Top 10 Ways to Feel Better and Ride Faster Uphill
Over the years my coaches and I have written countless cycling workouts designed to increase riders’ fitness and power output for riding uphill faster. If you’re reading this blog you have probably done some of them, or something similar. But there’s a difference between being powerful on a climb and riding well on a hill or mountain and feeling good while doing it. And it’s important to realize you can ride well and feel good on a climb no matter your fitness level. Here are the top 10 tips for improving how you climb so you can enjoy going uphill at any speed.
Tip #1: Start slower than you think you should
Starting too hard is one of the biggest mistakes cyclists make at the bottom of any hill or mountain. It can be difficult to judge the best pace because you’re fresh, and that makes people dig deeper than they should. The right pace will seem too slow, but as you progress up the hill and settle into the effort, you can gradually go a little harder if you can. On the other hand, when you go too hard at the bottom of the climb you will have to back off to a power and pace below what would have been sustainable in order to get some recovery. Blowing up and resetting your pace costs you more energy and effort than starting slowly and ramping up your effort as possible. Be conservative at the bottom and steady to the top and you’ll likely be catching many riders who started too hard.
Tips #2: Sit and Stand
Pedaling in the saddle is more economical (lower oxygen cost). Standing enables you to take advantage of your entire bodyweight. There are times and places for both, and using a mix of standing and sitting will keep you moving steadily upward. Seating climbing is best for prolonged efforts, particularly at moderate steepness. You can scoot forward and back on the saddle to shift the emphasis of the work to different muscle combinations. Work on maintaining a nice smooth cadence, 80-85 rpm. Standing climbing is less economical and you will tend to ride with a lower cadence (60-75rpm), but standing allows you to create more force on the pedals by putting your entire bodyweight over the crank. Powering through the steep sections (and accelerating if you’re in a group) is worth the extra oxygen cost. Standing is also a good option on short, steep, punchy climbs.
Tip #3: When you slow down, get your feet moving again
There is no perfect climbing cadence. Lower cadences put more stress on leg muscles, and higher cadences shift more stress to the cardiovascular system, driving up heart and respiration rates. The right cadence for you and the situation balances these stresses so you’re breathing is controlled and your leg muscles don’t fatigue too fast. Climbing cadence isn’t static, either. As riders get tired, they often gradually slow their pedaling. Many end up grinding along in a bigger gear than they should because they were focused on the effort or the intensity (perceived exertion) and didn’t realize their actual power and speed were declining.
If you have a power meter on the bike and you realize perceived exertion is high but speed and power are going down, shift down a gear to get your feet moving a little faster. You should see your power output rise (or at least stop dropping) without having to increase your exertion.
Tip #4: Train with power, ride by feel
A power meter is a great training tool, but if you rely on it too heavily it can reduce your ability to self-govern your efforts. In group rides and competitions you have to recognize when it’s time to break from your power zone strategy and dig deep to make the winning move or respond to a critical move. During long rides and multi-day events, you have to be able to feel the difference between ‘sustainable’ and ‘too hard’ when your sea level, full rested, power zones go out the window on Day 4, riding in a thunderstorm at 9,000 feet above sea level.
Tip #5: Trust Your Perceived Exertion and Breathing
Effective climbing is a matter of balancing exertion and comfort, and that balance changes in the middle of ride or even the middle of a climb. To climb at a sustainable pace, your breathing will be labored but it should be deep and rhythmic. If it’s shallow and rapid, you’re above a sustainable effort level. Your perceived exertion should be 7-8 out of 10, perhaps starting at 6-7 on long mountain passes. Check in on these parameters every few minutes, because it’s common for riders to gradually ramp up their effort as a climb progresses.
Tip #6: Shift into a harder gear to stand up
As you get out of the saddle on a climb or even to just stretch your legs on the flats, shift up (harder gear, smaller cog) 1-2 cogs on the cassette. When you stand your cadence typically slows and now you have your full bodyweight pushing the pedal, so riding a harder gear helps you maintain momentum and avoid the dreaded “kickback” effect which can lead to overlapped wheels and crashes in a group. When you sit back down, shift back down (easier gear, bigger cog) to bring your cadence back up to the desired speed.
Tip #7: Keep your head in the game
Your mindset around climbing will greatly influence your performance on hills. If you think you’re a terrible climber and that going uphill is going to be a slog, you’re going to dread hills. To enjoy climbs no matter how fast or slow you go, stay engaged in the problem solving aspect of managing your effort, cadence, gearing, breathing, and position. What you’ll find are opportunities to gain a few seconds here, a couple of pedal strokes there, and a bit of momentum around the corner.
Tip #8: Ride the outside of the switchback
In most cases, the inside line of a switchback will be steeper than the outside line. Even though the inside line is the shorter distance, the abrupt increase in steepness causes you to lose momentum and leads to a big spike in power output. The middle or outside line is a bit longer but the grade will be more similar to the road before and after the turn. In some cases, riding the middle or outside line will give you a reprieve for a few short pedal strokes, or give you the chance to gain some momentum.
