Seven tips to improve your climbing

How to make adjustments to your training — and perhaps to your bike — to get better at going uphill.

Photo: Photo by Casey B. Gibson

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For some riders, just the word ‘climbing’ can inspire an onset of dread. A fun ride with friends can quickly become a sufferfest when hills are thrown into the mix, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You too can power up climbs with grace and ease and become the envy of others just struggling to summit. It takes some dedicated training and focus, though. Here’s how.

When climbing, you are fighting gravity, which can prove to be a worthy opponent. Spend some time focusing on these climbing-specific strategies and before you know it, you’ll be enjoying the view from the top.

1. Improve overall fitness, even with easier rides

The first thing you want to do to improve your climbing is to improve your overall fitness. Just like anything else, start small and work your way up. If riding on flat terrain is challenging enough, that’s okay! Don’t go out and try to conquer the tallest peak. Instead, build your fitness on terrain that feels doable for you.

Work on your endurance with longer rides and improve your cardiovascular fitness with intervals. Remember that there are some adaptations that your body can only make when it is operating with oxygen. That means that even rides where you have your breathing completely under control and you can hold a conversation are still helping to improve your fitness. Just because you aren’t tackling climbs, doesn’t mean that your training isn’t helping you improve on them.

2. Build strength with simple exercises

The stronger your legs are, the easier it will be to turn over the pedals. The easier it is to turn over the pedals, the lower your heart rate and breathing rate will be. You can certainly improve your strength on the bike with things such as intervals, cadence drills, or hill repeats, or you can mix it up and go to the gym.

The gym is a great controlled environment to improve on strength. The exercises you do don’t have to be fancy and complicated like you might see on Instagram. Exercises such as squats, deadlifts, lunges, and step-ups will all benefit your climbing. Remember to work the full range of motion you will encounter in your pedal stroke and to complete exercises that target your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors.

3. Hit the hills

Once you feel ready to tackle some hills, try practicing some hill repeats. Hill repeats are an excellent workout for beginners and experts alike because they create a controlled environment in which you can adjust the elements to make the workout harder or easier as needed.

For beginners, hills can be intimidating because of how seemingly long or steep they are. For experts, you may find it difficult to scout out a route that has the perfect elevation for your workout. With hill repeats, you only need one hill that fits the needs of your workout and the controlled environment makes it easier to push outside of your comfort zone.

Example workout: Find a hill that takes approximately 60-90 seconds to summit. Starting at the bottom of the hill, climb at 90 percent intensity. When you are about 10 seconds from the top, give it a little extra push to summit the climb. Carefully return to the bottom of the climb, rest as needed, and repeat five to nine more times. This workout can easily be made harder or easier by increasing or decreasing your intensity, the length of the climb, the number of repetitions, or even the rest in between.

4. Make elevation gain a goal

A ‘Hill Focus’ workout is a less structured type of climbing workout. Unlike hill repeats, this workout simply encourages a rider to make climbing the focus of the ride. Go out and climb as many hills as you can find! This type of workout can help create a more well-rounded climber because the cyclist is forced to adapt to different pitches and durations of climbs. Instead of looking at speed or distance, make elevation gain the goal of the ride.

If you are an expert rider then make an extra challenge for each climb. For example, try to hold a certain power every time you are pointed uphill or complete 10 hard pedal strokes over the top of each climb.

If you live in a location that is primarily flat or where the hills are too long and continuous then don’t be afraid to make a small course or loop that has a good variety of climbs and repeat it.

5. Work on your cadence

When climbing, the goal is to maintain a similar cadence as you would have on flat terrain. That means as the hill increases in gradient, you’ll need to shift into an easier gear. Eventually, you might run out of gears, and it will become very difficult to pedal, requiring a great amount of force to turn over the crank. A great way to mimic this scenario, and to work on altering muscular recruitment, is to do cadence intervals.

Example workout: When riding on flat ground or a gradual incline, complete four minutes at an intensity that is uncomfortable, yet doable (tempo intensity). During those four minutes, complete two minutes at 80-90rpm, then without changing the intensity, shift into a harder gear and complete two minutes at 50-60rpm. Recover for four minutes between intervals at a comfortable cadence. Repeat three to five times.

6. Change the gearing on your bike

Every now and then you’ll encounter a hill that is too steep to ride or at least is too steep to ride with a comfortable cadence. That is normal. However, if you are encountering this regularly, then it’s time to adjust your gearing. I know a lot of people who struggled with climbing for years, only to discover that everyone else had much easier gearing on their bikes.

Where you live and the terrain you most frequently ride will dictate what gears you have on your bike. Many professionals will change their gear ratios for each race according to the course. It doesn’t have to be a complicated adjustment. Something as simple as a smaller front chainring may be all that you need.

7. Know your numbers

Sometimes the hardest thing about climbing is the unknown. How long is the climb? Will it get steeper? Can I sustain this pace? Those are all questions that can be really intimidating at the moment but can easily be answered before even getting on the bike. Don’t be afraid to go online and read about your route. Check the climb profiles on Strava. Especially if you are planning to complete a race or a group ride, it can be extremely helpful to know where the climbs will be.

Additionally, use training to gauge your ability. Regularly look at your power or heart rate as you climb. See what numbers are sustainable for you. Then, when you’re climbing with your friends, you’ll know that you’ve accomplished this same feat many times before.

Practice, practice, practice

Practice might not always make perfect, but it certainly makes for stronger climbing. One of my favorite things about cycling is the limitless ability to make improvements. No matter how strong you are, there are always more mountains to climb.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.