Every cyclist wants to become a better climber; have you ever heard a single rider say, “If only I went uphill a little slower?"
If you live in a hilly area the solution is relatively simple - get out and climb those hills. Of course, it's not as easy as that, but if you live near climbs, you're able to train specifically on the type of terrain on which you want to improve.
This, however, isn’t an option for all of us: what if you live in an area where there aren’t any hills but still want to improve your climbing, whether that's ahead of a cycling holiday, European sportive, race or just for the heck of it?
In this article we're going to take a look at alternative training methods which will help you to become a better climber, even if you don’t have any climbs to train on.
When climbing you have to overcome gravity on top of the same forces you experience on the flat – air resistance and friction with the road. Therefore, it goes without saying that you've got more working against you.
This means more power is required to travel at the same speed. Chances are, when you climb you will drop your cadence a little - because of the extra resistance working against you, your body will want to spread the load across your cardiovascular (heart and lungs) and muscular (your legs) systems.
Power is a product of torque – how hard you are pushing on the pedals - and cadence – how quickly you are turning the pedals - so it follows that, for the same power, if your cadence is lower you will need to be pushing harder on the pedals to produce more torque. To do this your legs need to be stronger.
A typical strength session will involve dropping your cadence as low as 40-60rpm and holding that for as long as the climbs you are aiming to improve on. If that happens to be an alpine ascent, or another hour-long climb, you can split the total duration down into more manageable segments – for example, 3 x 20 minutes at 40rpm.
When you first start including these kind of workouts, aim to keep the intensity low. This will mean the torque component isn’t too high and you won’t run the risk of injury. As you become most accustomed to strength training you can increase the intensity and the duration to provide a progression through your training.
Your threshold power will have a huge impact on your climbing ability. Threshold power is normally defined as the power you can sustain for one hour – this corresponds to how much power you can produce aerobically (when you have sufficient oxygen). Increasing the amount of power you can produce at threshold will improve your climbing across ascents of all lengths, not just long ones.
When you ride up a short climb you are using both your anaerobic and aerobic energy systems – this is why you are out of breath at the top. Your body has been operating without a sufficient amount of oxygen so you need to keep breathing hard to catch up - your're in oxygen debt.
Because you are using both your aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, any improvements in your aerobic system will have a compound affect on your short-term power.
To improve your threshold most effectively you need to be doing work close to threshold. You can measure this with either a power meter or a heart rate monitor.
As this type of training is very tiring I would once again recommend breaking down the threshold work into manageable chunks. Start off with 3 x 10 minutes at threshold with ten minutes of recovery between each effort. Once this becomes comfortable then you can make the efforts longer, progressing onto 12 or 15 minute, or you can increase the number of efforts.
You can do these quite happily on a flat road or the turbo (which we'll come on it) and will still feel the benefits once you hit the mountains.
In the same way that gravity gives you an extra form of resistance to work against, you can also use a stiff headwind to replicate the same effect. When riding into a headwind your cadence will natural slow a little just as it would when climbing a hill.
Your natural instinct when riding into a headwind is to try and make yourself as aerodynamic as possible. If you are training for hills then you need to resist this urge and try and hold the same position on the bike as you would when climbing a hill. This means a slightly more upright position with hands on the hoods or tops, allowing you to open up your chest and not crush your diaphragm.
We've already discussed both strength and threshold training, and there's no reason why you can’t use one of these sessions when riding into a headwind. You could even combine all three once you are fit enough to do threshold efforts at a low cadence into a headwind. This is probably as close of a replication as you are going to get to riding up a mountain without heading off to the Alps on a training camp.
Turbotrainer / Zwift
One of mains aspects of climbing hard to replicate on the flat is how you have to use your core muscles to stabilise your body while everything actually wants to slip back down the hill.
Your saddle sits behind your bottom bracket, but what this means when climbing is that your centre of gravity is actually downhill of your pedals. This is the equivalent of trying to walk up stairs leaning backwards (please don’t try this at home!).
When you do go upstairs you will have noticed that you lean forward slightly over your front foot. The same goes for your position on the bike – you need to be able to get your weight forward to be able to climb well. You do this by activating your core to maintain the same overall position as when you ride on the flat.
One way to replicate this is to set your turbo up at home with the front wheel slightly elevated – I find a copy of the Yellow Pages is perfect. You can then train away replicating perfectly the conditions you will find on a climb.
Besides that, there are number of great tools out there to help you make the most of your sessions on the turbo. B-Kool would, for example, be great for anyone targeting the Etape du Tour or any event taking in the more famous climbs as you can actually replicate the exact climbs you will be doing later in the summer.
Zwift has also recently announced a mountain extension, giving you an ideal way to practice your climbing without even leaving the garage. This provides a long section to train on at a high resistance.
When on the turbo with the front wheel elevated don’t be afraid to practice riding both in and out of the saddle as this will replicate how you will need to ride out on the road.
Lose some weight
Since gravity is the enemy when climbing, one of the most effective ways of improving your climbing is to shed excess weight to improve your power to weight ratio. Losing a few pounds will mean you require less power to go uphill at the same speed.
The key when losing weight, however, is to ensure you don’t also lose power as this would only negate any gains you might have made.
If you are seriously looking to lose weight while maintaining a good overall training schedule I would recommend speaking with a nutritionist first. There is an old adage that cyclists need to ‘train and fuel’, not ‘exercise and diet’, and as a coach I endorse that.
Remember your first goal is to ensure you are giving your body the necessary fuel and nutrients to be able to complete your training. Any weight loss should be slow and sustainable – no crash diets.