Uphill or Flat: Which Makes You a Stronger Cyclist?
By Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS
There are a lot of cyclists who live for climbs, whether they are short and punchy hills or massively long mountain passes. If it’s uphill, they love it. And there’s no doubt that climbing is hard, but the question is whether spending all your time in the hills is actually hurting your overall cycling performance.
The downsides of too much climbing
Only cyclists who live in hilly or mountainous areas can really overdo it with climbs. Riders who live in flat terrain don’t have this problem (they have other problems, but not this one). There are two main problems with spending too much time focused on riding uphill:
- There’s always a descent coming.
Descents are the reward for all the hard work of climbing, and they are tons of fun. But at some level they can also be disruptive to purposeful training. Unless you live near big mountains, it’s rare to find a climb that lasts more than 30 minutes. And in many “hilly” areas, the climbs range from 4-10 minutes. You can get some serious work done on those climbs, but then there’s a descent where you’re coasting or pedaling at a far lower power output. Yes, it’s recovery, but it also limits the duration of your powerful efforts.
- Power output drops too low.
Climbs place a lot of stress on your muscles, and although you should be able to ride at 200 watts uphill as long as you can ride 200 watts on flat ground, cyclists often have to apply more power on climbs to maintain momentum and keep their legs moving smoothly through the dead spot at the bottom of the pedal stroke. When the big muscles of your quads, hamstrings, and buttocks get fatigued before you reach the top of the hill, riders end up slowly grinding their way uphill at power outputs that are lower than what they could sustain on flat ground. This means climbs take longer, but the reduced power output is not very helpful for adding training stimulus. You’re more in survival mode than training mode.
The training benefits of cycling on flat terrain
Some cyclists who live in hilly and mountainous areas feel pity for the poor bastards who are stuck riding on flat ground and little rolling hills. But those flatlanders often have the last laugh when they do finally hit the hills. Here’s why:
- Long periods of moderate power Tempo riding
Riding at a challenging (about 80% of CTS Field Test power) aerobic pace for very long intervals (30-60 minutes or more) is one of the most effective ways to create deep aerobic fitness. These workouts are easy to execute in flat terrain but because it’s harder to maintain a consistent power output in rolling hills, it can be quite challenging to execute a quality Tempo workout.
- More pedal strokes
One of the reasons an hour on an indoor trainer often feels harder than an out on the road is that you’re always pedaling. Until recently with smart trainers, there weren’t really “downhill” during indoor training. The same is true for riding 2-3 hours on mainly flat roads compared to 2-3 hours in the mountains. You’ll spend more time pedaling during that flat ride.Cyclists from mountainous areas sometimes learn a hard lesson. They’ll come to a flatter area with the belief that all that climbing made them stronger than a rider who has only ridden in the flats. But a few hours later, the climbers are exhausted because they’re not used to pedaling for hours on end without coasting to softpedaling down big hills.
- More consistent cadence and pedal stroke
If I ask the average cyclist from Ohio or Florida to pedal at 90-95rpm at an endurance power output for an hour, and asked the same of a cyclist who lives in the Rocky Mountains or the Blue Ridge Mountains, the flatlanders will almost always be able to maintain a more consistent cadence.
All those months and years of putting down more pedal strokes provides the neuromuscular adaptation, muscle strength, and patience to spin a moderately heavy gear for long time. The riders from the mountains can often create a lot of force at lower cadences, and can spin fast for shorter periods, but over the long haul they struggle to match the flatlanders pedal stroke for pedal stroke.
