Three Key Climbing Workouts for Sustained Power, Surge Strength, and Winning Attacks


By Chris Carmichael

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. 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 (CTS Field Test instructions and calculations), 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 half the duration of the interval (4min for 8min intervals, 6min for 12min intervals). 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 intensities 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

14 Responses to “Three Key Climbing Workouts for Sustained Power, Surge Strength, and Winning Attacks”

  1. Norm

    Would there be any added benefit of doing 5 intervals instead of 3? I already climb a lot but just want to get in a couple days of effective hill repeats before a cycling training camp coming up in 2 weeks. My goal is a 26 kilometer hill and the gradient is pretty steady and averages 5.6 percent.

  2. stephen

    Wondering if the average CTS field test power is the same as the AT power level?

  3. Alan Bullock

    A bit confused about climbing repeats as the intensity is very close to your average CTS field test power and your expected to do a 12 min interval. But yet the CTS field test power is the average power for an 8min ITT. So in otherwords impossible to ride 12 mins at this power?

  4. Mike

    Did workout #3 last night. Used the Threshold Power DVD for inspiration. Would have loved 6 minutes recovery between intervals instead of 3, lol!

  5. Simon

    I’m in Italy for a fortnight in August where each day I do about a 2 hour cycle. However because of where the village is each ride starts with a minimum 1 hour climb. How do I plan the training, do I do Climbing Repeats each day or is that too much?

  6. Mike D'Aurelio

    did the Leadville mountain bike race 100 this year and i dnf it.need to go back next year and finish the race this well definitely help met..thank you Mike

  7. Andy Vogel

    How often should these workouts be done?

    • CTS

      Good question, sorry we didn’t cover that one in the article itself. These workouts feature relatively long intervals (8-12 minutes) and with time you could end up doing 20-minute efforts. We typically prescribe these workouts twice a week when an athlete is focusing on a specific aspect of training, like when we’re doing a block of threshold work. For more advanced athletes we’ll sometimes prescribe three sessions per week (Tues/Thurs/Sat or Sun for instance), or even a two-day block (Tues/Wed and then again on Saturday). Most times, however, we give people a day between these workouts or use that in-between day for an endurance ride. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

  8. gly

    For the Climbing Repeats, is there a particular cadence range to shoot for?

    • CTS

      80-90rpm is a good range for ClimbingRepeats. Many riders seem to gravitate toward the mid-80s for cadence on sustained climbs, with surges to 90 based on the pitch of the road/trail. Below 80rpm you’re starting to get to the point where you’re bogging down in the gear. If you stand up, however, you should shift up into a slightly harder gear to use your bodyweight more effectively, and you may see your cadence fall a bit, even under 80rpm. – Jim Rutberg – CTS Pro Coach

  9. Darren W

    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

      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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