Cycling – Climbing Techniques, and How You can Become a Better Climber – a Comprehensive Look by Coach Todd Parker, M.A., M.S.
October 11, 2016
Mountains and hills certainly make cycling challenging, but unless you live in a total “flatland”, you can’t avoid them, nor should you. Some people love them, some people hate them. I chose many years ago to start embracing them, train them often, and ultimately become a good climber, and I did just that.
Figuring out your “systems strengths”, working on your weaknesses, “dialing-in” both strengths & weaknesses, and playing to your strengths…
First and foremost, you must figure out what systems fail first. In other words, either your cardiovascular system or your muscular system (i.e. legs) will give out first during longer periods at high intensity. This is an inherent fact with each and every one of us athletes. As cyclists riding at intensity (i.e. lactate threshold (LT) and higher – e.g. maximal oxygen uptake rate (or VO2max)), one or the other will fail first – requiring you to back it down and recover for some period of time. For those I ride with, they frequently mention the muscularity of the quads or the “pistons” I have. And although I do have rather muscular legs through strength training and hundreds of thousands of cycling miles, you may be surprised to learn that my legs give out first. That’s right, my cardiovascular system is stronger, and can endure extremely intense efforts and sustain them, until such time that my legs begin to fail. This is when the blood lactate levels in my legs cross over into levels that my systems can no longer effectively clear. When excessive lactate (and other by-products) accumulate beyond what your body can process, it’ll require you to back it down and lower the intensity. You’ve all experienced this. It is often described to as a severe “burning sensation” in the muscles, and you reach a point that you no longer can maintain the effort. You experience this whether cycling or running at a very high intensity level for some period, or when you’ve gotten to your 20th, 25th, 50th… bicep curl, dip, or pushup…etc. So, next time you hit the road and climbs, really get to learn your body well, how it adapts, how it responds, and what feedback you get. Specifically, what fails first that requires you to lower the intensity. You’ll figure this out rather quickly, and then be able to focus on your weakness, as well as better play to your strengths in the future. By doing so, you’ll become a more powerful, effective, and economically-energy-efficient© (EEE) climber. One example that I’ve done to increase my leg strength & endurance to failure is by performing 3-5 sets of 100-200 repetitions (reps) of hack squat leg presses. As I progress through the Winter months, I’ll increase the reps and reduce the rest cycle from 5 minutes, to 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and so on. Believe me, both your legs and cardiovascular systems will be taxed with these sets. Obviously, we’re not using 10 plates here, but a rather light weight (for me) of ~150lbs. A second leg strength drill you can do any time of the year is what I refer to as “Big Ringing it”! Find a challenging climb that let’s say takes 2-5min to ascend; one that you typically spin up because of the grade. However, for these hill repeats, you’ll approach in the big ring in a low gear (2nd or 3rd largest cog/easiest gear) [Important Gearing Note: never shift to the lowest gear when in the big ring – as this is referred to as cross-chaining and places too much strain on the chain, and causes it to wear out much faster – if you don’t drop the chain altogether. Similarly, you never shift to the highest gear (1st cog/hardest) when in the small ring up front.] For most of these tough big ring climbs, you’ll want to ascend out of the saddle. Typically, it’s your only choice since it’ll take all of your lower and upper body strength to power up and over it. Try one, and if you’re up for it, start by performing 3-5 of these, recovering on the descent, perhaps allowing for a full 3-5min recovery between each, or until such time you’re much stronger. Those are two very effective climbing leg strength interval sets you can start on. A good cardiovascular one is rope jumping. Learn to jump rope again, and after just 1-2 minutes (even 30sec), you’ll be out of breath and have to take a recovery break. As weeks go by and you get cardiovascularly stronger, increase the set lengths, number of sets, while reducing the rest cycle time. Jumping rope is an affordable and time efficient way to improve your cardiovascular strength rather quickly; and if you travel every week as many of my athletes do, it’s an easy workout item to include in your travel bag. A second one is high-cadence intervals – easiest and most accurately performed on a stationary trainer. Start off with perhaps 30sec at 120rpm, and progress to 1-2min at 130, 150+ and so on. These high-cadence intervals will work the cardiovascular system extremely well, not to mention work on your pedal stroke and turnover as well. So those are just two simple but effective drill sets you can perform to improve and strengthen your cardiovascular fitness.
