Correcting the Biggest Mistake Cyclists and Triathletes Make on Climbs



I am very fortunate to participate in a lot of cycling camps, charity rides, group rides, and races; and all that time riding with other athletes can be very informative. A great number of the topics in my weekend blogs and Time-Crunched Athlete books are inspired by conversations and observations from these rides. With the USA Pro Challenge coming up in a few months, this is a good time to talk about one of the biggest mistakes I see when athletes start going uphill.

You’re starting too damned hard!

I love a challenging climb as much as the next guy, but attacking from the bottom of a significant climb is rarely the best way to get to the top first. And even if you don’t care about getting to the top first, starting out too hard will make the climb harder and slower than it needs to be.

What You’re Doing Wrong
Here’s what happens when you get all fired up as soon as you hit the base of a climb. I see it in every single century, charity ride, and mountain bike race. You even see it in some triathlons when they include sizable climbs. Riders start out fast and are breathing heavily within the first minute. Within the first 5 minutes their pedal stroke goes from a smooth and fluid motion to something notably not smooth. Then the shoulders get into action. If they’re lucky they make it to 8-10 minutes before they blow up completely and slow down dramatically.

The real tragedy here is that once you blow up that spectacularly you won’t recover entirely for the rest of the climb. You increased your energy demand so abruptly that you generated a ton of lactate in working muscles. That lactate is always being reintegrated into normal aerobic metabolism and being broken down into usable energy in mitochondria. But when you generate a lot of lactate that process can’t keep up, contractile capability of muscle cells decreases, and your power output drops like a stone. Training can help you recover from this scenario faster, but in the second half of a sustained climb you’re unlikely to recover completely.

How to fix it
The solution to the problem is to change how you approach climbs. You want to envision a carpet unrolling. In the beginning when there’s a ton of carpet left to unroll, it moves slowly. But as it unrolls it picks up speed and by the end it’s going pretty fast. Like the carpet you want to be a controlled pace when there’s still a lot of climbing left to be done. As you get further up the climb and you have a good rhythm you can start to pick up the tempo. As you get to the final few minutes before the summit you’ll have the power and energy to give it some gas and finish strong.

The big question people have is whether this strategy will actually make them faster overall for the length of the climb. More often than not, the answer is yes. When you charge from the base of the climb and slow dramatically, the amount of time you lose is greater than the time you gained by starting fast. When you start at a more controlled pace you’ll be more consistent throughout the climb, slow less in the final half, and have the energy to accelerate over the summit.

A slight aside: I think some people charge into the base of climbs because that’s what they see the pros do. But remember, in the pro peloton the riders leading the charge at the bottom aren’t usually around at the top. They’re doing their job to raise the pace to a level their team leaders can handle but that the majority of the field cannot. That’s how you create the selection. But I think many amateurs miss that nuance and figure that the best way to be a fast climber is to charge right from the base.

Finding the right starting pace
The key to finishing fast is finding the right intensity to start with. You don’t want to be so conservative that you lose all momentum and get dropped. If you know your maximum sustainable climbing power or lactate threshold, I think a good starting point is to ride about 10 watts below that value with a cadence of 80-90 (wherever in that range your more comfortable). Get into a rhythm with your pedal stroke and your breathing so both are in control. Remember what that feels like, because you want to learn to get to that intensity without looking at your power meter.

Over the first 2-5 minutes of the climb gradually bring your power up to your maximum sustainable climbing power or lactate threshold power and stay there. Use your gears to keep your cadence from bogging down as the pitch changes and resist the urge to spike your power output with short efforts on steep pitches.

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Riding strong to the summit
When you think you have about 2-5 minutes left to climb, start ramping up your effort level slowly. Pay attention to your breathing and your body. If you’re ramping up too quickly and starting to pant uncontrollably or feel your legs loading significantly, back off slightly. The sooner you make this adjustment the better.

As the effort level really starts to bite near the summit of the climb, resist the urge to gear up and grind a bigger gear. It will feel like a surge, but your power output is more likely to fall because your cadence is going down and your legs can’t produce enough force. You’ll find more relief and greater speed (or at least less slowing) from gearing down and spinning a lighter gear at a higher cadence. Near the summit, revving a lighter gear will keep your power output from falling; this is often very useful for athletes trying to maintain contact with the back of a group in the final 200 meters of a climb.

