph where you are half way up the climb before you lose much speed.
Instead, start at something closer to 6-8 mph.
This will not only increase the amount of time you are climbing but as you learned in the point above, it will decrease your kinetic energy and force your muscles to work the way they’ll have to work on longer, slower, sustained climbs.
As soon as you hit the top of the climb, flip around (check for traffic first!), roll down the hill and immediately repeat.
Is this the most exciting training in the world?
Not really – doing the same climb over and over can get boring.
But you know what’s not boring?
Riding faster uphills!
6 Weeks to Hill Climb Domination Program
Get the program uploaded to your Training Peaks
We’ve dialed in a 6 week program to help you improve your hill climbing.
It is focused on two main principles:
- Making you actually climb (or simulate climbing), and,
- Improving your ability to produce sustained power.
Follow this link and put in the code – CLIMB4FREE – at checkout to get this program added to your Training Peaks account FOR FREE as part of your Cycling Arsenal membership.