10 steps to improve your climbing

10 steps to improve your climbing

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Knowledge Level: Intermediate

Many riders struggle on climbs or want to ride them faster. Unfortunately, there are no magic bullets to improve your uphill prowess but, with some dedication and by following these top 10 tips, anyone can ride faster when the road kicks up. 

1) Bodyweight

Nobody likes to hear it, it’s not glamorous, there’s no quick fix and you can’t just throw money at it but, if you’re carrying excess weight, you’re starting every climb with a major handicap compared to whippet thin mountain goats. It’s no coincidence that the Tour de France winning Bradley Wiggins was significantly slimmer than the rider who dominated on the track.

Follow this advice from Nigel Mitchell, Great Britain Cycling and Team Sky nutritionist to get to your ideal climbing weight.

Finding out your body composition, fat weight versus muscle weight, is a good starting place to see if you could afford to lose a few pounds. Scales that send an electrical impulse through your body or similar handheld devices are notoriously inaccurate and their readings fluctuate considerably depending on hydration levels and other variables. You’re far better consulting a qualified and experienced fitness professional at your local gym or health club for a measurement using skin-fold calipers. Once you know your body fat percentage, you can compare this to the healthy ranges for your age and sex and calculate how much fat you could safely lose. All of our body shapes vary and, especially if you hold lots of muscle mass in your upper body, even if your body fat percentage is relatively low, you may still struggle going uphill. If you are determined to improve your hill climbing ability, you may have to ease right back on any upper body strength training you do and accept that you can’t fly uphill and look great on the beach.

If you need to lose some fat, you should aim to do so in a safe and steady manner. Unless you’ve a large amount to lose, weight loss of much more than 0.5 kg per week can indicate overtraining, excessive calorie restriction and can easily result in performance losses rather than gains. The key to successful fat loss is a consistent calorie deficit of approximately 500 calories a day. Once you know your body composition, there are a number of online metabolic rate calculators that allow your to calculate your daily calorific needs. There are also free online food diaries that allow you to easily keep track of what you’re consuming and factor in the training you’re doing.

Don’t be tempted by faddy, excessively restrictive or crash diets. Changes have to be sustainable and realistic. It’s doesn’t take too much of an effort to hit a 500 calorie per day deficit but equally, when you consider a chocolate bar is typically 300 calories, it only takes a couple of slips to blow it. The act of logging everything you eat and drink makes you far less likely to succumb and makes you aware of calorie laden foods you might not have previously been aware of. Try to consistently hit that 500 calories per day deficit and don’t be tempted to try to exceed it. Days where you significantly under-eat can slow down fat loss and even cause the body to start destroying muscle tissue.

If you’re training hard, make sure you are eating enough to fuel your rides but remember it doesn’t necessarily give you a free pass to eat whatever you want. Work out how much you’re burning on a ride, factor in any bars, gels or other food you consume during it and adjust that day’s calorie intake accordingly. Eating a meal with protein and carbohydrates, such as a tuna sandwich, immediately after a long ride or taking a recovery drink will kickstart your recovery and prevent big hunger pangs a few hours later when it’s all to easy to overeat on sugary junk.

Fat Loss Tips

Body Composition: Find out your body composition to discover how much fat you can afford to lose and to calculate your daily metabolic need.

Log it: The act of recording what you eat and drink makes you less likely to slip up and allows you to consistently hit that 500 calories per day deficit. Don’t forget to account for any exercise you do.

Breakfast is King: A decent breakfast, especially on big ride days, is essential to prevent hunger pangs later on in the day. Try to include some protein as it will make you feel fuller for longer. Yoghurt and muesli with some fruit or porridge followed by an omelette are both popular choices among top riders.

Cut down on sugar: Fat isn’t the demon many people think it is. The biggest contributor to fat gain is refined sugar and it should be cut out wherever possible. It’s very calorie dense, doesn’t make you feel full and will make you feel hungrier an hour or so after eating it. Some sources, such as sugar in tea and coffee, soft drinks and sweet snacks, are fairly obvious but others, such as low fat “diet foods” which are often sugar laden, are easy traps to fall into. Also, if you reduce sugar intake in your day to day diet, you’ll get more of a boost from it when used on the bike.

Remove temptation: You’re far less likely to snack on sugary food if you don’t have it in the house. Replace the biscuit barrel with a well stocked bowl of fruit. Make sure that you have your post-ride recovery drink or meal as it’ll prevent you becoming a sugar hunting locust later in the day.

