sprint attack

Cycling Training to Accelerate or Attack on Climbs


In the real world, whether you are riding uphill on paved or gravel roads, mountain bike trails, or in a triathlon, you have to have more than one speed. As much as I love power meters and training with power, an unfortunate side effect is that many athletes focus so intently on improving sustainable power (peak 10 minute, 20 minute, or even 60 minute power) that they dull sharp end of the spear: your ability to accelerate and change pace. You need both. To be successful on real climbs with changing grades and in groups with real riders, you need both the power to maintain a strong and steady pace and the agility to surge and recover again and again. Here are some training and strategy tips to develop that versatility.

Workout: OverUnders

OverUnder intervals are very effective for developing the ability to cope with changes in pace or pitch on a sustained climb. The basic premise is to ride at your maximum sustainable climbing power/pace and then increase that power/pace for 1-2 minutes before returning to your original pace. You then repeat this cycle a few minutes later. For these, the higher power/pace is important, but the ability to return to the lower, sustainable pace is crucial. You don’t want to go hard and then drop off too much after that effort.

To complete the interval, bring your intensity up to your SteadyState range. Maintain this 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, and have shorter (30 second) hard efforts.

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. 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).
CTS Field Test Instructions and Training Intensities

Tip: Keep Your Attacks Short

One of the criticisms you sometimes hear from people as they watch races like the Tour de France is that the attacks in the mountains are so short. Chris Froome surges at a high cadence and power for less than 30 seconds, and then it appears he turns off the gas as fans watching on television scream at him to keep going. He is going, he’s just concentrating the energy cost of attacking into a short burst of very high power followed by a return to a less extreme output (although still very high). Keeping attacks sharp creates separation, and keeping them short reduces the chance you’ll blow up and lose ground. For most amateurs, that sweet spot is typically 15-30 seconds.

Athletes who extend the initial attack too long, trying to hold on to that extreme effort beyond 40 seconds, are likely to blow up and slow dramatically. Not only do their pursuers catch them, but they’re often so gassed they can’t get on the wheel and end up dropping or having to chase back on to the group. Short and sharp attacks may be brought back, but with training you develop the agility to repeat the efforts without losing ground between them. Your group may be able to respond once or twice, but at a very heavy cost, and it won’t be long until an acceleration breaks the elastic.

Free Cycling Training Assessment Quiz

Take our free 2-minute quiz to discover how effective your training is and get recommendations for how you can improve.

Tip: Be Patient

Particularly when it’s a race to the summit, it pays to be patient. If you’re feeling good it’s wise to set a high pace to put others in difficulty, and even throw in some soft accelerations to further put competitors into the red zone, but hold your big acceleration(s) until you’re within striking distance of the top. There’s something heroic about going from the bottom of the climb, but it costs a lot of energy without typically providing that much more gain. You want to create separation, but in groups of reasonably well-matched competitors the gap stabilizes after a few minutes. Even if it continues to grow, the lion’s share of the time was gained in the first few minutes.

If you’re not the one attacking, and instead you’re struggling on the receiving end, it still pays to be patient. The surge that put you in difficulty will not last forever, and when they back off just a little bit you have a chance to get back to the group. You lose that chance, however, when you panic and dig so deep you blow up completely. The choice between digging deeper to stay on the wheel or giving it up and trying to to ride back to group is a hard one to make, and the right choice changes from situation to situation.

In the real world and with riders who are also trying their best to go fast uphill, there’s no one formula that will always work. When you have great fitness and more tactical tools at your disposal, you can take a more active role in how the climb unfolds and you’re better equipped to take advantage of opportunities or deal with the tactics used by others. You’ll win some and lose some, but unless the Tour de France is on the line, that’s part of the fun.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

FREE Mini-Course: Learn How to Maximize Your Limited Training Time

Learn step-by-step how to overcome limited training time and get faster. Walk away with a personalized plan to increase your performance.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Comments 1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *