6 tips for climbing hills faster on your road bike and how they will help your performance
If you are like me when you think about hill climbing on your bike a lot depends on your current state of mind. At the start of a day when I feel good, I think bring it on, it will be fun, I can do it. After I have been out on a club ride and my legs have been spinning at my maximum speed for quite a while and are starting to hurt, the thought of a large hill in front is much less appealing. I start to envisage that I will be at the back, I probably have not eaten enough to have the energy for it, and I might have to get off and walk! But are there things that we can all do to help us get better at climbing hills faster on our road bike and will it help our performance? Well I thought it was worth looking into so over the past few weeks I have pulled together my 6 best tips for climbing hills faster and I have been testing them and seeing real improvements. Last weekend I went out and rode a daunting hill route that I have never done before as I was not sure I could do it. Not only did I ride the hill with no problem I also got on the Strava women’s leader board! It might have something to do with the fact that not many women have attempted it, but I am still pleased with myself and wondering why I had not given it a go before now! I would say these tips have certainly helped improve my performance so I hope they can help you too.
‘I wondered how people can do such a hard and no doubt painful challenge’
During the months of Covid-19 there have been athletic records being slashed all over the place, with almost weekly news of pro riders taking on and smashing Everesting records and many amateur cyclists taking on the challenge for charity. I have wondered what the attraction is doing lap after lap of the same hard hill climbing interspersed with a quick dash back down again. I wondered how people can do such a hard and no doubt painful challenge, thinking the trick must be to find the right grade of hardness/length with as little traffic as possible, lots of food, water and plenty of social support. But I was intrigued too, and it made me wonder what the science might suggest to help boost my own performance and whether mindset or mental stamina is important? After a lot of research this is what I found. My tips include practising by slowly building up your performance on a range of rides and hills, gradually getting harder and longer. Fuelling properly so that you get enough energy from your food to get you up the hill without reaching your energy peak too early. Utilising cadence (which is a word most novices fear) which is about the rate you pedal at, pacing yourself properly with the right speed and gear settings. Making sure you adopt the best body position and being as mindful of it as much as possible. Breathing properly to use your maximum lung capacity and deliver freshly oxygenated blood to your leg muscles from each breath. And finally, mental form or focus using visualisation or mantras, which even at elite or pro levels can push your performance to the next level. These are my top tips for hill climbing on your road bike and how it will help your performance. I will go into the detail of each one below and you choose which to start with based on what you know about yourself and your goals or you can just do them all and see what happens next!
‘there is a lot of science in the performance sports world that can help and … we don’t need to be pro or elite cyclists to make the most of it’
So when I was doing my research on this topic of hill climbing, I read scientific sports journals, consulted some of the best cycling websites, I asked different cyclists for their favourite tips and I read some inspiring cycling books. It turns out that there is a lot of science in the performance sports world that can help and the good news is that we don’t need to be pro or elite cyclists to make the most of it to help our own performance. I pulled all my research together, tested it for myself and condensed it into six tips that I want to share with you. I hope these tips will help you climb hills faster on your bike hopefully with less pain and more enjoyment. Some of my tips work best when they are practised in advance of a key event or route that you plan to tackle. Practising the key performance boosting tricks makes you more likely to remember them and put them to use in the heat of the event when your adrenalin has kicked in. This is exactly when you need to be able to recall and focus in on your performance to get the most out of your preparation for the event.
Here are my top 6 tips for hill climbing on a road bike and how they will help your performance:
- Practice longer and harder
- Fuelling your body for performance
- Cadence, managing your pedal power
- Positioning your body for optimum power
- Breathing to get oxygen where it is needed
- Mental focus to reach your goal
1. Practice Longer and Harder
This might seem intuitive but then again maybe not. It is always best to build up to a goal or an event by gradually riding longer and harder (hillier) rides. I’m sure you probably already know this from the event training schedules you can download or just from bitter experience when you took part in a ride or event that was just too much for you and you knew you hadn’t done enough training. I had this experience myself a couple of years ago participating in the Oban Sportive, which is one the hilliest sportives in Scotland with 4,603 metres of ascent for the short course and 6, 237 on the long course. I had done much longer rides but not enough long and hilly rides and by halfway through an old injury was niggling. I was doing the short course but after over 4,000ft of climbing I was totally exhausted, and my ankle/knee was not happy, and it took me a long time to recover as I had totally over done it. So the best thing to do is start with what is manageable and build up slowly. Start on the flat for one, two hour rides, add in some hills and up the distance and the metres of ascent. If you live in a flat place you can use a stationary trainer to help get more demanding miles of training in prior to an event. Mix it up and try new routes and different hills. Try long and slow hills and short steep hills. The more you do the more you will begin to understand how best your body responds to the demands of the route and how you should set your cadence (see below) and what you need to eat to keep your energy flowing.