Ride fasted: A low intensity (heart rate zones 1-2) 30-60 minutes ride in the morning in a fasted state before breakfast is a great way to encourage your body to burn fat. It’s essential that you keep the intensity low and that you have breakfast ready to go for when you finish riding. You can drink water before and during the ride and a strong coffee, without milk or sugar, before heading out can boost the fat burning effect.

The scales do lie: Losing fat does not always translate into weight loss on the scales. Gains in muscle mass, inflammation after hard training and fluctuating hydration levels can all cause your scales not to tell the whole story. Try to weigh yourself at the same time every day, plot the results on a graph and rather than looking at day to day, or even week to week, changes, focus on the long-term trend. Have your body composition retested every 8-12 weeks, keep an eye on waist and hip measurements and be aware of how your clothes are fitting. Your weight might be stubbornly staying put but, if that once tight jersey now fits, you’re heading in the right direction.

Keep hydrated: Our bodies often confuse thirst for hunger so, as well as drinking plenty of water during the day, if you’re feeling the need for a snack, have a glass of water and then see how you feel 20-30 minutes later. If you still feel hungry, have a healthy snack such as an apple or a handful of nuts, but often you’ll find that the need has gone.

Be prepared: As well as removing temptation, it’s important to make eating healthily easy. Keep your fridge and larder well stocked with healthy food. Try to plan your week’s meals in advance and shop accordingly. Make an extra portion in the evening that you can either take into work for a healthy lunch the next day or to freeze and create an emergency stash of healthy meals. Take healthy snacks, such as orchard fruit, nuts and seeds, into work with you to avoid trips to the vending machine.

Avoid hidden calories: Alcohol is an obvious source of hidden junk calories and additionally, once you’ve had a couple of drinks, you’re more likely to make unwise food choices. You don’t need to cut it out completely but try to reduce your consumption and to alternate a soft drink, not sugary, with every alcoholic one. You’ll drink less and feel better for your ride the next morning. A less obvious calorie culprit is dried fruit. It might seem like a healthy choice and can be great on a ride but in reality it’s packed with sugar and very easy to overeat.

2) Practice

More tough love we’re afraid. The more hills you climb, the better you’ll get at them. Many sportives tend to seek out the hilliest routes they can find and, if you avoid hills in your training, you’ll always struggle when the road kicks uphill on the big day.

The British Cycling Training Plans purposely schedules in hill reps and hilly rides to prepare you for this so don’t duck these sessions. If you live in a flat part of the country, you might be forced into riding the same climb repeatedly or even mimicking the demands of climbing on an indoor trainer. An indoor trainer can be incredibly effective for climbing training and as long as you set the resistance high, ride at your normal climbing cadence and elevate your front wheel, you can ride “uphill” for as long as your body and mind can handle.

If you are targeting a hilly or mountainous sportive but haven’t got the hills near home to train on, pencil in a few weekends where you can travel to lumpier parts of the country to ride. Get a few mates together, make it a mini training camp and maybe see if there’s a local club in the area that you can tag along with. Even if you live in the flattest parts of the country, there are decent hills within a 2-hour drive or train journey.

3) Gearing

There are no prizes for who can push the biggest gears up a climb and, if you want to ride a compact chain-set, super wide range cassette or even a triple, don’t let supposedly tough macho hard-men put you off. Riders may have been able to tackle tough climbs on big chainrings and small blocks in the past but there’s no reason to keep doing it now that improved component technology gives us alternatives. Even top professional riders use compacts on tough mountain stages, so there’s certainly no shame. Be realistic about the gearing you’ll need for a particular ride and try to speak to riders of a similar ability to yourself to get their honest opinion. A 5-8% gradient climb might be manageable for you on your current setup at home but, in the Alps or Pyrenees where that gradient can continue for 20 km plus, you might need something lower. If in doubt, always opt for lower gears than you think is necessary.

