Summertime goals are often key for cyclists trying to maintain focus and motivation through the winter. What can you do now that will make next summer even better? Lots of people focus on improving aerobic endurance, which I talked about in this post. You can also target your training specifically to improve climbing performance by summertime.
Heavy Strength Training
Heavy strength training is effective for improving endurance cycling performance, including going uphill. And winter is a good time to periodize heavy strength training because it can take the place of high-intensity interval workouts on the bike without causing a major disruption to the cycling training goals during this time. If you are primarily focusing on maintaining and improving aerobic endurance with low and moderate intensity rides, then 2-3 heavy strength training sessions per week can be the high intensity work for the week.
Some of the benefits of heavy strength training include neuromuscular adaptations to recruit more motor units, particularly the highly glycolytic fast-twitch fibers. If you think of your muscles as a crowd of people pulling multiple ropes to tow a boat out of the water, heavy strength training gets more of the strongest people pulling at the same time. Not only does this increase the force you can produce, it also helps you produce that power longer by spreading the work across more fibers. You are also delaying the onset of activation of more aerobic slow-twitch Type II fibers.
While strength training should be comprehensive, keep in mind that the vast majority of the force for cycling is applied during the downstroke. The biggest bang for your buck in terms of the downstroke will come from weighted squats, deadlifts, weighted lunges, and weighted step ups.
A strong and stable core is crucial for climbing performance because it creates the platform your lower body is pushing against. When cyclists have weak core muscles, their hips rock and their torsos twist, but with a strong core you can direct force to the pedal and keep your upper body stable. Core training not only increases the strength of these muscles, but also increases their resistance to fatigue, so you can maintain that powerful pedal stroke longer.
There are a ton of great ways to build core strength, and committing to a routine you will stick with is more important than any specific exercise.
Winter is a great time to address bike fit because you have time to adapt to changes in your position before training intensity increases with more interval training. Bike fit is always a balance of power production, comfort, and aerodynamics, meaning it’s not all about knee angle. Current research recommends a knee angle in the range of 25-30% when the pedal is at bottom of the pedal stroke, but your flexibility, saddle choice and the position of handlebars and brake hoods still have to be addressed.
I recommend a dynamic bike fit from a professional fitter because it will take your posture and pedaling behaviors into account when you are riding at a variety of power outputs. If your fitter determines significant changes are needed, they will also recommend that you make small incremental changes (5-10mm at a time) in things like saddle height and fore-aft rather than making big changes all at once. Ride 2-4 weeks in each incremental position before making the next change.
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Develop Technique for Climbing Standing Up
Riding effectively when you are out of the saddle is important for accelerating, maintaining your momentum, and adapting to changes in grade. Seated climbing is more efficient in that you consume less oxygen to produce power, but the fastest way to the summit–particularly on long climbs–is a combination of seated and standing climbing.
Some cyclists can only pedal effectively out of the saddle for very short periods, and others find they struggle to handle standing up multiple times during a climb. The winter can be a good time to practice and develop out of the saddle technique and endurance because you’re not trying to work on technique and high-intensity climbing intervals at the same time.
To get better at climbing out of the saddle, remember:
- Shift up (harder) 1-2 gears as you rise out of the saddle. Your cadence will typically decrease when you transition from seated to standing, but you also have your entire body weight to push down on the pedals.
- Keep your chest forward. As you rise out of the saddle, bring your upper body forward as well as up. This helps you use more of your bodyweight and muscular force during the downstroke. It also means you’ll be using more upper body muscle to hold yourself up. Fatiguing arms and shoulders are why some riders have to sit back down pretty quickly, so practicing can help you adapt to standing longer or more frequently.
- Control the swing of your bike. To get the maximum benefit out of climbing out of the saddle, you want to shift your body and the position of the bike so more of your weight is pressing down on the pedal during the downstroke. But it doesn’t take a lot of movement to do that. Thrashing the bike back and forth and throwing your weight around–literally–just wastes energy. Think about using all your movements to propel the bike forward rather than to side to side.
- Sit back down before your legs are toast. The point of practicing out of the saddle climbing is to extend the amount of time you can pedal effectively while standing up, and to accomplish that you’ll need to do it for longer than it’s comfortable. However, when you are trying to manage your seated and standing durations, you’ll want to sit back down before your legs are so fatigued that your power output drops precipitously now that you don’t have your entire bodyweight over the pedals.
And above all… keep training!
The steps above are all helpful for increasing your summer climbing speed, but the best thing you can do is go into next summer with the highest level of fitness possible. That means using a structured training plan and/or working with a coach, and creating a schedule that allows you train consistently and minimize missed workouts.
By Chris Carmichael,
CTS Founder and Chief Endurance Officer
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