How To Climb Faster, Climb Smarter

I was blessed with spending some ten years living in the Swiss Alps. My Home was at the end of a typical average 7% 1000m climb from the valley floor in a small ski resort called Les Masses perched high above the Rhone valley in the Val d’Herens.

In the winter I would spend hours on the valley floor riding between the small villages that within the vineyards that dominated the south facing slopes. However, as soon as the conditions became bearable climbing the regions countless stunning and often secret unmanned classics became what life was all about.

Like any terrain they shaped me and made me what I was then, they dictated how I rode, how to endure and enjoy it, too live for the climb and of course the descent.

From the Swiss Alps to a UK climb

Roll on a few years and I find myself back in the UK, down in deepest Devon and guess what, it’s hilly but oh so different!

It’s still climbing, and I still love it but rather than sitting in for an hour plus at a steady exercise zone 3, the shocks are extreme and come fast and often. After my first club ride up onto Dartmoor, I decided that although many principles remained the same some things were very different.

All the advice from the old sages in the mountains had been to sit in the saddle, to conserve and maintain a cadence in a suitable exercise zone, here in the UK I found myself with a breed of out of the saddle power climbers, smashing it up over every hill that needed to be knocked down with a sledgehammer just like a wall -Brutal!

Like the Alps had made me adapt, climbing in the UK would make me think again.

Gravity

We all know that carrying excess weight will put you at a disadvantage on a climb. However, the important thing is not so much your weight but your power to weight ratio and what we want to do is raise that all-important ratio.

For cyclists who are carrying around or more than 5 extra kilos, losing weight and gaining power are equally achievable through good nutrition and focused training. These cyclists have the potential to make bigger improvements because they can attack both parts of the equation.

Imagine a climb of 5 kilometres at an  8 % gradient. If a 75kg rider with a max sustainable power of 250 watts loses 2.5kg that would cut 38 seconds off this rider’s time. Improving power output by 20 watts without any weight loss cuts 85 seconds. If this rider loses 2.5 kilos and increases power by 20 watts, the improvement jumps to 2:03!

However, weight loss should be made gradually and kept within healthy parameters. It’s vital to your health to retain an amount of body fat and whilst particularly for climbing there’s a benefit to reducing weight – without sacrificing muscle mass and power, you should avoid adversely affecting your wellbeing by taking your body fat percentage past unsafe limits.

If you are already at that point where a loss of body fat would be detrimental to your health, to climb faster focus on increasing your threshold with some targeted training.

Pacing is everything on a climb

“Whether you are competing on a single short but brutal British climb or on a summer tour across the Pyrenees, every climb requires you to make choices and those choices will dictate whether you climb at your best.”

Don’t race – pace, pacing is everything. I have heard it said that some climbs, because of the gradient, are impossible to pace, I don’t agree, most climbs can be paced no matter how steep they are in parts. Never hurt your legs until you have no choice, use every gear to maintain that cadence for as long as you can and never go too hard too early.

Pacing strategy

We need to think of our climbs not in isolation but as part of the whole ride. The fastest time up one hill is not likely to be the fastest time over the whole ride unless it’s a hill climb event. Pacing over multiple climbs is not the same as pacing a one climb effort where you can give it everything and empty the tank using every muscle group to maintain your maximal effort.

For multiple climb rides, the idea is to maintain an average sustainable intensity of effort throughout the whole ride negating the need for long periods of recovery and therefore maintaining a better overall pace.

Of course, there comes a point when you may have to dig deep on a climb and if you have purposely over exerted when you didn’t need to, you may not have enough in the tank.

  • Keep out of the red for as long as possible, 
  • Never hurt your legs until you have no choice,
  • Use every gear progressively changing gear as the climb begins and the gradient changes to maintain a good
  • Never go too hard too early. 

Many studies have shown that a cadence of 80 to 90rpm is perfect on the flat, most of us achieve slightly less on the hills, perhaps 70 to 80. Of course, cadence can fall too low and you may fall off, whatever it will be muscularly fatiguing in the extreme.

Climbing in too big a gear is not only inefficient, it will drain your energy reserves and induce muscle fatigue more quickly.

When you go climbing ride with suitable gears, compact chain-sets along with a wide-ranging rear cassette work well on mountain stages. In the Alps or Pyrenees, an 8% average gradient can continue for 20km plus so you need to be confident that you can keep turning the pedals without rest.

“Everybody climbs best at their own pace” On a climb where speeds drop below 15kph draft has little effect. Cycling in a group may mean that you are either traveling to slowly or to quickly, certainly in a hot climate you maybe robbing yourself of some cooling airflow.

Technique

In many events from a single hill climb to a multi-day tour, reconnaissance is vital. However, most of us cannot make a reconnaissance of all the climbs we encounter, as many climbs are in themselves adventures.

If reconnaissance is not possible, it is vital that you think as you climb.

  • Look for the line of least resistance,
  • Use the best of the road,
  • Look for and feel the change in gradient and react to it quickly.
  • Often the outside of a sharper uphill bend is less steep, and you can carry more speed around the corner perhaps even accelerating from the bend.
  • Following the well-worn tracks of other vehicles a few feet in from the side of the road often reduces friction,
  • On a narrow ascent, the center of the road might be smoother where the tarmac receives double the wear from the two-way traffic.

Sit or stand when climbing?

It depends upon the occasion. Knowing when to sit or stand and for how long can certainly enhance your climbing.

Now there are always some exceptions to the rule and often for good reason but for the majority, sit for as much of a climb as possible as it’s the most aerobically efficient way to climb as less oxygen is required to maintain the effort than when standing.

