Hill Climbing for Cyclists - Top Tips and Advice
Published at 6 Nov 2019

Whether you’re a recreational cyclist tackling the South Downs or a keen amateur pitting yourself against the Alpine Climb, tackling a long climb on the bike remains the most challenging aspect of riding for most cyclists.

 

There’s no strict definition  of endurance climbing, but the key common factor in all environments is that it involves a sustained endurance effort over many minutes. In such a climb, the primary source of energy is oxygen supplied from the body’s aerobic energy system. This means that rather than attacking furiously, the climb needs to be performed at a consistent, measured pace in order to prevent the build up of lactate in the muscles - which would eventually slow you down to a complete stop and probably feeling very sick. 

The main challenges of hill climbing are the force of gravity and heat stress:

Gravity:

When the road points upwards at the start of a long climb there is no escaping the force of gravity. What is particularly challenging for heavier riders is the penalty paid for transporting extra body mass up to the top of a climb. Two riders of equal fitness but different body mass (say 65kg and 85kg) will have very different experiences on a hill climb. The heavier cyclist would need to consume additional oxygen to get his 20kg of extra body mass up the hill. This will deliver a significant difference between the cyclists ability to sustain pace.

Heat Stress:

This relates to the build up of heat you experience during climbing, and the potential knock-on effects on performance. As your workload increases as does heat production, but as you are climbing and cycling slower than on flat the wind-cooling effect decreases which means you start to sweat more. As sweat evaporates and leaves the skin it takes a large amount of heat with it, leaving you feeling cooler but working harder and sweating more which results in a much higher rate of perceived exertion as well. In other words, the heat generated by hill climbing will make the effort feel even harder and more uncomfortable than it already is. Adjustable tops (e.g. with a zip) are an ideal choice for hill-climbing as you can open the zip on the ascent and then quickly close again as you begin speeding up on the descent. 

Pacing the climb:

There are a few ways in which you can successfully guide your climbing pace.

  1. Heart rate: because there’s a fairly linear relationship between heart rate, oxygen consumption and work rate you can use your heart rate as a pacing guide with the help of a heart monitor. The point of crossover from aerobic respiration to anaerobic respiration (where lactic acid starts to accumulate) occurs around 85% MHR (maximum heart rate which is estimated by subtracting your age from 220). As you work hard on your hill climb your MHR may stay slightly over 85%  without too much suffering but once you stray over 90% you will know about it. So, use you heart rate monitor to pace yourself and keep under the 85% MHR.
  2. Power Output: Power measurement devices (e.g fitted to hubs, pedals, bottom brackets) are becoming steadily more affordable. The benefit of these is that over time you can see your progression as your maximum sustainable power rises which in turn provides great motivation. 
  3. VAM: Velocity Ascent Mean - I.e. VAM. This equates to the average number of metres climber per hour so a VAM of 1150 for a climb means that your average vertical ascent rate was 1150 metres per hour. It is also useful as it allows you to make direct comparisons between different climbs, as a general rule every 1% increase in average gradient decreases VAM by 50. Data on VAM is readily available from cycling computers or smartphone GPS apps and uploading to sites such as Strava.

Riding Position:

During a long climb you will find it less fatiguing to remain seated. It is true that you can generate more force on the pedals when standing out of the saddle however, the extra use of upper body muscles will lead to higher heart and breathing rates. There are a few circumstances though, when you might want to get out of the saddle on a climb.:

  1. During a long climb standing out of the saddle gives you the opportunity to stretch to and give lower back muscles a rest - you can move up a gear to compensate for the extra force you generate in the standing position.
  2. Most climbs don’t have a uniform gradient so in a short steep section it may be advantageous to get out of the saddle to maintain speed, rather than drop a gear.
  3. When the summit is approaching you can get out of the saddle and give it your all as the opportunity to recover is just over the hill!

The bulk of your climb should be in the seated position during a long ascent, many cyclists report preferences for sitting more upright and keeping hands on the bar tops.

Mind tricks for hill climbs:

  1. When a approaching a climb don’t gaze at the summit as it distorts the perspective of steepness
  2. During the climb be aware of changing gradients and the need to shift gears.
  3. If you’re in a group don’t worry about what anyone else is doing - stay focussed on your own climb and pace.
  4. If you are struggling try to break the climb down into shorter sections.
  5. If a faster rider overtakes you don’t try to accelerate to keep up with them - their speed has zero impact on your ability to reach the summit.
  6. For really challenging climbs do the route first in a car (if it is a road climb!) as knowing what is ahead helps your brain to manage expectations, which can reduce the level of perceived exertion.
  7. Take a small carbohydrate drink to snack at the start of the climb but don’t be tempted to consume too much. Recent research (see our News article on Carbohydrate Rinsing) has shown that just the presence of carbohydrate in the mouth can reduce perceptions of fatigue - i.e. provide an apparent energy boost. So take a substantial dose around 15-20 minutes before the climb then a quick sip or snack just as you begin the ascent.
 
 
 
 
 



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