Conquering a Long Climb Starts Here

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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Conquering a Long Climb Starts Here

Long, steep climbs are both exhilarating and exhausting. If you didn’t experience a small inkling of dread as you started to ascend Alpe d’Huez or that infamous local hill, you wouldn’t be human.

Climbing is no doubt one of the most challenging aspects of road cycling, but cresting even a tough mountain pass doesn’t have to be pure torture. The key to easing the pain is to attack with a plan.

Pace Yourself

One of the biggest climbing mistakes cyclists make is going too hard at the bottom. If you go into the red zone early, chances are you’ll have nothing left by the time you’re halfway to the top. This will make for needless suffering and may eventually make pedaling impossible.

Instead, pay close attention to your pacing on climbs longer than 10 kilometers. Use a heart rate monitor or power meter to gauge your efforts, and shoot for a consistent pace that you know you can maintain all the way to the top.

Break the distance into thirds, keeping things slow during the first third, staying steady during the second and then finishing strong during the final third. Since longer climbs can be mentally draining, make them more manageable by concentrating only on getting to your next checkpoint.

Sit and Stand

Staying in the saddle is the most efficient way to climb. You’ll recruit more of your large muscle groups, such as your glutes and hamstrings, and expend less energy than you do when you stand. The energy you save by staying seated will help you get to the top when things get hard during those last few kilometers.

However, there are moments when standing during a climb may be necessary. On really steep sections where the gradient is particularly difficult, standing will help you to generate more power and can ease the strain of staying in one position for long periods of time. Just try to keep extended periods of out-of-the-saddle pedaling to a minimum.

Increase Your Cadence

While cadence normally varies by individual, when climbing it’s a good idea to pedal around 85 revolutions per minute or higher. Pedaling at a low cadence tires your leg muscles sooner and builds more lactic acid as the climb progresses.

As a general rule, you should be able to maintain the same cadence from the bottom of the hill to the top. If you’re struggling to keep your pedal stroke smooth, your cadence slows as the climb progresses or you’re breathing irregularly, opt for a higher cadence — which means you might have to shift your gearing — to improve your efficiency and help you climb with a more consistent effort.

Choose Your Gearing Wisely

Keeping your cadence high on long, tough climbs can be hard — especially if you don’t have the option of a lower gear. While an 11–25 tooth cassette and 53/39 front chain rings are good for hammering on the flats, they can cause you to pedal at a lower cadence on a long climb, which will make it that much more difficult to maintain a smooth, efficient pedal stroke.

Opting for a larger rear cassette that includes a 28-tooth sprocket and 50/34 compact front chain rings will give you more gearing options that will help you maintain a higher cadence when your legs get tired toward the top of a climb. This will ease the tension in your muscles and give you an extra bit of confidence to know that you still have a gear or two left to move to on those steeper gradients.

Change Your Body Position

Aerodynamics is an important part of cycling. While keeping your body position low to reduce wind drag is especially crucial on the flats, it matters less on a climb at slower speeds.

To recruit more power from large muscle groups and open up your diaphragm to create more space for your lungs to expand, you’ll need to adopt a more upright posture when climbing. Here are a few body-position tips:

  • Keep a loose grip on the handlebars, and relax your hands and shoulders as much as possible to conserve energy.
  • Keep your lower back straight to recruit more power from your core and gluteal muscles.
  • Ride with your hands wide and on the bar tops, which will make breathing easier.
  • Scoot back on the saddle for better leverage to the pedals, using a heel-down pedaling technique at the bottom of the pedal stroke to recruit the hamstrings and glutes.

Remember to Eat and Drink

Because of the increased effort it takes to crest a long hill, you’re going to require lots of energy. To keep yourself topped off, maintain basic nutrition requirements leading up to the climb as well as during it. Take a few sips of a sports drink every 15 minutes, and try to consume 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour on the bike.

Keep in mind that eating and drinking will be more difficult during intense efforts, so it’s generally a good idea to avoid starting a climb in a deficit. About 20 minutes before the climb begins, eat an energy bar or other solid food to give yourself time to digest.

On the climb, stick to energy gels instead of solid foods, as they are easier to digest and will quickly deliver glycogen to your muscles when you need an energy boost.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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