Sustained Exertion is Critical.
Often the most important component of climbing is maintaining a steady effort throughout the entire ascent – from the base all the way to the summit. Achieving this however doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time, and “economy of effort & energy expenditure” to tackle the various grade changes. Let’s face it, it takes dedication to the skills and techniques (pure and simple). If you have a heart rate monitor, initially there can be a lag of approximately 30 seconds to 1 minute whenever you suddenly increase intensity (as on a climb). Furthermore, after long periods in the saddle the HR may “drift” 10-20 beats higher than when at the same effort hours previously. This is referred to as cardiac drift. So, remember this when approaching climbs, while on long climbs, and while riding late into long rides of several to many hours of challenging terrain. If you are relying on perceived exertion (or PE), depending upon the average grade and length, the beginning of the climb may often seem easier (i.e. a PE of ~6), while approaching the summit (at the same effort) may feel more challenging (i.e. ~8-9). Generally, the only means of knowing your actual effort (instantly) is by using a power meter – coupled with knowing your heartrate (HR) ranges very well.
Not everyone has a power meter, so my general guidance is as follows:
• Start out somewhat slower at the base of the climb. Furthermore, don’t concern yourself with others who start off very fast and hard from the beginning like jackrabbits, because most often the tortoise and hare affect occurs. In other words, just settle into your pace that is challenging but sustainable for you, and more often than not you’ll be clawing your way to the summit and pass them along the way. In another perspective, ride your ride or race your race, and those that overcommit themselves usually “blow up” before the summit and you end up passing them (at times) as if they’re standing still, which is very satisfying I must admit! This also is a psychological plus for you and a blow to them.
• Be familiar with the course or ride so that you know how long the climbs are, the grades, and therefore know what type of gearing and effort is required.
• If you know the group ride or race course well and have access to it, practice each climb so you’re not guessing as you approach. Also, know what pacing is optimal for you to summit every climb length and average gradient as efficiently or “EEE” as possible.
Cadence Ranges, Shifting, and In & Out of the Saddle Timing.
As mentioned earlier, some “mash” tough gears and efforts from the start, while others just seemingly simply spin their way to the top. Of course, climb and situation dependent, I recommend in most cases to start off conservatively – as you always can pick up the pace. However, if you “blow up” 300 meters into a 5k climb, you’ll be regretful and getting passed for the next 20-40 minutes (depending on the difficulty of the climb). Everyone is different, but for many it is more efficient to spin up a hill (maintaining a cadence of ~80-95+ rpm) and a steady effort. Maintaining this high of a cadence (or higher) may be difficult in the beginning; however, as your climbing fitness improves, you’ll become a stronger and more efficient climber. Again, the grades of the climb often will initially dictate your gearing and cadence. This should be your indicators of what your climbing strengths and weaknesses are. Telltale signs that you’ve become a stronger and/or more efficient at climbing are either – you can pedal the same climb at a higher cadence while your HR is basically the same as it was when you were weaker or performing at a slower cadence (cardiovascularly stronger), or you can spin at the same cadence as before in a higher gear (lower cog/harder gear), which indicates you’re muscularly stronger than before. And yes, you can improve both, so you may see gains cardiovascularly and muscularly – a great thing to realize! A pat on the back and thanking your coach (if you’re fortunate to have one) are in order here, because whether self-prescribed and motivated or coach-insisted, you’ve transformed into a stronger climber.
What to do if you are basically in the easiest gear and you are unable to maintain a cadence of at least 75-80? It’s likely that it’s time to get out of the saddle; which we’ll discuss a little later, or if you’re constantly plagued with this initially and have some spare cash, purchase a compact or triple crankset until you’re stronger. Mashing climb after climb will only burn more fuel and fatigue you faster, so must figure out how to get more out of your effort or more out of your bike.