4) Pacing

On long climbs, pacing is the secret to success. If you watch a mountain stage of a professional race, you’ll see the pure climbers put in surges and attacks but the more all-round riders will ride at an even steady pace and often reel them in. They’ll have a power number that they know they can sustain on a climb and they’ll stick to it. That number will often be around their Functional Threshold Power (FTP) and knowing it, or the heart rate equivalent, and using it as your red line on climbs is the best way to make sure you make it to the top without blowing up. At the bottom of a climb, especially early on in a ride, this intensity can feel too easy but fall into the trap of pushing above it and you’re guaranteed to suffer later. Testing for FTP or Threshold Heart Rate, using these numbers to determine training zones and pacing rides with them is an essential component of the British Cycling Training Plans. There will be steeper climbs, where sticking to these numbers can be impossible, but you should always try to shift down early, ride conservatively at the beginning of the climb and try to maintain an even rhythm. You should always aim to finish a climb strongly and be able to ride over the crest with good form. If you’re struggling at the top, scrabbling for lower gears that don’t exist and limping over the summit, you went too hard early on. There are some climbs, usually shorts kicks and rollers, where it may be more efficient to maintain speed and momentum and attack the hill. Use this tactic with care on long rides as, although it may feel easy at first, these efforts soon add up, take more out of your legs than you realise and often come back to haunt you.

5) Fuelling

On all long rides, whether hilly or flat, correct fuelling, before and during, is essential to success. Running low on fuel is always worse if you’re going uphill though and, if you haven’t been eating and drinking little and often right from the beginning of your ride, you can literally come to a standstill. Being able to effectively use and absorb the fuel you take in is intrinsically linked to pacing though and, as you’re likely to be working harder and potentially close to your limit on climbs, you have to fuel around them. Always try to take advantage of flats and downhills to fuel up and, if you do have to eat while climbing, be aware that you may have toback your pace off a little.

6) Climbing Technique

Correct technique, including optimal use of your gears, is important for efficient climbing. Check out this video for climbing in the saddle and this video for climbing standing up.

7) Descending Technique

What goes up has to come down and, if you’re a nervous or poor descender, you’ll waste significant energy and lose chunks of time on the downhills. Improve your descending skills and not only will your overall riding speed be higher but you’ll also have more energy in the tank for tackling the ups.

8) Group Riding Skills

You’ll often find in a sportive that groups will fragment on climbs and, as the road kicks up and speeds drop, on still days the aerodynamic benefits of being on a wheel will rapidly diminish. You can still get a psychological boost from taking your pace off a rider in front though and, if you’ve got a headwind to battle into as well as the gradient, then tucking in behind another rider is a no-brainer. The real benefits to your climbing of possessing good group riding skills are the ability to save energy on flat sections, sit comfortably in the wheels and to use the respite to fuel and recover for the next climb. If you’re not relaxed in a group, you’ll potentially miss out on all these benefits, be wasting nervous energy and making the ride far more difficult than it needs to be. 

9) Planning

On professional riders’ bikes you’ll often see route notes taped to their stems or top tubes. These notes will often detail climbs giving information on length, gradient, landmarks and where they occur within the ride. This allows the riders, especially if they haven’t been able to reconnoitre the route, to pace the climbs and know when they should be taking on fuel or trying to save some energy. Apply the same preparation to your sportives and training. Always try to get as much information about the route as possible, especially significant climbs and avoid any nasty uphill surprises. GPS file sharing has made this easy, there are plenty of forums if you want first hand accounts and many sportive organisers provide detailed route profiles.

10) Bike, kit and clothing

It makes sense to minimise the weight of your bike and kit but gram shaving can easily turn into a very expensive obsession which, especially compared to the top five ways to improve your climbing, gives very little return for your investment. If you want to buy some uphill speed, upgrading your wheels will probably give you the greatest performance gains for your money. One of the most effective ways to ditch some weight off your bike when climbing is to minimise the fluid you’ve got in your bottles. Again, this comes down to planning and knowing where on a ride feed stations are and how long a climb is likely to take. You can easily shed a kilogram in this way but be careful not to leave yourself short. Be ruthless about the kit and spares you carry and, although you should never skimp so much as to potentially leave yourself stranded, many riders do carry far too much. There aren’t necessarily significant weight savings to be made from clothing but, from an energy saving perspective over a long ride, baggy or flapping kit is important to avoid. For example, if you’ve unzipped your jersey to keep cool on a climb, do it up for the descent and any flat sections. There are plenty of ways to save energy and gain free speed. Once you’ve ticked these boxes and all the rest of our top ten, you’re free to spend as much money as you want on carbon fibre bottle cages and titanium bolts!

Finally, although all riders can improve their climbing ability, we’ll never all be mountain goats. If you are a bigger more powerful rider, consider playing to your strengths and targeting sportives, races and challenges that are more suited to you. Many of the Spring Classics, such as Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, have accompanying sportives and conquering the pavé and headwinds of northern France and Belgium are just as much of an achievement as ticking off cols in the Alps and Pyrenees. Closer to home, take on some fast and flat time trials or consider giving track riding a go.

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