cycling workouts for hills

The Best Cycling Workouts for Rolling Hills, Long Climbs, and Steep Walls

We have yet to meet a cyclist who doesn’t want to go uphill faster, but not all hills are created equal. Rolling hills aren’t very long but they often come one right after the other and can add up to a surprising amount of elevation gain. Sustained climbs take patience and power, and the key to success is the ability to maintain a steady effort. And then there are the short, steep walls; too short to get into a rhythm, too steep to maintain a nice spin. Time for a little explosive power. No matter what you’re up against, here are three workouts designed for the specific demands of different types of hills.

Steamrolling the Rolling Hills

For the purpose of this article we’re going to define rolling hills as relatively shallow grades that only last 1-2 minutes each, but riding in regions of the country that feature rolling hills can be tortuous because these small hills come one after another for hours on end. HillAccelerations are a workout that can help you develop the power to better meet the demands of rolling hills, but remember it’s a specific workout, not an advisable strategy for riding every hill on a long ride in hilly terrain.

HillAccelerations Workout

Ride the majority of a hill at a steady and sustainable pace until you’re about 200-300 meters from the top. Stay seated and accelerate until you’re about 10 seconds past the summit. Focus on increasing your cadence to cause the initial acceleration and then use your gears to keep increasing your speed as you reach and pass the top of the hill. Recover with 5 minutes of easy spinning and repeat. Novice riders should complete 4 HillAccelerations, intermediate riders (Cat 3 and Masters) should complete two sets of 4 with 10 minutes of recovery between sets, and advanced riders can do two sets of six.

Tips for riding rolling hills:

Momentum and shifting are the keys to thriving in rolling hills. Pedal moderately on the downhill to gain speed and shift gears as you go up the next roller to keep your feet moving at least 80 rpm. Try to resist the temptation to ride the whole hill in the big gear you are in at the base; that’ll work on the first few hills but not all day long.

Outlasting the Long Climbs

The most common climbing workout for cyclists is a simple and self-explanatory ClimbingRepeat, but OverUnders take this interval set one step further. By deliberately alternating between a sustainable and higher-intensity pace, you not only develop greater power at lactate threshold, but you learn to process lactate better and improve your ability to handle changes in pitch and pace on sustained climbs.

OverUnder Workout

During 9-minutes of sustained climbing, start out with two minutes “Under” at a steady and sustainable climbing pace (86-90% of your maximum sustainable power output or 92-94 of your maximum sustainable heart rate), then accelerate to your maximum sustainable pace (95-100% of your maximum sustainable power output or 95-97% of your maximum sustainable heart rate) for the one-minute “Over” portion. At the end of a minute, return to your “Under” intensity for another two minutes before accelerating again to your “Over” intensity for the next minute of the interval. Continue with another cycle (two minutes under, one minute over) to make a nine-minute interval. Aim to keep you cadence above 80 throughout the interval. Take six minutes of easy spinning recovery between intervals.

Tips for riding long climbs

The biggest mistake people make is attacking the climb too hard at the bottom. Instead, visualize riding like a carpet unrolling. Start a long climb at a conservative pace so you have energy for the steep sections and energy for the last few kilometers. In reality you’re not likely to actually speed up toward the top; you’ll just slow down less. The end result, however, is that you’re likely to complete the entire climb at a faster overall pace (lower elapsed time) because slowing at the top is where athletes lose a ton of time.

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Conquer Steep Walls

In Philadelphia, more specifically in Manayunk, they actually have “The Manayunk Wall.” It’s just a straight up steep incline, similar to the Mur de Huy from La Flèche Wallonne, and there are many more just like it all over the world. Climbing these and staying with the group is more a matter of brute strength than refined fitness. Anaerobic capacity is key to success on short, steep hills and HillSprints will give you the punch you need to get up the hill. Just remember, once you hit the summit, use your gears to bring your cadence up so you don’t get dropped after the climb.

Hill Sprints Workout

Find a short steep hill with a flat road leading into it. Ride toward the base of the hill at a moderate speed (15-20mph). With your hands either in the drops or on the hoods, get out of the saddle and start sprinting about 25-50 meters before you start going uphill. Continue sprinting up the hill for 20 seconds. Recover with 5 minutes of easy spinning between sprints. Novices should complete 4 HillSprints, intermediate riders should complete two sets of three sprints with 10 minutes between sets, and advanced riders should complete two sets of five sprints with 4 minutes between sprints and eight minutes between sets.

Tips for riding short, steep hills

Riding walls is kind of an art form. Because of the grade and the resistance your cadence is going to fall, probably below 70rpm. But you have to achieve a balance between over-gearing (which drives your cadence even lower and causes you to bog down) and spinning (which will cause you to lose momentum). These hills are a good opportunity to use your bodyweight by climbing out of the saddle, especially since they tend to be short enough that you can reach the top before fatiguing. The biggest mistake riders make is to stop pedaling or softpedal at or near the top. Instead, stay focused all the way over the top and only start recovering once you’re past the summit.

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Comments 9

  1. My femoral nerve starts cramping really bad on longer climbs and suggestions on how to deal with this, usually once it starts it’s walk-ride walk-ride

    1. Post

      From a fitness standpoint, focusing time-at-intensity on prolonged intervals (10-20 minutes each) at FTP is a good climbing-focused addition to base aerobic conditioning. A couple things that are valuable and often overlooked include short surges above threshold… and returning to threshold immediately after. These workouts are essential for developing the agility to cope with changing pitch or respond to accelerations in the group. These workouts can be done on flat ground and develop the cardiovascular and muscular capacities that translate to when the bike is pointed upwards. The other thing, though, is strength training to increase neuromuscular activation of more muscle fibers to generate greater force. That’s hard to replicate on flat ground, even with high torque, low cadence cycling. And strength training is good for overall longevity, too. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach

  2. Pingback: Get better on the hills - WordPress on Azure

  3. By 95-97% of “maximum sustainable heart rate”, do you me the absolute max HR, or 97% of Functional Threshold HR ? Does the same apply to a veteran rider (60+) ?

    1. This would be your sustainable time trial heart rate. It’s the same thing as your Functional Threshold HR as you’ve put it Bob.

      It would apply to any rider, even a fit 60+ year old. I coach a 66 year old who is able to do a workout like this.

      However, this workout is tasking you with pushing into that HR zone for 1min, before dropping back down for 2mins. In a 1min effort you might be able to tickle the lower end at 95% of Functional Threshold HR, but it’s doubtful you’d hit the 97% side at the end of 1min.

      This is a workout where using a power meter (rather than heart rate) would let you better dial in your OverUnder efforts. If you need an excuse to buy a power meter, you’ve just got one! 🙂

  4. We have a wall here in the Fingerlakes called Bopple Hill Road. It’s pretty brutal and even though I’m considered one of the stronger riders / climbers in my group it’s nearly impossible for me to complete the last 100 feet which is around 23%. Last time I did it there was fresh oil and stone applied which was nuts. It was the first time on my new Tarmac which made it possible (stiffer frame?) Anyway without having to reGear my bike to battle the final 100 feet of this beast, what can I do in the gym to help build some leg strength? A hill section at 23% is less like riding a bike and more like doing leg presses.. I feel… other than this hill at the very end I’m a strong climber but pals in my group that aren’t as good as climbers than I do better in this last final section.

    Also Devils Kitchen in the Catskills is another arch nemesis of mine. Greg Lemond raced up that in the early 90’s.. it was a hill that determined the out come of the Tour de Trump. Much like Bopple Hill I want to nail that one someday as well without reGearing..

    Thank you for the excellent news letters

    1. Great article, I’d also like to know what I can do in the gym to help get up the “wall” climbs, I travel quite a bit so I get to use the hotel gym – would be good to be able to make the most of being away at a hotel with a gym – especially when they don’t have a decent static bike.



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