Getting the Best of Both Worlds
While there are people who live in places where there are virtually no flat roads, and other people who live in places that are pancake flat, those are the extremes. Most people live somewhere in between and have access to a combination of flat ground as well as and lightly rolling hills, short and punchy hills, or longer ascents. For this type of mixed terrain, it is important to maintain a consistent power and cadence throughout the flats and hills. A common mistake that is made is to attack the short climbs and use the descents to recover. Actively shifting through these sections is a good way to maintain proper consistency. If you have choices about what terrain to ride in, here’s how to structure your training routes:
- Training for long climbs:
If you’re training for a big ride in the mountains but you live in a place with moderate hills, try 2 hilly rides per week (intervals and/or endurance) for technique and power specificity, and two rides per week on the flats. Early on, both should be a long tempo or lactate threshold ride to take advantage of the uninterrupted pedaling. Then you can transition one to a high-intensity interval workout with short efforts (3minutes on, 3 minutes off at maximum intensity, for example).
- Bike racers:
With races that are relatively short (1-2 hours), and consequently feature intermittent high-intensity efforts, flat ground training is very important. Flat group rides or motorpacing help build the power and endurance to turn over a big gear at relatively high cadence to maintain momentum at high speed. Train once a week in the hills, particularly to use the uphill grade to push yourself harder for high-intensity intervals.
- Training for hilly/mountainous sportives, bike tours, and gran fondos:
If you’re heading to a major endurance challenge, whether it has a ton of climbing or is mostly flat, you want to be as fit as possible going into it. If you struggle to keep your power and effort level from dropping while training in big hills, spend more time on flat ground so you can apply more consistent workload for longer periods of time. Your 2-3 hour rides will be more productive for increasing your sustainable intensity level, so when you get to those major climbs, you can settle into a steady rhythm you can sustain all the way to the top.
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I can sustain 200 watts for a 2 hr ride in my relatively flat area (about 0.7% av grade for the elevation gain spread over total distance). Typical 53 km ride with 475 m elevation gain.
I recently visited hilly terrains and did an 84 km ride with elevation gain of 1600 m. Basically dropped from 2000m to 1000m elevation over 42km and then climbed back up. The average power was only around a 100 watts but the ride felt quite tough effortwise…
200 watts @ what weight? Watts per kg is the measure.
On the second ride which had more climbing your avg power should have been greater because of the greater watts required ascending.
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I can keep cycling for up to 5/6 hours daily in flat terrain (and short ascents, since I cycle a lot by the river banks) at an average speed somewhere between 20 to 25 km/hour. I’ve been cycling daily for the past 8 years, and yet I noticed that, no matter how fast or how long I can cycle, I still feel strained when I have to cycle up and down these river banks. Shouldn’t I be fit enough to cycle uphill as if I was drinking a glass of water? What am I doing wrong?
The author of this article is a bit biased towards flat riding. truth is our bodies respond differently to different terrain. your posture and muscle fibres recruited while riding uphill differ from those you use when on flats. The solution – you have to train for both kinds of terrain to be good at both kinds of terrain. Flat riding will not give you an advantage on climbs because you have endurance
His analysis of time is wrong too, uphill takes a lot more time than downhill. There is also a big difference between long, sustained climbs and up/down hilly terrain.
something else, the gearing and to a less extent cadence when on a climb have to change to do the climb more efficiently. choose your tempo to complete the climb at steady state, and don’t be surprised when your heart beats a bit harder on the climb because you are fighting gravity
I ride somewhat flat road, every day, trying to challenge myself to increase my average speed every time. If I went and did my route at the speed I went first started, it would be very easy, when I remember I had a hard time back then.
I live in Jerusalem, Israel, where there is nary a flat road to be found. One is always ascending or descending. I’d have to drive an hour or so to get to the flat lands. From the moment I started road cycling as an adult, after an hiatus of ~ 15 years, it was always in hills/mountains. Truth is I love it.
Not all hills were created equal and no other place compares to Jerusalem… Riding around Jerusalem no wonder you like it.
I live in Vermont and have taken to gravel riding to improve my fitness in mountain biking and fat biking, this perspective is very helpful to me, there’s a lot of cruising after hard climbs!
I rode the Triple Bypass in Colorado 4 years ago with my brother-in-law. I live and trained in Fort Worth, Texas. Relatively flat. My B-I-L lives and trained in Denver. He sent me this article because I consistently beat the CO boys to the top of each mountain. They smoked me going down, of course, but this article proved my theory. When riding flats, one is always pedaling, thus building power and endurance.
