Top out on top
With practice and a little technique, you'll be climbing like a pro.
By Selene Yeager
Often, a climb will loom in the distance for miles, giving us time to ponder its difficulty and worry about our fitness. "People get very intimidated by hills," says Jim Rutberg, a Carmichael Training Systems pro-level coach who helps run the company's climbing camps. With practice and some improvements in technique, says Rutberg, that same climb will become easier every time you do it.
For Instant Gratification
Sitting and spinning an easy gear is the most efficient way to climb. Standing puts more weight on your leg muscles--they work harder, and you use 10 percent more energy and increase your heart rate by 5 to 10 percent. On gradual grades, sit back on the saddle; for steeps, move toward the nose of the saddle and gently pull the bar to assist you up the hill. But there are times when standing is in order, like when your body needs a break on a climb or if you want to accelerate. Do this: SHIFT BEFORE YOU STAND Shift up a gear and stand as your power foot comes to the top of the pedal stroke. This will push you forward and boost your momentum. Gently push on the bar and rock the bike beneath you as you climb.
STAY ABOVE 75 You may feel mighty mashing uphill in a monster gear at 50 rpm, but you won't make as much progress as you would if you dropped into a lower gear and ramped up to 75, even 85 rpm. An easier spin is more sustainable and won't leave your legs as fatigued.
BACK IT DOWN 10 The ideal climbing intensity is just below threshold (where your legs start to burn). To find it, ride a hill as hard as your legs will allow (you should be able to sustain it for more than 30 seconds), then back it down about 10 percent. This gives you a reserve to dig into so you can handle changes in pace and pitch without popping. If you're already at threshold, you have nowhere to go but down.
For Long-Term Gains
The obvious way to climb better is to climb more often. But to improve your strength and stamina when the road turns up, add these drills to your hill days. For the best results, do them twice a week.
HILL ACCELERATIONS Improve power on rolling hills, which last one to two minutes each but come at you one after another.
THE WORKOUT: Ride the majority of the roller at a steady and sustainable pace until you're 200 to 300 meters from the top. Stay seated and accelerate until you're about 10 seconds past the summit. Focus on increasing your cadence to create the initial acceleration, then use your gears to keep increasing speed as you reach and pass the top of the hill. Recover with five minutes of easy spinning and repeat. Novice riders should complete four hill accelerations, intermediate riders (Cat 3 and masters) should complete two sets of four with 10 minutes of recovery between sets, and advanced riders can do two sets of six.
OVER UNDERS These intervals alternate between a sustainable pace and a higher intensity to help you develop better power at lactate threshold so you can handle changes on sustained climbs.
THE WORKOUT: During a six-minute climb, ride "under" at a steady and sustainable climbing pace (86 to 90 percent of your maximum sustainable power output or 92 to 94 percent of your maximum sustainable heart rate) for the first two minutes; for the "over" portion of the drill, accelerate to your maximum sustainable pace (95 to 100 percent of your maximum sustainable power output or 95 to 97 percent of your maximum sustainable heart rate) for one minute. Return to your under intensity for another two minutes before accelerating again to your over for the final minute. Stronger riders can add another cycle to make a nine-minute interval. Do three six-minute intervals with six minutes of easy spinning recovery between them. If you do nine-minute intervals, keep recovery at five minutes.
HILL SPRINTS These hard-charging intervals will give you the brute force you need to punch your way over short, steep walls. Just remember, after you hit the summit, use your gears to bring your cadence up so you don't get dropped after the climb.
THE WORKOUT: Find a short, steep hill with a flat road leading up to it. Ride toward the base of the hill at a moderate speed (15 to 20 mph). With your hands in the drops, get out of the saddle and start sprinting about 25 to 50 meters before you start going uphill. Continue sprinting for 10 seconds. Recover with five minutes of easy spinning between sprints. Novices should complete four hill sprints, intermediate riders should complete two sets of three sprints with 10 minutes between sets, and advanced riders should complete two sets of five sprints with four minutes between sprints and eight minutes between sets.
Selene Yeager, a USA Cycling certified coach, is here to give you a solid workout as well as tips for healthy living.