Ask a Pro — Diane Stibbard
– Coach, Personal Trainer, and Two-Time Canadian Duathlete of the Year
A: Hill climbing is part art form but it also depends on your leg strength and a good power-to-weight ratio (power in relation to your body weight). In previous articles I’ve mentioned power to weight ratio and its impact on hill climbing. In this article I focus on the “art” of hill climbing, and provide some workouts to help you stay with your fellow cyclists on group rides.
The art of hill climbing begins with what you need to do to develop good hill climbing technique.
1. Momentum – Coming into the hill with a reasonable amount of momentum will assist you in ascending.
2. Correct gear selection – This is probably the single most important element in hill climbing. Poor gear selection at the beginning and during a climb wastes a huge amount of energy, tiring you out too quickly, and leaving you struggling to keep up with the rest of the group. Many riders either shift too quickly and run out of gears too soon, which means they are over-spinning early in the climb and have no gears left to shift down to as they continue to climb. This is inefficient and tires you out quickly.
For longer, more gradual climbs, start in the big chain ring in a moderate to hard gear at the back. Once into the climb, shift into the small chain ring and slowly start to shift one gear easier at a time. Shift to an easier gear only when it feels like you are starting to turn the pedals over too slowly. This is what I call “staying on top of the gear”— being able to pedal at a cadence of around 60–80 rpm.
Each of you will have a different cadence sweet-spot but with practice you’ll start to feel when you’re pushing too hard to continue in the gear you’re in and need to switch to a lower gear. On shorter, steeper climbs you may be able to stay in the big chain ring the whole time. Move into an easier gear at the back one gear at a time, as you feel the need to.
3. Your position in the saddle – When climbing, it’s important to shift your body weight to the back of the saddle to harness more power from your glutes.
4. Completing a full-circle pedal stroke – Don’t just push down on the pedals, pull up. A full-circle pedal stroke harnesses the strength from your glutes and hamstrings. Think of scraping mud off your shoe as you climb to help you visualize a round pedal stroke. Mashing on the down stroke of the pedal will just leave your thighs tired and burning.
5. Hand position – Your hand position will shift from the hoods or the drops to a position closer to you—resting on the top corners of the handlebar or directly in front of you on top of the bars. Hand position is a personal preference. Practise and see which position you feel most comfortable with.
6. Stand – Don’t feel you have to stay seated the whole time while climbing. Getting out of the saddle will help to flush your legs out a bit, and change the muscles you’re using. Depending on the steepness of the hill you may want to shift into one or two gears harder at the back before you stand. Once you sit back down shift back into the easier gear as you continue to climb the hill.
Here are some drills to help you gain power and strength.
1. Hill repeats
This is a high-intensity but time-efficient workout. It helps build the confidence and strength to take on any hill. Begin by warming up for a good 20–30 minutes on a fairly flat terrain. Once you’ve done this find a hill that will take you about 3 to 4 minutes to climb.
Attack the hill with the key pointers I have given you above, and ride steady but strong. Avoid starting out too hard or you’ll tire out before cresting the hill. Once you reach the top, turn around and spin down in an easy gear to recover.
Begin with 3–4 repeats, and build up to 10 depending on your fitness level and ability.
End the workout with 10–15 minutes of easy spinning to bring your heart rate down, and to flush out your legs.
2. Hill circuits
This is also a high-intensity workout designed to help you attack terrains that have not just one hill, but a series of hills.
Begin by warming up for a good 20–30 minutes on fairly flat terrain. Once you’ve warmed up, select a loop that has two or three hills. The loop should also have flatter and downhill sections.
The key to this workout is to work hard on the climbs while maintaining a strong and steady pace on the flats. On the descents, cycle in a higher cadence (number of times your legs turn over) to help flush your legs out and get ready for the next hill.
Begin with 3–4 circuits, building to 6–8. On completing each circuit, spin out in an easy gear for 2–3 minutes before starting the loop again.
Finish the workout with 10–15 minutes of easy spinning to cool down.
3. Standing hill repeats
This is a very intense hill-repeat workout that builds leg strength and power, hitting the upper zones of heart-rate training.
Begin the workout with 20–30 minutes of easy spinning on flat terrain to warm up.
Choose a hill that takes about 45 seconds to 1 minute to climb. This hill could be a little steeper than the hills you used in the first workout above.
Attack the hill in the big chain ring and in a moderate to hard gear at the back. Stand up as you climb, and stay standing the entire time. Continue working on shifting one gear easier at a time, as needed.
Once you’ve crested the hill, turn around and spin down to recover and start over.
Begin with 5–6 standing hill repeats, and build to 10 depending on your fitness and ability.
Finish the workout with 15–20 minutes of easy spinning to cool down.
Combining the above drills with the “art” of good climbing will help you to stay caught up with your cycling buddies on hills. Who knows, you may even beat them to the top! Be strong, be efficient, and enjoy your hill climbs.
Diane provides training programs for recreational and competitive cyclists, duathletes and triathletes, including nutritional counseling and personal training. Does your company need a fitness consultant? Get in touch with Diane to discuss fitness seminars for corporations
Check out Diane’s e-programs: Keeping Fit in the Off-Season and Training For a Two-Day Charity Event For the Time-Starved Cyclist.