2011 TDF Column: Three Key Climbing Workouts for Sustained Power, Surge Strength, and Winning Attacks


By Chris Carmichael

It is one thing to be able to power your way up a hill for 5-7 minutes, but it’s something entirely different to ride at a consistently high pace for climbs that last more than 20 minutes – and sometimes more than an hour. The men who excel in the high mountains like the Pyrenees and Alps can sustain a high climbing pace for a long time, and then repeat that high climbing pace and power output on the next major climb as well. The riders who are great one-day specialists for hilly races like Fleche Wallone or the Tour of Flanders have great power for charging up short climbs, but typically they struggle on longer ascents that require sustained efforts rather than explosive power.

The high mountains are where the yellow jersey contenders really come out and play. When the tempo goes up on the big mountain passes, the lead group gets whittled down to 10-12 riders and no one has more than two teammates to rely on for help. And even teammates can only be of so much help on these long and steep ascents; drafting is only minimally effective at these speeds, so you’re really relying on teammates to help with the pacing and chasing – they can’t make the climb much easier for you.

There are three main areas that need to be addressed when you want to become a better, stronger, and faster climber. First you have to increase your maximum sustainable power. This increases the pace you can sustain for prolonged climbs, and in the best case it also means you can ride more comfortably while others are riding at their maximum sustainable power outputs. Second, you have to develop the “agility” to handle repeated changes in pace on a long climb, whether they are caused by a change in the pitch of the climb or an attack or surge from other riders in the pack. And last, you have to develop the power to launch an attack and – and this is the critical part, because anyone can attack – continue riding fast to the summit.

Workout 1: ClimbingRepeats

ClimbingRepeat Intervals are a straight-forward workout designed to increase your maximum sustainable climbing power. The intensity for the intervals is just below your maximum sustainable power output, meaning you’ll be asking for full power from your aerobic system and also tapping into your glycolytic system (often referred to as anaerobic or lactate threshold energy system). Accumulating time at this intensity forces your body to adapt so you can produce more power from the aerobic engine, which means you’ll either be able to stay with the leaders more comfortably or have the power to push the pace even higher.

ClimbingRepeats are very effective for increasing the maximum power you can sustain for the duration of a long climb. The intensity for these intervals is 95-100% of your CTS Field Test average power, 95-97% of your CTS Field Test average heart rate, or an 8-9 on a scale of 1-10. During these efforts, you should feel like you’re going hard, but that you could accelerate in response to an attack if you needed to. These efforts should not be as intense as a time trial.

Beginners should complete two, eight-minute ClimbingRepeats. Intermediate riders should complete three eight-minute intervals, and advanced riders should complete three 12-minute intervals. The recovery between intervals should be 12 minutes for each group. Be careful not to start the intervals too hard; spend the first 90 seconds gradually getting up to speed.

Workout #2: OverUnder Intervals

OverUnder Intervals use a combination of intensity to mimic the changes in intensity you’ll experience on long climbs, especially during races. The “Under” intensity is your SteadyState intensity range, and the “Over” intensity is your ClimbingRepeat range (both are described below). By alternating between these two intensity levels during a sustained interval, you develop the “agility” to handle changes in pace during hard, sustained efforts. More specifically, the harder surges within the interval generate more lactate in your muscles, and then you force your body to process this lactate while you’re still riding at a relatively high intensity. This workout can be performed on a flat road, rolling hills, or a sustained climb that’s relatively gradual (3 to 6 percent grade). It is difficult to accomplish this workout on a steep climb, because the pitch often makes it difficult to control your effort level. Your gearing should be moderate, and pedal cadence should be high (100 rpm or higher) if you’re riding on flat ground or small rollers. Pedal cadence should be above 85 rpm if you’re completing the intervals on a gradual climb.

To complete the interval, bring your intensity up to your SS range during the first 45 to 60 seconds. Maintain this heart rate intensity for the prescribed Under time and then increase your intensity to your Over intensity for the prescribed time. At the end of this Over time, return to your Under intensity range and continue riding at this level of effort until it’s once again time to return to your Over intensity. Continue alternating this way until the end of the interval. OverUnder Intervals always end with a period at Over intensity. Recovery periods between intervals are typically about half the length of the work interval. Note: A more advanced version of this interval would alternate between SS and PowerInterval (max effort) intensities instead of SS and CR intensities.

Note: The parameters of the OU intervals are written as: 3×12 OU (2U, 1O). This should be read as follows: Three intervals of 12 minutes. During the 12-minute intervals, the first 2 minutes should be at your Under intensity (2U). After two minutes, accelerate to your Over intensity for one minute (1O), before returning to your Under Intensity for another two minutes. Continue alternating in this manner – in this example you’d complete 4 cycles of Under and Over – until the end of the interval. Spin easy during the recovery period before starting the next interval.

Beginners should complete 3×9 OU (2U, 1O), 5 minutes easy spinning between intervals.  Intermediate riders should complete 3×12 OU (2U, 1O), 6 minutes easy spinning between intervals. And Advanced riders should complete 3×15 OU (2U, 1O), 8 minutes easy spinning between intervals.

Training Intensities for OverUnders: HR: 92–94 percent of highest average heart rate from CTS Field Test (Under) alternating with 95–97 percent (Over). Power: 86–90 percent of highest average CTS Field Test power (Under) alternating with 95–100 percent (Over). Perceived Exertion: 8 (Under) alternating with 9 (Over).

Workout #3: Threshold Ladders

The goal of Threshold Ladders is to replicate the process of attacking and staying away from a chase group. Each 12-minute interval starts with a maximal effort for two minutes (110+% of Field Test power, 100+% of Field Test heart rate, RPE of 10), and then you step the intensity down to your ClimbingRepeat intensity range for four minutes. The intensity range for ClimbingRepeats is 95-100% of Field Test power, 95-97% of Field Test heart rate, RPE of 8 out of 10. At the end of this 4-minute period, step your intensity down one more notch to your SteadyState range (86-90% of Field Test power, 92-94% of Field Test heart rate, RPE of 7) for 6 minutes. These intervals are very difficult because you start out with an intense effort that generates a lot of lactate. You’ll still be processing that lactate as your riding at ClimbingRepeat intensity, and still dealing with it throughout the SteadyState portion as well. Beginners and intermediate riders should complete two intervals, and advanced riders should complete three intervals. Take 6 minutes of easy spinning recovery between intervals.

Click here for CTS Field Test Instructions.

Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France in 1986 with 7-Eleven and has been writing Tour de France commentary for the past 11 years. He is CEO and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier destination for coaching, training camps, and performance testing since 2000; and Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. Follow Chris on Twitter at, on Facebook at, or  

2 Responses to “ 2011 TDF Column: Three Key Climbing Workouts for Sustained Power, Surge Strength, and Winning Attacks”

  1. Darren W on

    I have hills at close that I can climb all day. I am trying to get faster at climbing. Should I do hill repeats for an hour or should I climb for a steady hour and why? I can keep the same HR for either workout, just wondering which workout will help me get faster climbing for an hour.

    • CTS on

      Doing hill repeats at the appropriate intensity will do more to make you faster than climbing at a steady pace for an hour. Your steady climbing pace is what your body is already adapted to. In order to get faster, you need to perform moderate-length (10-20minutes) intervals at a pace that is more challenging. If you’re doing your hill repeats at the same intensity that you’re climbing steadily for an hour, then you’re doing your hill repeats at too low an intensity (HR or power). – CTS


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