cyclists climbing a hill

The Low-down on Going Uphill

In amateur races with significant climbs, those who make it to the top first earn the right to fight for the win.

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  • Climbing isn’t just for the skinny or gifted. It’s a skill you can learn.
  • The name of the game is efficiency
  • Build strength in the off-season. Convert that strength to the bike via hill repeats.
  • Really want to climb well? Practice at the meal table.


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Climbing favors the slight of build.

[/dropcap] No doubt about it. But even those who are very slender can only climb well if they’ve learned how to be efficient, and have developed a high strength to weight ratio. The great thing is that any dedicated student of bike racing can learn to do these things.

The ability to be efficient is what enables great climbing. Efficiency in the climbing context is the ability to use as many muscles as are needed to climb, simultaneously, but you’re using them only as much as necessary.

As one racer friend of mine puts it, it’s learning how to “spread out the hurt” across your muscle groups. That way, no particular muscle group — your calves, quads, glutes, core, back, arms, or hands — are carrying the lion’s share.

  • Additionally, there are sub-skills of climbing that make for an overall climber:
  • Endurance
  • High cadence
  • The ability to surge and “burst” while in the midst of a climb


So how do you go about mindfully practicing being efficient up hills?

You practice hill repeats. But it’s not enough to just consistently grind your way up your favorite nearby ascent. (That is one way to build endurance, but not speed.) It takes a bit more process than that.

And here is a very, very simplified approach to get you started:

  • Build strength in the off-season with weight work. Squats. Lunges. Leg sleds. Calf raises. (October to early December)
  • Convert that strength to the bike with low-cadence, heavy gear repeats up 3–5% grades. (December to early January)
  • Transition to repeats up various grades that begin to incorporate hill sprints at high cadence. (January up through early March)


OK, so…what about technique and all this efficiency business?

The idea is to stay in control up a climb and not blow yourself up. You want to practice the above so that the threshold where you do blow up goes higher and higher over time.

[callout icon=”hb-moon-bike”] Practice climbing so that the threshold where you do blow up goes higher and higher over time.[/callout]

Begin your climbing work seated and always in the small ring. You want to focus on being relaxed during climbs. During your early climbing work, avoid getting out of the saddle, and avoid making unnecessary movements: flailing the elbows, bobbing the head, weaving on the road, etc.

Chris Carmichael (who’s climbing DVDs I use, personally) constantly reminds cyclists to “stay within” themselves during hard efforts. While I can’t advocate for that during race situations where you usually have to wring yourself inside out, during practice you want to constantly bring yourself right up to the limit of “staying within yourself.” That requires really paying attention to your efforts.

While seated and heading up a climb that is 5 – 8 minutes in length, get into a gear that has you between 65 – 80 rpms. Hit the lap button on your cycle computer so it will mark the beginning of this first ascent.
Sit back on the saddle and alternate your grip every so often from the hoods to draping your hands over the top of the bar. Never have a white knuckle grip while climbing. You may think that you’re able to get more leverage on the pedals by employing a death grip. For a few good, earnest strokes, you’d be right. But quickly, you’ll begin to rob your muscles of blood flow. You’ll also start restricting your breathing. You’ll begin to tire your neck, shoulders, and back. So cut it out.

You want to pedal from your hips, abdominals, and glutes, while breathing deeply. You’ll want your shoulders open wide, and your wrists and elbows relaxed.

Concentrate on applying power all the way around the stroke. Don’t fall into the trap of only applying power from 1 oclock to 5 oclock on the stroke. And for what it’s worth, the ancient advice of “scraping mud from the bottom of your shoe” has never really been of any real help to me. Even when coupled with “kick over top dead center and pull back across bottom dead center,” I still visualize a choppy, square stroke.

I like to think of it more as if I’m churning ice cream. With both arms.

What? You’ve never used a manual ice cream churn? Nevermind.

Stay committed to an even pace until you reach the top of the climb. Once you’ve hit the crest, pick a landmark of some sort — a tree, a lampost, a mailbox — tap the lap button again, and note your time.

Don’t judge the ascent time. Don’t make it “good,” or “bad.” Just note the time.

Recovery during the descent

Descending is your recovery time, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to just be coasting. You’ve probably built up a good amount of lactic acid during that climb, and you’ll want to get it flushed as much as possible before you start ascending again for your 2nd repeat.

This is another chance for you to work on being efficient. You’ll want to be spinning as high a cadence as you can without bouncing in your saddle. 115+ rpms is a good goal for you. Get your elbows in, put your hands in the drops, have a safe grip, but again, not a desperate one on the bar. Your position on the saddle should be more forward than when you’re climbing so that you can get those legs humming.

When spinning, you’re more conscious of your ankles and calves than other parts of your legs. Hold everything in proper form, but don’t push yourself. Remember, this is recovery.

Back up again

Now that you’ve turned around to begin the next ascent up the same climb, tap the lap button. Avoid pushing yourself to “beat” your previous time. What you’re going to try to do, is to improve on the earlier time, by being more efficient. This time up, try to pay attention to where you’re not smooth. If you’re pedaling squares, think about what you need to do to go circular while staying in your target cadence of 65 – 80 rpms. If you feel your shoulders starting to pull in, relax them, and remember to pedal more from your abs and hips. Your lower body should be doing most of the work.

Once at the top, hit that lap button again, and compare your time. Aim to repeat this climb a total of 6 times.

Eating for Climbing

This is primarily a post about climbing technique, so I’m not going into any real depth on nutrition, here. But the idea of a great strength to weight ratio indicates pretty clearly that, if you live in an area where climbs are decisive factors in races, you want to decrease your weight and increase your strength, in tandem.

[callout icon=”hb-moon-bike”]Sugar causes your insulin to spike, and unless you’re burning the resulting energy immediately, your body is going to store that energy away as fat.[/callout]

Here are some very straightforward notes for you.

  • Sugar is jet fuel and has it’s place in competition. But you don’t need jet fuel unless you’re, well, jetting. Avoid all simple sugars unless you’re using them as on-bike fuel. I even recommend limiting fruit consumption. Sugar causes your insulin to spike, and unless you’re burning the resulting energy immediately, your body is going to store that energy away as fat.
  • Protein intake should be considerable during your strength-building times. Lean meats are your best source of protein. Eggs, soy, and legumes are your A-sources if you’re not a meat-eater.
  • Post-climbing workout meals should be carb-rich (and that’s healthy, vegetable-based carbs, not starch. Sweet potatoes are my go-to.) and about 30% protein. Ignore dessert and really, really hydrate.
  • And remember, eat real food. Real food doesn’t come from a box.


[icon_box icon=”hb-moon-bike” icon_position=”left” align=”left”] Question: What are your techniques and mental approaches to climbing success? If you’ve struggled with climbing, but learned to really do well at it, what was your breakthrough?
Sam Lowe

I've been a road cyclist with a penchant for speed ever since my first-ever paycheck holiday. I blew the whole wad on a turquoise Schwinn Tempo with then-new Shimano 105 indexed shifting way back in 1985. I've been a voracious consumer of racing-oriented information ever since. Training, nutrition, bike fit, racing techniques, and all manner of "kit." Between nearly 30 years of riding, racing, and reading about racing, I'm ready to help you get ready to race.

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