2. Fuelling Your Body For Performance
As you probably know we use carbohydrates, fat, and protein as our energy sources. Our muscles can only store a certain amount of glycogen (from carbohydrates) and it needs regularly replenished during long periods of exercise. Carbohydrates provide a quick boost of energy whereas fat and protein are slow burning fuels and release energy over a longer period. Fuelling our bodies should start the day before when you make sure you fully hydrate yourself as the last thing you want to do is begin any ride dehydrated, for a start you will need to carry more fluid and that will weigh you down and dehydration can really affect your performance. Make sure you have sufficient water on the day that with added electrolytes salts to help your cells fluid balance and help your muscles work effectively (they need the charge the salts provide). Eat a good balanced meal (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) the night before and at least two hours prior to bed so that it is fully digested before you try to sleep. On the morning of a planned ride or event I eat breakfast at least 90 -120 minutes prior to riding and again try to include a balanced meal such as oat and chia seed porridge with a smoothie containing healthy fats and protein (such as avocado and hemp powder) or scrambled eggs with yoghurt and fruit. During the ride make sure you have packed energy boosting snacks, you can use gels, but I prefer the whole food approach with bananas, homemade chocolate and nut balls or mixed nuts and raisins. Eat while you are on the flat or going downhill or have a stop, don’t leave it until you are going uphill as your stomach won’t like trying to digest it and the energy won’t reach your muscles in time.
3. Cadence, Managing Your Pedal Power
So that word Cadence – can create some fear in those new to cycling – and it is probably the key word you will hear any road bike crazy cyclists talking about at club meets. Simply put it means the speed at which you pedal. That makes it sound less technical! You can measure your cadence through special bike sensors but you don’t really need to, what you need to do through trial and error is find the balance between the gear you are in and how hard you need to pedal to reach the same speeds. Cadence is important because it is a vital component of the power you use while cycling, Ideally you want to have a higher cadence so that you are pedalling faster in a lower gear which puts less strain on your muscles and works your cardiovascular system harder. There is no ideal cadence, it all comes down to experience, the terrain you are cycling in and the stage of the ride and you adjust it as you go. From personal experience the key thing is being aware of cadence and thinking about it and understanding it helps me to make sure I change gears early enough when going uphill to keep my pedalling speed up. I have noticed that pedalling faster in an easier gear can make a big difference particularly on long slow hill climbs allowing me to keep my energy higher for longer.
4. Positioning Your Body For Optimum Power
Everyone has their own preferred bike position, but it pays dividends to be mindful of your position, especially when you are tiring or climbing long hard hills. When you are going uphill most of the time you will be seated, except for perhaps very short steep climbs or the very end of a hill climb. If you stand, your heart rate soars, you use a lot more energy and you generally lose your rhythm. Save this for key moments when you just need a bit more raw power. When seated you want to keep a flat back, be leaning forward with relaxed elbows, try pulling on the handlebars on the opposite side to your downward leg motion to help activate your gluteal muscles. I tried this recently on the Ben Cruachan hill climb which starts at Loch Awe and is a hill climb of 4.5km and height gain of 350m. I stayed seated all the way with a good cadence until the very top section which is short and steep, and I had to use more power as I was all out of gear options. I know from experience if I stand up on the bike it can only be for very short distances and I can really feel the burn in my leg muscles so know to save it for the odd quick spurt or very top of a hill.