Tip #9: Carry your momentum over the top
Cyclists lose valuable seconds and miss KOM/KOMs or lose contact with the group by soft pedaling before and over the top of climbs. Don’t give up the time you gained on the way up in the last 50 meters! Keep pedaling through the top at the effort level and cadence (this may mean shifting into harder gears) you’ve been using over the last third of the climb. Ride like your summit is 20 meters after you have started going down! You can gain a lot of time over the course of a long ride simply by not slowing down over the summits of hills.
Tip #10: Get more power out of your pedal stroke
You may notice that one steeper climbs there is a small deceleration between each pedal stroke. This deceleration or loss of momentum is more pronounced when you have a bigger dead spot at the top and bottom of your pedal stroke. The downstroke is the most powerful portion of the pedal stroke, by far, to the point that the best you can do on the upstroke is unweight your leg to get it out of the way. Very little positive power is produced as your foot travels over the top or through the bottom of the pedal stroke, but these are regions where you can make some improvements.
If you currently produce power from the 1 o’clock through 5 o’clock positions on the circle and can extend that to be closer to the 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock positions, you will reduce that loss of momentum between downstrokes during steep climbs. This can be accomplished with low-resistance, high-cadence drills on flat ground and with high-resistance, low-cadence intervals on moderate uphills. Think about kicking your foot forward over the top and dragging it back through the bottom of the stroke on the bottom.
None of these 10 ways to feel better and ride better on climbs has anything to do with improving your power output or reducing your weight. Those things will help you go uphill faster, but you can enjoy climbing just the way you are. I can’t climb mountains at the speed or power I could twenty years ago, but I enjoy it now for the challenge, the balancing act between ‘sustainable’ and ‘too hard’, and for the fast descents down the other side!
By Chris Carmichael,
CTS Founder and Chief Endurance Officer
Hi, maybe a dumb question. In my 60’s, just a week enthusiast but do work hard. But, have an epic 8 day ride in several months with some like guys. They’ve done this Alps riding several times in the past 5-6 years. Here in the flat Midwest I more than hold my own with any of them on 2-3 hr rides. Now the kicker, I ride at 185, they race at 150-170 and I definitely get hurt on the hills compared to them. So, I start reading about climbing. Some say actually no harder at all, just that you ride slower. So have worked over the winter and have my 20 min at 270-280 and hr at 260 or so. My question, no one talks about cadence limit. We’re all renting the same bike 36×34 gearing. When we do. A threshold test on a trainer we have the luxury of dialing in our cadence and suspect most increase slightly throughout the effort. No such luxury on a hill/mountain. And I think my/our problem is physics. Watts is energy/ unit time. So, if my most efficient cadence is say 80, and my 9 percent incline needs my 240 watts to propel my 180pounds at say 6-7mph my cadence may be limited to 40-50 because on my gearing. And, if I’m asked to generate 240 watts with a cadence of 40-50 I need to push/pull, twice the energy/work per pedal stroke as I would at a cadence of 80 efforts per minute. So if my cadence is half, I essentially need to cut my wattage in half to sustain. No wonder it’s so difficult, better leave to power meter at home???
Great points Chris, and reaffirms much of what I’m doing, so this helps.
Tip #9 could be named the Froome TDF decisive move!!
I too am able to better guage my exhertion / duration better than when I was younger, and even look forward, (sometimes), to getting into the groove / grind and actually enjoying a long, steady climb.
Here’s to a free America.
Some finer Details from my experience:
Over the top: that’s a big yes to the 20m over the top idea. Don’t relax until you can feel gravity really take hold which won’t happen until you go down a little more than you might think. If you do that and your friends don’t, you’ll wonder If they stopped for coffee as they disappear behind you.
Pedal stroke: If I want to feel like I’m putting out more power while sitting, I try to “pedal eggs”, that is think about pushing forward in stead of down at the top of the pedal stroke. It’s a good feeling.
Rhythms, work, mind games, and breath play: When you’re working that little bit extra whether on a climb or a chase of the flats I recommend coordinating your breathing with your pedal stroke. And I highly recommend that you exhale on the downstroke, usually just with one foot, and then sometimes with both feet to change it up for a little bit.
Having a rhythmic count to your breathing and pedaling during hard efforts can be entertaining and distracting, and help keep “your mind in the game”. I have a number of rhythms I play with. For instance right now it’s 1 2 3, rest, 1 2 3 rest, as in breathe out, out, out, deep breath in.
This kind of play can give you a kind of measuring stick to note how long you stand. You could just pick out a number to count to, say 10 or 20, and if that suits you that’s fine, but I knew that that would feel too much like work, and we want to enjoy climbing, yes? Remember that workout Chris gave out a while back: 30 seconds standing, sitting, standing, and sitting again? I never could pull it off (all that was uphill sprinting!), but one pattern I worked on a lot back then – 4 4/4 measures- was roughly equivalent to 30 seconds so I was all set without having to use any electronic measuring device.
More to say, but this is probably too long already! Let’s ride!