Visualize pedaling circles, and then practice the techniques and drills below to improve the power of your pedal stroke. The idea of the pedal stroke is to apply force around the entire pedal stroke. Accomplish this by pushing down, then pulling back at the bottom (as if you are scraping mud off your shoes), lifting up from 9-12 o’clock and pushing through and over the top of the stroke. Another way of thinking of this is by imagining your cranks are an elastic band, and you’re attempting to stretch them all the way through a full pedal stroke. Most of us are actually not so good at pedaling in a smooth circle until we focus on correcting this weakness. Probably the most commonly prescribed drill for strengthening your pedal stroke is one we refer to as one-legged-drills (or OLDs). Start off by performing them on a stationary trainer, unclipping one foot and placing it behind on the trainer – not too close to the wheel, and perhaps start at 30sec for 3-5 reps each leg. Initially, you’ll have lots of “thumps and bumps” performing these. Those are inefficiencies in your pedal stroke – weaknesses in tibialis anterior (major front shin muscle), hamstrings (hams), gluteals (your butt muscles or glutes), and hip flexors. Especially after the first time you perform these, expect your shins, glutes, hip flexors to be sore for the next couple of days. Once mastered and have become too easy, increase to 1min, 2min, 3min, and so on. As you strengthen these cycling-specific lower body muscles, you’ll smoothen out your pedal stroke, thus “spreading the workload” and producing more efficient power. Believe me, I’ve had clients that could barely complete 20sec until failing – in the Fall, and by Winter’s end they were able to perform OLDs for 2 ½ minutes! Do you think their power output and quad-sparing efficiency improved? You bet it did! Furthermore, many moved up from the back of the pack to the middle of the pack or better. For organized group rides, that translated into moving up from the “C or D group rides” to “B rides”. By focusing on the pedal stroke, as well as climbing form, technique, and sustainable power throughout the off-season, you’ll enter Spring on group rides as a whole new rider – and others will certainly notice!
While climbing seated you should:
• Position yourself on the saddle somewhat “upright” (not straight up) but angle of upper torso and leg at the top of the pedal stroke somewhere around a 30-40 degree angle in order for your lungs and diaphragm to have enough room to expand for optimal oxygen intake. This positioning will automatically force more core engagement, and the forward lean should automatically engage other important climbing muscles such as the entire core (abs, obliques, erector spinae…), tibialis anterior, hams, glutes, and the hip flexors.
[My Seated Climbing preference – thumbs on the stem bolts and hands positioned just outside the stem.]
• Position your hands either on the hoods (or my preference) up on the bar tops close to the stem (See photo above). Grip should be relaxed so not to waste energy. All a “death grip” will do is cause excess tension, which you’ll pay for later – not only in your hands, but your upper back, shoulders, and triceps. By holding a stiff and tense upper body, after an hour or so you’ll feel as though someone stuck a hot poker just above your shoulder blades. Most of you know this sensation well, and will continue to until you have learned to relax the upper body and engage the core. If you’re going to power surge ahead of other riders/racers, then you may want to lower your hands to the drops and stand in order to apply or “stomp” more force on the cranks to zoom past them (as in an attack). These are not long efforts typically.
• Otherwise, maintain a “still upper body” that remains relatively still and fluid. If the climb is too steep for your gearing or to remain seated, your upper body and head will start to sway and bob from side to side and back and forth. This wastes energy and is a telltale sign that either you’re overgeared, positioned poorly, are a weak climber, should possibly get out of the saddle, or you’ve “hit the wall” and are running out of gas. We often refer to this as “he’s mauling the bike now” and have run out of steam. Rather than a fluid pedal stroke or spin, you’re “mashing on the pedals” without total leg muscular engagement, thus, prematurely fatiguing your quads. If you can remain seated for the entire climb, do so, as it’ll keep your HR and metabolic rate as low as possible. Once you make the decision to stand, just know that the heart rate and energy expenditure will rise.