HillAccleration Workout

I like the HillAcceleration workout because it not only develops the power to surge on a climb, but also because it helps riders understand the difference between crawling to the summit and accelerating over it. Although you’ll use the technique on climbs of all sizes, the workout is best done on a smaller hill (2-4minutes to ascend) so you can do the repeats more easily. Gradually build up to your max sustainable climbing power over the first minute of the climb. Stay at this intensity until you’re about 300 meters from the summit. Stay seated and start ramping up your cadence to increase speed and power gradually as you approach the summit. By the final 50 meters you should be at maximum intensity. Continue the effort until you’re completely over the summit and gaining speed for the descent. Take 4-6 minutes of easy spinning recovery between HillAccelerations and aim to complete 5-10 efforts depending on your fitness level.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

37 Responses to “Correcting the Biggest Mistake Cyclists and Triathletes Make on Climbs”

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    After I originally commented I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now whenever a comment is added I get 4 emails with the same comment. There has to be a means you can remove me from that service? Many thanks!

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    Its such as you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, such as you wrote the ebook in it or something. I believe that you just can do with a few p.c. to force the message home a little bit, however other than that, this is excellent blog. A great read. I will definitely be back.

  3. Matt Burke on

    Thank you for the great article, i have some struggles going up hill and being here in Denver that makes most of my workouts hard. I will try this.

  4. Will on

    I am currently doing a weekly hill repeat of 4 minutes at 11%. I thought I had discovered that a little extra power (say, 120%FTP) for the first 10-20 seconds (no longer!) helped by getting my heart rate up more quickly, which helped me find a sustainable rhythm. Then I would back off to 105%FTP for most of the hill before kicking it up again at the end (as prescribed). Was I just imagining this?

  5. David McKee on

    Great advise for riding in those places which have longer hills or mountains. In North Texas we have short to medium rollers the longest of which might last 2 – 3 minutes and every hill is a sprint to the top. Will the hill repeats suggested here help me keep contact with the group? Anything else?

  6. Charles Hufman on

    I always enjoy your advice and will use this to help with my upcoming ride at the at the Iron Horse Classic in Durango, CO. this weekend.

  7. HyperSprite on

    This is one of the best climbing post I have read in a while and lots of great stuff in the comments by CTS coaches. Especially the hole shot info. Good work!

  8. George Carey on

    The advice given here goes along with a saying I heard many years ago and I’ve always kept in the back of my mind, that is that an inexperienced cyclist rides to the top of the hill, an experienced one rides over the hill.

    When I remember that saying while climbing it let’s me make the right choices along the way such as not chasing the guys who attack early, choosing lower gears, limiting time out of the saddle, etc.

    Looking back at road races where I had strong finishes they usually had a higher average cadence and lower peaks on heart rate which proves this out.

  9. Roger on

    I highly recommend if you ride alone and want to get better at climbing, start riding with a group. Not only is it a great place to learn from your mistakes, like at 56 you are not going to be able to keep up with that 28 year old who is 50 (or 60) lbs lighter than you are up an 8% grade and if you try you will soon find all those guys you passed at the beginning blowing by you, but also that you, if you find the right group, will have lots of folks to work with you about what you are doing right and wrong. Grinding of course is one of the worst offenses for climbers, and it takes a while to break that habit and it helps to be able to see those around you spin and try and match their cadence. When and where to shift is another big one. If you hear others shifting, and your legs are starting to grind or spin out, maybe it is time for you to shift as well. Finally don’t be pig headed. If someone is offering advice it isn’t because they are a jerk or think they know more or are better than you (BTW, they probably do and are) it is because in the group they want to see you get better because it helps the entire group. No advanced rider wants to spend their Saturday hanging back with you on the climb every single ride because the group policy is you leave no rider behind. They want to get you good enough that first you can keep up with the group and then take on that job as you take your turn in the paceline and help those less experienced get better as well.

    • HyperSprite on

      I use Sufferfest Angels 2015 (you don’t need the video to run the workout but for me at least, it numbs the pain). It is a warm up with over/unders and 3*8 min intervals and cool down. If your FTP is set right, the last minute of the last interval is “hard as heck, not sure if I can make it, dang, hold on just a bit more, done”.