I live on a sandbar on the East coast. I started cycling 35 years ago in Vermont. I take trips to Richmond VA each summer for some hills. when a buddy comes down from VT in early summer we laugh as he is not used to horizontal hills. 5 to 20 miles into a stiff headwind followed by a cross wind or “Hiding“ among houses for recovery before our easier push back home with a tailwind doesn’t give much time for rest and the legs never get a rest
In Belgium and Arizona, when I lived there, it was mostly on the flats. Where I live now, north of Montreal, it’s hilly…..very hilly (15%-23%). Lot’s of short, but steep climbs (some longer ones too). I alternate between training rides on long, mild inclines (1%-3%) over 10km or more alternating with rides on steeper terrain. What I don’t miss, are those long, long ascents at 6% or more for miles like those I’ve ridden in Colorado, Washington, France and B.C.. Loved the climbs….hated the descents.
Thanks, very relevant to my thinking lately.
As an uphill rider living in Portugal its hard not to do uphills every day! For me, I find moderation and controlling the amount of excursion is key, never hitting zero in the energy reserves for me is key. I find I can motor along for hours uphill without getting influenced by the sweltering Portuguese summer sunshine, I’m good to go for hours.
Interestingly enough, I live in an area where flats and long climbs abound (Reno, NV) and every other type of terrain for ideal training. Last Saturday, our team (Audi Reno/Tahoe Cycling Team) rode up Geiger pass to Virginia City. A teammate noticed that my cadence was lower than normal for such a sustained climb. My cadence was around 75/80 RPM. After the ride, he explained to me that I was using my quads more than necessary and that I should spin more up long hills and task my lungs more than my legs. Now, based on what this article says, he was absolutely 110% correct.
I remember when LA used that very same method of “spinning” greater than 90 RPM during the Tour, when all of his competitors were pushing big gears.
So, after rambling on, my question is as follows: by spinning at a high cadence in my lowest gear (gradient = 6 – 10 %), will I maintain my FTP of 250 as opposed to pushing a harder gear?
I’ve been riding 35 years on the road. I started riding in central Oklahoma where wind on the plains at times could be a significant issue. When I moved to North Carolina in the Piedmont region I had hills and access to the Blue Ridge. And while I learned to climb and descend better, I soon realized I had lost some endurance by not riding in the head and side winds of Oklahoma on much flatter terrain.
As with all things in life, based on the above great read and advice, variety seems to be the best answer. To much of one thing, be it just hill or just flat, has its down side. So doing a variety of both in different amounts is the best coarse of action. Personally, when i start the season and I’m out of shape, near where i live, just North or Toronto, Ontario, canada. I have a rolling hilly road, that i go on, for many repetitions, i get the stress of an uphill, then the release of the down hill and some flat. Repeating this route 5 times or so is a great way for my body to get back into cycling. I do it a few times a week in March weather permitting. The route round trip, is about ( 7 Km or approx 4.2 miles ) it has a short butsteep up hill and some less steep ones, more rolling type. This has worked for me, i see my time between each lap get shorter as my Body gets used to it. The street ends on one, a left turn or right turn, so I loop back then I turn back two major streets in the other direction, just before the train tracks, as it I would need to slow down a lot to prevent rim damage going over it. I hope my feed back helps?
I concur that variety is most important to overall fitness. However, the article seems to contradict many past articles from CTS and others of the benefits of interval training. Climbing can be a great part of interval training.
Of course climbing can be a great part of interval training, but the point is that flat rides and intervals on flatter terrain impart benefits that can be difficult to achieve by just hitting the hills every day. We find some athletes who don’t have access to big climbs focus on the disadvantage of not riding hills, but often don’t realize there are aspects of training in flat terrain, and training opportunities, that provide them with real advantages. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach and co-author “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”