Standing vs. Seated.
It is more efficient to stay seated during a climb than to stand; however, you can produce more power while standing, by placing your center-of-gravity and more weight or force to the pedal stroke. When you stand, your core is automatically forced to do more work. This is primarily because your pelvis is not anchored to the saddle, and therefore your abs and back muscles have to “pull up” on the “unweighted” portion of the pedal stroke, which requires more energy expenditure. You also engage your arms to essentially “pull up” and “push down” on the bars to support yourself, as well as, apply more force that’s required on challenging graded climbs. Let’s imagine you’re climbing at a grade that begins at ~3% – 4%, but suddenly changes to the 7% – 10+% range. It now becomes necessary to shift our positioning by “sliding back into the saddle”. This subsequently increases muscular activation levels to raise the engagement of the other contributing muscles required to progress through the more challenging segment faster. Whether you realize it or not, your hams, glutes, hips and core will automatically be forced to contribute more due to the higher effort demanded by the steeper grades. The following are some common occurrences, tips, and techniques for optimal performance on climbs.
1. As the grade increases, your first reaction should be to shift into a lower gear (higher cog/easier gear), sustain your RPM’s, and try to maintain a consistent speed and effort. In order to keep your HR down, you will need to maintain your power with a gradual increase in cadence to sustain this effort level. The primary means of maintaining your power consistently, is to stay in the saddle for the entirety of the grade change, the rest of the climb, or as long as remaining seated is possible.
2. Initially, fight the tendency of constantly shifting gears as the grades increase (climb steepens). By constantly shifting to lower gears, this will reduce your speed significantly, and others on the climb will seem to suddenly surge ahead rather easily. Some leg strength work mentioned earlier will improve your abilities here. Have a goal to keep your HR as steady as possible; however, you must accept the fact that it will continue to rise commensurate with the increased effort levels. Once your speed drops and lactic acid becomes more increasingly apparent in your legs, slide back in the saddle (think of pushing your butt back and into the saddle) to change the firing order of the muscles, and leverage more force from your hamstrings, glutes, hips, and finally the quads as well. Try slightly pointing your toes to bring the lower leg muscles into the firing pattern. These would be the tibialis anterior or shin muscles in the front that (in this instance) activate more than the calves in the back. This will add more fire to the back side of your stroke through hip flexion (pulling through). Allow your HR to climb slowly and focus on the lift in your stroke by raising the engagement of your hams, glutes, and hip flexors. By engaging more of the entire leg musculature and hip flexors, you’re “spreading the workload”, creating more power, and not exhausting your quads excessively. Again, OLDs indoors on the trainer or outdoors on a long flat stretch of road will strengthen these muscles and joints for exactly this shift in muscular activation and positioning change while seated.
3. Avoid “the novice form” of sitting up high with stiff straight arms, a rounded back, and dropping the heels (pointing them down) at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Physically, this disconnects the muscular kinetic chain of the powerful stabilizing hip and core muscles mentioned previously. Furthermore, it disconnects the smoothness of your pedal stroke, and causes unnecessary excess strain in the upper back, shoulders, and triceps. Instead, strive for a flat back and bent elbows. This lowers your center-of-gravity, and utilizes your climbing musculature to an optimal level. By pulling through with the contracted (seated) climbing muscles (hams, glutes, hip flexors…), you can delay excessively rising levels of lactic acid accumulation within the quads. What this looks like to spectators that line the roads of a race or Gran Fondo is a rider with a more relaxed and steady appearance, bent elbows, and a very gentle rocking forward and back motion while increasing forward momentum. As long as your handlebar width doesn’t have you overly constricted, a powerful hand position is close to the stem on the bar tops, and pulling slightly rearward every time each foot powers over the 1-2 o’clock position. This is what causes the slight forward and back upper body movement, but again, it transfers more power to each pedal stroke. If your chest is too constricted by the stem, then perform the same techniques with your hands positioned on top of the brake hoods. It is my preference and opinion however, that you can transfer more power on the rearward pulling technique by the stem. [Note on Bike Fit: if your handlebars are more than a few inches narrower than your shoulder width, I’d highly recommend you install a wider handlebar.]