  10. Enrique on

    This does work wonders! I’ve always been a great sprinter, thus as soon as the road goes up, I get dropped by the pack… I used to be able to keep up on small climbs, but anything longer than 10 min was a torture, I started pacing more a couple of months ago, just like you guys suggest, sometimes even dropping out of the pack a little, but always with the lead in sight, I’ve improved greatly just by doing this! Totally recommended!

  11. Sean on

    Great article. The big debate with my friends is sit or stand? I sit and grind but some of my friends accelerate by standing at the beginning. What’s the best tactic?

    • CTS on

      The best option is probably a bit of both. When sitting you can typically maintain a slightly higher cadence and delay skeletal muscle fatigue. Standing enables you to take advantage of your bodyweight to turn the pedals, but you typically use a lower cadence and your leg muscles will fatigue more quickly. A scenario that works well for a lot of riders is to sit for moderate grades, then shift into 1-2 harder cogs as they get out of the saddle for short steep pitches. Just remember to shift back into a slightly easier gear when you sit down again. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

      • Scott on

        Yup I use the alternating sitting and standing technique. It really helps to move the burden to two different techniques and muscle groups and provides, for me at least, a task, something to focus on besides the pain. Also I find that looking too far ahead at the hill, is a psychological killer. I often jokingly yell out to my friends as we are climbing this one hill at 16% “don’t look her in the eye mates, she’ll bite back”. And I use mailboxes or other intermediate goal markers to get my mind over the hill.

        • Dale McVay on

          I always count when I’m on a hill that’s “bites back”….
          “Up for 8 ( or 19,or20), down for 8…gets a good rythmn and keeps heart rate from spiking from standing too long…

    • Gary Mapes on

      Good question? I used to prefer to stay seated but when I’m doing hill intervals I will alternate between all seated, all standing, and then a combo. When I get home I analyze my data and the combo always ends up being my fastest interval. Of course I didn’t use scientific method, only anecdotal observation.

  12. Dr. Richard DalCanto on

    The problem I have is with the “Hole-Shot” in mountain bike racing. Unless I want to get stuck behind a bunch of slow riders on the single track climb (15-30 minutes long depending on the course) while the leaders pull away, I have to spike my HR and lactate level in the first 3 minutes of the race to stay in the top 3 spots when the single track starts. I do have a hard time recovering after that and seem to pay the price later, especially on the second and third lap. I would love some good advice on how to deal with this problem….

    • CTS on

      You’ll need to train specifically for that hole-shot scenario with repeated short maximum-intensity intervals, and be sure to get a very good warmup prior to your events. The interval training is necessary to maximize your ability to tolerate high amounts of lactate and then process it quickly so you can surge and then recover (at speed) once you’re in a good position on the climb. The warmup is essential because even if you develop the necessary adaptations to clear and process lactate, those mechanisms have to be activated and running at full-tilt as soon as the gun goes off. If you’re not properly warmed up, you’ll spike a ton of lactate before your body has a chance to deal with it. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

  13. sandro D on

    Great advise, Chris, I always keep 80 RPM min or more no matter what, especially climbing and find my average speed is higher and it is easier climbing. There is power at 80 RPM or above, below that U BOG down.
    Thanks 4 the tip.

  14. Jean Weiss on

    What happens if it is really steep and you are already in your lightest gear and pushing hard out of the saddle and your max cadence is around 70 rpm?

    • Tim on

      I agree. Nobody ever writes about how to handle that. 8% grade for 5 miles. 34 x 30 at 60 RPM. HR 165. How do you spin up from that?

    • CTS on

      There are definitely grades where you simply run out of gears. The key to getting up these grades without destroying yourself is to resist the urge to pour everything into every pedal stroke. You already know your cadence is going to be low, that your speed is probably going to be pretty low, and the goal is to get up the climb economically so you can regain a solid pace over the top. Settle in and find a rhythm, even if it’s a slow rhythm. Otherwise, you’ll fatigue too soon and then your power will drop even more, your cadence will fall even more, and the climb will get even harder. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

  15. Duke on

    Chris ~ Thanks for the heads up. (Anything that will keep us Tri Guys from continually mashing it up up is always welcomed advise) keep um coming !


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