The challenge of going uphill on a bicycle is one of the toughest you’ll face as a cyclist. No matter how good or bad you think are at climbing, it’s a skill that can be improved with practice.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
This one is no secret: If you want to be a better climber, you need to practice climbing every single week. Ideally, you’ll have several different hills of varying lengths and gradients nearby. If not, as long as you have at least one climb of a mile or so, hill repeats can improve your aerobic capacity and build strength just as well.
Once or twice per week, incorporate a basic hill repeat interval set into your workout that’s similar to the one below:
- Warmup: Ride on a flat road for 1–15 minutes, spinning in an easy gear with a cadence of around 90 revolutions per minute or more.
- Main set: Start in a large gear, attacking the climb out of the saddle at about 90% of your perceived max effort for the first 30 seconds. After that, return to the saddle, and back off to a pace you can maintain all the way to the top, which should be about 70% of your max effort (or heart rate, if you’re using a monitor). For the last 30 seconds of the climb, get out of the saddle once more and increase your pace back to 90% of your maximum effort.
- Repeat 6–8 times, resting on the way down.
Pro tip: If you’re looking for a hill repeat that mimics a longer climb you’re training for, try repeats without accelerations. To do this, pace yourself with a heart rate monitor. Stay around 80% of your maximum heart rate for the entire effort. Stay seated, and resist the urge to go faster, focusing instead on even pacing for each interval. Recover for 2–3 minutes between each effort. The number of intervals you complete will depend on the length of the climb you’re training for. If you’re training for an 8-mile climb, shoot for 8–10 intervals.
Watch Your Weight
Simply put, the more you weigh, the harder you have to work to get up a hill. On steeper gradients, it makes an even bigger difference. If you’ve got excess fat to burn, that’s what’s slowing you down.
But don’t make the mistake of shedding weight at all costs. Finding a balance between being as light as you can be while maintaining your strength and power is the sweet spot you want as a climber.
Pro tip: While a big part of losing weight is watching your diet, being smart on the bike can help you lose weight, too. Use these tips to burn more calories on the bike.
For cyclists, strength training should always begin with the core. When you pedal, strength in the hips, abdominals and thoracic region provides a platform for your legs to push against. If your core is weak, you’ll be less efficient and will transfer less power through the pedals. For long or particularly steep climbs, a strong core is essential.
Pro tip: Keep in mind that while your legs may be plenty strong from riding, you’ll need to incorporate off-the-bike exercises to strengthen your core. To get started, try these core exercises for cyclists.
Practice Your Pedaling Technique
Improving your pedaling efficiency means you’ll be able to produce the same amount of power while expending less energy. On a climb, it’s those extra watts that can help you reach the top.
Learning to pedal in smooth circles will also help you include more muscle groups, reducing fatigue by more evenly distributing the workload.
Pro tip: Just like anything else, to be an efficient pedaler you’ll need practice. Try these drills a few times per week to learn how to produce more power and expend less energy on the bike.
Get Your Mind Right
Just like any other sport, a big part of how well cyclists perform is mental. If you don’t believe you’re a good climber and dread hills when you have to go up them, chances are climbing is going to be even more difficult. Self-belief is more powerful than you might think.
But if you can learn to enjoy climbing and begin to think of yourself as a climber, the adjustment of your attitude could help you improve, too.
Pro tip: Start gaining climbing confidence by climbing hills you know you can conquer. Each week, try to find a climb that’s a little bit longer or steeper, gradually improving upon the length of the climb you are able to crest. The more you practice, the better you’ll get and the more likely it is that you’ll enjoy those hills.