I know a lot of people who dread climbing uphill on their bike. It seems like they spend half of the riding complaining about the hills or trying to avoid them all together. I don’t blame you. Climbing can be tough and most mountain bikers are out there to enjoy the technical trails or rowdy descents. On the other hand, maybe you actually love climbing uphill and you enjoy feeling ‘the burn’ and breathing hard, but now it’s time to get faster. Either way, spending time to work on your climbing will not only improve your fitness and overall speed on the trails, but it’ll also allow you access to even more awesome descents.
- Improve Overall Fitness and Strength
The first thing you want to do to improve your climbing is to improve your overall fitness and strength. If riding on flat terrain is challenging enough then that’s ok! Don’t try to take on the tallest peak. Spend some time building fitness on the flats. Build your endurance with longer rides and improve your cardiovascular fitness with intervals. Even though it isn’t hill specific, the fitness will benefit you on the climbs.
Another way to improve your climbing ability is by getting to the gym. The stronger your legs are the easier it will be to turn over the pedals. The less energy you use to turn over the pedals, the lower your heart rate and respiratory rate will be. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Squats, lunges, and weighted step ups will go a long way.
- Hill Repeats
Hill repeats are a great way for beginners to become more comfortable on hills or for experts to really hone their climbing strengths. I think hill repeats are the perfect way to practice climbing because it creates a controlled environment in which you can dictate how long or steep your climb is. I think one of the reasons people struggle going uphill is because they get intimidated with how far they have to go. With hill repeats, you can easily make adjustments and it allows you to push a little further outside of your comfort zone.
Example workout: Find a climb that is 60-90 seconds long and climb up the hill at 90% intensity. When you are 10 seconds from the top of the climb, give it a little extra effort and push over the top. Return to the bottom of the hill and repeat 5-9 more times. Depending on your ability level, make the workout harder or easier by increasing your speed, duration, and/or number of efforts and decreasing the rest in between.
- Hill Focus
Different than hill repeats, a workout with a hill focus is less structured. These workouts encourage a rider to go out and climb the most hills they can find. This creates a less structured workout and forces a rider to adapt to different pitches and duration of climbs. Instead of looking at time or miles, start looking at your elevation gain and make climbing the main goal of the ride.
For more advanced climbers, set a challenge for every climb. It could be that you are holding a certain power for every climb of the workout or maybe you are completing 10 pedal strokes hard to summit each climb. Be creative!
For a workout like this, don’t be afraid to create a loop or course that has a lot of climbing with a variety of hills and repeat the course. This is a great option for athletes who live in less mountainous areas and have to put in a concentrated and conscious effort to work on uphill climbing.
Another way to work on hill climbing technique is by adjusting your cadence or working on cadence drills. Even without a hill or elevation change, you can adjust your cadence to alter your muscular recruitment.
When climbing uphill you should try to have the same cadence that you would have on flat terrain. You can achieve this by shifting into an easier gear. If the hill is so steep that your easiest gear still makes it difficult to turn over the pedals then you will be have to put more force into the pedal to turn it over.
To mimic this scenario, try doing low cadence efforts on flat terrain or gradual terrain. Try to hold the same power at 80 or 90 RPMs and then shift down to 50 or 60 RPMs and maintain the same power.
- Adjust your Gearing
As stated above, sometimes when climbing you will be in your smallest gear and still struggle to turn over the pedals. That is normal. If you find that it’s happening on every climb though, it might be time to change your gearing. This could sound intimidating, but it isn’t nearly as hard as it may seem. It might be as simple as getting a new, smaller front chain ring. This one simple equipment change could completely revolutionize your uphill abilities.
Just like anything else, the best way to improve is with practice. Take it one pedal stroke at a time and rest assured that the view from the top of the mountain is worth it.