Hill climbing takes a focused type of cycling training. Whether you want to climb Alp d’Huez or conquer the neighborhood hill it takes consistent effort. Here’s some quick tips on conquering the climb!
Everything I’ve learned in cycling has come from people much more talented than I. I’ve been fortunate over the years to have some incredible cyclists take pity on me and show me how to ride. Proof that compassion is still alive and well. Maybe watching me suffer like a wounded animal while I climbed triggered something in their hearts to help. In any case I appreciate it and welcome the schooling.
Do you hate hills? I used to. My stomach would rumble as I would wait in the parking lot to start the ride when hearing about climbs on the loop. Whenever the pavement would turn up, my stomach would drop and the mental battle would begin. A loud voice inside my head would remind me how overweight, slow, and pathetic I was. That’s not a good place to be.
I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way! Here are the big concepts that helped me adapt to and eventually enjoy climbing.
1. Weight Matters
I know this is a touchy topic and many people get offended when you bring it up so I’ll be gentle. However, it’s the single most impactful variable that you can control in any aspect of cycling or life. Olympic gold medal winner, Steve Hegg, mentioned it to me during a ride one day, as did countless others over the years. Cycling and specifically, climbing, is a function of power to weight ratio. The heavier you are, the more wattage you must produce and energy you need to expend to get up the hill. Gravity here on planet Earth sucks. In a previous blogs, we’ve shared how I, among many other iBike cyclists, lost a lot of weight and literally changed our lives. Everything gets a whole lot easier and more fun.
2. Build Momentum
The first thing I learned while with the Leukemia Society’s Team In Training program, was to start easy and build momentum. I was fortunate enough to ride next to Arnie Baker, U.S National Champion and National Coach of the Team in Training Cycling program. He suggested that I start in an easy gear to spin at the base of the climb and if I was feeling good to pick up the pace in the last one third of the way to the top. That insures that you’ll actually reach the top. Many people start out really fast, either to impress others or to create a gap. After years of riding, you start to notice that most of those that take off fast end up blowing up and you pass them close to the top.
3. Belly Breath
Another little gem I got from Arnie Baker was breathing rhythm. I call it in-in-out breathing technique. It consists of two breaths in through the nose and a sharp exhale out through the mouth. The sharp exhale helps to open your diaphragm and take in more oxygen. I used to worry about what my stomach looked like on the bike (the curse of being overweight and insecure). Now I understand that breathing should originate from your diaphragm, then to your lungs. This naturally relaxes your shoulders and brings in more air – both good things.
4. Keep Your Cool
Climbing takes patience. This is a tough one for me. I’ve never been accused of being a patient person. Climbing is one turn after the next to get you to the top. It’s measured effort that allows you to conquer the hill – not all out, then fall apart. I suppose this ties in with Arnie’s suggestion of start slow and build up steam. You have to keep your cool and turn the pedals over. If you lose it on a long climb and spring off your saddle to “just get it over with,” you stand a great chance of blowing up before you reach the top. Stay in the saddle and find a happy place.
5. Head For The Hills
The other thing about hills is, you don’t get any better at climbing if you try to avoid them. There’s no way around doing the work. Sure there are drills to help to get you more efficient faster, but you still have to do the drills. Riding the flat loop every day won’t help. I try to mix in some leg strength drills, where I push a big gear (whatever that means to you) at about 50 rpm for a 1 mile climb of 6%.
6. Know Thyself
Your power meter will become your best friend. It can tell you all about your effort, hill slope, your cadence, etc . . . Power meters are the very best way to study your efforts and improve quickly. If you review your ride file with ride analysis software after your ride, you’ll be able to create a benchmark to improve upon. From there you can set up a plan to improve and monitor your efforts during the ride. It’s ca critical tool if you really want to get better. I used to use my lunch break climbing a local hill 3 or 4 times in a row, down and up again. I’d alternate between big gear and standing. The next thing I knew, I was able to climb at an acceptable rate (to me). It’s awesome to see improvement, however small it may be. If you monitor your rides with Isaac, iBike’s ride analysis software, you’ll see the progress and be able to celebrate it.