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Top 10 tips to improve your climbing

Climbing in a group
Rob Kemp
26 May 2020

Climbing is as much technique as fitness. Use our pro tips to conquer killer climbs and still have energy left in the tank.

Lungs like airbags and legs of steel will certainly make the challenge of those killer climbs a whole lot easier, but physical prowess alone won’t guarantee that you’re crowned King of the Mountains. Technique, mental preparation, familiarity with the hill and selecting the right gear – in both senses – all have a key part to play in successfully and consistently ensuring you reach and overcome your peaks.

Fortunately, Cyclist knows a few people for whom tackling climbs is all part of the job, and they have some exclusive tricks and tips to help you push onwards and upwards…

1. Start steady

‘It’s a no-brainer, but the key to improving your climbing strength is to get on some hills,’ says Paul Mill, coach and owner of elitecycling.co.uk.

‘When starting out, it’s a good idea to ride as steadily as possible on a light gear to focus on how your body reacts to different gradients. Keep your upper body controlled and just work on finding a rhythm. You’re looking to perfect your technique and manage your output too.

'Seek out routes with several hills that take a good chunk of time and include a variety of gradients – anything from 5% to 12%. If you’ve only got one hill near you that fits the bill then look at repeating the climb three or four times.’

Cobbled climb

2. Do your research

‘If you have a set target and know the types of climbs you will be riding, then first of all you need to work out what gear ratios you require,’ says Ben Simmons, a British Cycling club coach and former advisor to Team Wiggle.

‘The steeper gradients may require a compact chainset or a wider-ratio cassette. I recently rode the Giro delle Dolomiti [a six-stage amateur race through Italy’s Dolomites mountain range], which had some seriously steep gradients.

'I underestimated them as my smallest gear was 39x25 – most others were riding 36x28. I would have benefited from a smaller gear as my cadence was really low on some of the 20% gradients.’

3. Adapt to your surroundings

‘Look for positive aspects in every climb,’ says Simmons. ‘And use what hills you have at hand to fine-tune your training.’ If you live in a flat area where you have relatively short, sharp climbs, you can attack these quite hard.

‘It will require more of an anaerobic effort and breathing won’t be affected until you reach the top of the climb when you are trying to replace the oxygen debt.

'This will help you develop one of the key skills in hill climbs – being able to judge your effort for the type of ascent and its duration so that you are not riding up too comfortably or going too hard and struggling to reach the top.’

4. Descend the scales

One of the major contributing factors of climbing is the power-to-weight ratio. ‘Finding out your body composition, fat weight versus muscle weight, is a good starting place,’ says Nigel Mitchell, British Cycling’s team nutritionist and advisor to sports nutrition brand CNP.

‘Get into the habit of noting down what you eat and drink through the day. Look out for calorie-heavy meals that aren’t going to be burned throughout training. If you’re looking to lose weight and retain or develop muscle then set an achievable target of, say, 500 fewer calories a day and work out how many calories you’re burning on a ride.

‘Fasted riding can help you reduce body fat – if it’s done at a relatively low intensity [heart rate zones 1-2],’ says Mitchell. ‘But if you’re working out on climbs or upping the intensity then have some protein before heading out. Riding on the amino acids from a protein shake will help with fat reduction but you’ll still get some glucose from the protein conversion and it’ll aid recovery too.’

Hill climbing

5. Pace for a place

‘Plenty of riders use power meters and heart rate monitors to judge their pace,’ says Simmons. ‘During the Tour de France, Chris Froome was constantly checking his power outputs during the climbs so that he didn’t go in to the red and ultimately lose time on his rivals.’

If you don’t have access to a power meter, a heart rate monitor can help too. ‘It’s not as accurate at judging direct effort compared with power meters but it can help you control your effort.’

6. Find cadence consistency

‘Some riders find that their cardio system is the limiting factor for high cadence – in which case I would encourage them to focus on breathing and slowly increasing cadence over a period of time,’ says Mill.

Adding more regular sessions will not only improve your climbing but also instil some confidence as you start to see improvements.

‘A steady cadence is essential,’ he says. ‘I often see novices force a lower cadence too early in the climb. It is good training to climb while maintaining a higher cadence than normal – try to keep a target of around 80rpm. Climbing at a high cadence also gives you a bit more confidence should the gradient increase or you tire. There’s room for manoeuvre.’

7. Get geared up

‘Gear selection on the hills can be dependent on where you live and ride,’ says Mill. ‘If you’re in London then riding local hills first gives you an introduction to riding with good technique and practising variable cadences to see improvement.’

But if you live in the countryside other aspects may need to be addressed depending on the gradient of climbs – certainly checking your gearing ratio is advisable.

‘For novices, a compact chainset would be a very good choice because of its wider ratio of gearing,’ says Mill.

Rob Hayles agrees: ‘When the mechanic fitted a compact chainset for me I thought he was being cheeky, but after riding in the Peak District I phoned him to say thank you. When you’re on a long ride, say 80 to 100 miles, and there are a few hills at the end, you appreciate this kind of gearing set-up to get you through when your legs are hurting.’

Improve your climbing

8. Play mind games

‘Pain is temporary,’ says Simmons. ‘The summit will come sooner than you think. If you are hurting, remind yourself that everyone else is hurting just as much as you, if not more so.

The best bike riders are the ones who can hurt themselves the most. Don’t give up and always keep pushing over the top of the summit and relaxing on the descents.’

9. Add variety as you advance

‘I found adding variety to cadence work was good preparation for events such as the National Hill Climb,’ says Hayles.

‘Take to moderate hills and devote two to three minutes of a five-minute stint to working at around 70 to 75rpm – certainly no lower than 60rpm – then knock it down to the little ring, keeping a similar pace but upping cadence to 110 to 120rpm. I found this mix was great for adaptation, useful for fitness and pretty good at taking my mind off of the bloody gruelling hills!’

10. Take pole position

‘When you’re more comfortable on climbs and you’re riding with a group, aim to lead at the approach to a hill and, as you ascend, look to keep at the front for as long as possible,’ says Rob Hayles, three-time Olympic medallist and World and European Champion.

‘This gives you “sliding room” and the motivation to hold the pace of the stronger climbers, pushing you out of your comfort zone. If you start at the back and you get dropped immediately, then this can affect you mentally and lower your motivation to push yourself.’ Where possible, try to take some sting out of the gradient by going wide on the corners and avoiding the apex – it’ll help you maintain your rhythm.

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