This efficiency is considerable at lower gradients of 4 to 5% where perhaps 10% less oxygen is consumed, but it does reduce as the gradient increases. For gradients of 10% and higher standing is perhaps more effective in delivering the high-power output required to maintain momentum at these difficult gradients, although oxygen utilization will still be perhaps 5% higher than if you were seated. This is mainly because the body’s center of mass is supported by the saddle, conserving energy.

So, for most of us, the answer is both sit and stand but at the right times. At physically taxing gradients of above 10%, alternating between standing for short intervals and sitting will utilize different muscle groups and spread the workload – allowing some element of recovery between the different muscular groups

During short ‘all-out’ bursts of less than 30 seconds, peak power output has been measured 25% higher when standing compared to sitting. However, producing 25% more power will throw you into another less efficient exercise zone where lactate acid will soon build and induce fatigue and so for most of us short bouts are best.

You may be asking, “What about great climbers like Contador, Quintana and Horner?”. There are exceptions to our rule, and these exceptions may be the result of a different climbing culture and conditioning at a young age. We could suggest that perhaps they could be even better if they stayed in the saddle a little more, or it could possibly have more to do with body type. For the heavier rider standing wastes more energy and so is less economical but for your climbing lightweights, the effect is less critical. Perhaps this is why lighter riders dance on the pedals and heavier riders sit.

Standing has the potential to produce greater power output due to differences in the kinetic chain, starting with the upper body. Just as when you automatically bring your hands to the top of the bars when you commence a climb. When standing, a rider can produce greater leverage from the handlebars. 

Climbing out of the saddle also alters many of your body’s angles with a key one being at the hip, A closed hip when seated will restrict power output and this is perhaps why TT riders often find it difficult to produce the same wattage on their TT bikes as they do on a standard road bike. When opening these angles, you significantly increased the range of movement activating more muscles fibers, which gives you more power potential.

Feed and Hydrate to Survive

Whenever you ride prepare your body before you start with plenty of rest and a good pre-ride nutritional regime including fuel in the way of carbohydrates and regular hydration during the proceeding day and evening. Make sure your energy stores of glycogen are well stocked. If when climbing you are likely to be using the anaerobic exercise zones, regular feeding during your ride is a necessity.

Regular hydration is also critical to maintain your climbing performance, wherever you are in the world because your body will be trying to keep you at your optimum temperature. Heat, carbon dioxide, and water are all carried away from the body’s cells by the circulating blood. If the heat generated is more than that required, tiny blood capillaries just below the skin will become dilated to allow the warm blood to reach the outer surface of the body.

At the same time, some of the excess water will be sent to the sweat glands, also just below the surface of the skin, and they will eject the water onto the skin surface. The excess heat will then be used to turn the sweat into water vapor thus cooling the body considerably. The sweating mechanism is the most important (cycling is more effective in cooling the body than running because of wind chill and the effect of faster sweat evaporation).

Provided the temperature of the body’s surroundings is lower than that of the body the temperature regulation system can usually work quite effectively. However, if the ambient conditions surrounding the body are very humid (already contains a lot of water vapor) the temperature regulation system is faced with severe problems.

A hot, humid climate can cause high fluid losses in individuals engaged in severe exercise, and this can impose severe limits on that person’s ability to continue. Any dehydration affects performance but a 3-liter water loss in a person of average weight would cause a 6% increase in heart rate, a reduction in power output of up to 20% and a serious rise in core temperature. Such a loss is quite possible in less than 2 hours in hot and humid conditions. A small weight loss of 2% will lead to a drop-in performance of up to 4%.

It is also important to remember that when climbing airflow and so evaporation is greatly reduced, in turn, this again reduces your ability to cool yourself.

Training

Kevin Trautman AlpenTraumWhen training we often work in ways that would be inappropriate for a long ride, we are trying to stress the body to induce a specific adaptation, rather than conserve and survive the day.

If you want to be a better climber and if you have it in your legs never avoid a climb. When training, alternate between hills of differing gradients and lengths, the more you do the better you will become.

Climbing utilizes different muscle groups than flat riding as does mixing your climbing up in training by both sitting and standing.

Also, using the large and small chainring, for example, will help you train further subset muscular groups that again will help you climb faster and more efficiently at different gradients.

Your endurance exercise zone 2 and 3 rides should always include climbs and hill repeat sessions are always useful. If you want the climb to be your specialty exercise Zone 3 (tempo), 4 and 5 sessions should be performed on climbs to a great degree.

Every climb demands that you conquer it at an appropriate sustainable intensity and you must train in them all.

Back to the old Alpine sages of climbing, perhaps they did not know everything. Living in a land of short but brutal hills and coaching a young rapid national hill climb competitor has made me question and reassess my climbing. Every climb asks a question and you must have the right answer to climb faster.

Summary:

  1. Everything in the right proportion and that includes your power to weight ratio
  2.      Pacing is everything and everything can be paced.
  3. React to the road.
  4. You can stand to go faster but you will go further seated.
  5. Keep the fuel flowing.
  6. Do it all on the climb when training.

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Nigel Hale-Hunter
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Nigel Hale-Hunter

ABCC level Cycling Coach and Mias MTB Guide/Leader at BPM Coaching
I became a coach because I wanted to train "smart". Most of us have a limited amount of time that we can dedicate to training and I understand the importance of making the most of the limited time. Training to a structure made me a successful competitor and now I enjoy helping others achieve their goals. See my a new website bringing high-quality training and advice to all for just £15.99 in the form of an evolving online book.
Nigel Hale-Hunter
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Posted in Preparation, Training.

I became a coach because I wanted to train "smart". Most of us have a limited amount of time that we can dedicate to training and I understand the importance of making the most of the limited time. Training to a structure made me a successful competitor and now I enjoy helping others achieve their goals. See my a new website bringing high-quality training and advice to all for just £15.99 in the form of an evolving online book.