5. Breathing To Get Oxygen Where It Is Needed
Breathing might not seem like something you need to give much thought to when you are cycling. But if you can get your mind to pause and think about your breathing when you are on a hill you might notice several things. Your breathing probably gets quicker and shallower and it might not just be the extra effort causing the change, it might be partly psychological with your brain telling your body that this is going to be difficult, tasking your heart to beat faster and effectively putting you on alert for danger. But you can learn to control your breath. Start by noticing your breathing and try to breathe deeper and slower. You need to practice this when you are relaxed in a safe environment so that you can learn the feelings to look for in a more difficult environment such as a hill climb. Why is breathing so important? Well we need to get as much oxygenated blood to our muscles as possible. During rest approximately 20-40% of oxygen is extracted from our blood but during heavy exercise it can be up to 70-80%. Little organelles called mitochondria in our muscle cells use the oxygen to produce ATP (Adenosine Tri Phosphate) which is the energy that powers them and therefore increasing oxygen circulation can boost physical performance. I practice mindfulness which can be useful to help control my breathing and is used by some of the elite cyclists too. Practising being mindful in the moment makes it much easier to notice and control your breathing when you are in an active hill climbing situation. For me zoning in on my breathing also helps me focus which brings me to the last of my six tips.
6. Mental Focus To Reach Your Goal
The last of my six tips is all about mental focus. There are a couple of different ways of looking at this, the first is one that sports psychologists use and is said to be an athletes most powerful mental tool - imagery. Imagery (or visualisation) in sports is used to bring all the senses together to rehearse sport in the mind. It can help athletes remain confident, focused and mentally tough whilst reducing anxiety or nerves. It can help you remain motivated in daily exercise regimes or tough training sessions. Imagery can even help you when you are injured and need to rest or rehabilitate and best of all it can help you develop your skills and improve your performance. So how does it do that? Imagery is best when it is detailed, used in real time, has a positive focus, and covers all the senses. It needs to be practised and to do this you need to create a scene in your mind using all your senses such as noise (cheering, wind), feeling (excitement, anticipation), taste (salty sweat) as well as what you can see (the road ahead, trees lining the route, people clapping). Be detailed and as realistic as possible.
The second way to think about mental focus is during the actual event and if it is a long event mental distraction can be difficult to manage. I like to use mantras, two or three positive words with meaning that I can repeat over and over to keep my mind in focus such as ‘steady, flow, motion’. Mantras can help keep your body and mind in sync and help keep you centred which helps manage your nervous system, keeping your body systems in relaxed mode which is better for your digestion, heart rate and energy conservation. I also like to break down the route into mental milestones, focusing on passing each tree or telegraph post or each bend in the road. This keeps it all manageable and creates a continual sense of achievement. Some athletes like to tape a picture to their handlebars of a loved one or an image that gives them motivation or inspiration as a focus for when the going gets tough. Athletes that are raising money for charity often have a personal story which keeps them going when their brain is telling you to quit and their legs are burning up.
'the main take home message seems to be that you just need to love hill climbing'
Despite all the science behind these performance boosting tips on hill climbing I think what sticks in my mind from the research writing this blog is what I heard from those cyclists completing Everesting challenges. Some say they enjoy the pain and what motivates them is simply the personal challenge because it is so hard, for others it is about raising money in memory of a loved one and not wanted to let down their fundraisers. But the main take home message seems to be that you just need to love hill climbing, so somehow you had better learn to enjoy it and maybe even enjoy the pain that it brings with it. I think for me it is definitely about personal challenge and the one thing I love doing is stopping at the top of a big climb to enjoy the view and experience the sense of achievement that makes you feel like you are on top of the world.
So that brings me to the conclusion of my blog on hill climbing and pulling it all together has made me realise what a difference it makes when you can start to draw on several of these tips and really begin to see a difference in your performance. The good thing is that we can all try at least one of these tips, they are mostly easy to try and we can soon decide if it is making a difference for us. I am hoping that in 2021 if I have another attempt at the Oban Sportive using all these tips maybe I will enjoy it more and not take so long to recover afterwards. Meanwhile I am back to the hill reps on my local route at Glen Salloch where the stunning views motivate me to get to the top so I can sit down and enjoy them. Maybe one day I will make it higher up the ranking on the Strava listing for that hill climb but as it is being used as training ground for Everesting attempts I think it might take me a while!
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