4. Maintain your focus. Beginners get nervous and lose focus on their technique when they can’t see the summit of the climb. Often, they’ll forget to breathe deeply and start breathing very shallow; this causes form and technique to deteriorate, leverage and muscular engagement drops, and often forces a downward head tilt. Focus particularly on maintaining consistent RPMs. If you can see that the intensity of the climb is going to continue for considerably longer, do your utmost to keep your RPMs from dropping off any more than 5%. If more than 10-15% of your optimal RPM range drops, it’ll likely require you to either shift again, increase power output, or maybe even get out of the saddle. Standing should generally be your last resort since it will definitely increase both HR and metabolic burn (or fuel consumption) rate. These are just some basic in the saddle climbing techniques that’ll help you become a stronger and more efficient climber. Next, we’ll delve into out of the saddle climbing.
When is it beneficial or necessary to get out of the saddle?
• When the grade of the climb or portion is so steep, that it’s literally almost impossible to remain seated.
• On long climbs it is beneficial to periodically stand to engage different muscle groups and let the others get a little rest. Try to save this for the steepest portions of the climb.
• When your cadence slows down significantly and becomes too hard to continue “spinning” while seated.
• When approaching the summit which transitions to the flats or a descent. This can provide your muscles some relief as you crest over the top of the climb.
• When the situation is an optimal time to attack, or to go as fast as possible through a challenging pitch. Reminder, this will engage more muscle groups, expends much more energy, so use these powerful standing surges sparingly. We often refer to this as “don’t burn too many matches in the matchbook” too early or when not necessary.
The “art” of shifting gears comes with experience. Like everything else, the more you ride, especially on challenging terrain, the more adept you’ll become at shifting proficiently. Shift to an easy gear too soon you’ll lose your momentum, shift too late and you may experience the inability to shift at all; which may cause you to stall out or even fall over. Others may consider you a novice, it’ll be humiliating, and you’ll lose valuable time on your ascent. On particularly steep grades, when you shift down to an easier gear (higher cog) this places more strain on the chain and sometimes will not shift if there’s excessive pressure. Instead, ease up on the pedal stroke pressure for a brief moment to allow the shift to occur. Shifting gears will become an intuitive “feel” skill. Over time you will instinctively know when to shift, and how to apply the proper amount of pressure to address each grade change within any given climb. Furthermore, when it’s necessary to change from a seated to standing position, you should shift up (lower cog, harder gear) at least one or two gears when your lead foot is at the 2 o’clock position. This is because when you stand, your cadence will slow down initially, and you don’t want to lose any momentum – often causing the rider behind you to run into your rear wheel. If you consistently do this, which is considered “throwing your bike rearward”, you’ll anger those around you, and they’ll likely avoid you later on when you may need them most. If you’re “really bad”, you may be excluded from further group ride invitations.
I have published some rather lengthy articles on all of the mental aspects of training and racing; however, we’ll only cover a few of the important points here. If you need more in-depth guidance in this critical component, then contact me via one of the means below. Bottom line, your level of mental preparedness towards climbing will significantly impact your climbing performance. You must remain positive no matter how much you may be hurting. Remind yourself of proper techniques, use que phrases like “pull through”, “smooth it out”…, and believe you can conquer any challenge. You can use visualization techniques such as seeing yourself suddenly propel faster – as if you got a strong push from someone – typically they’ll place their hand on your lower back and give you a forceful push of “free speed”. Or, visualize yourself getting back on your powerful pedal stroke by stating repeatedly “engage, engage, that’s it, you got it”…etc. Using negative-thought-stopping (e.g. visualizing a Stop Sign); then replacing the thoughts with these types of positive affirmations, que words or phrases, and visualizations, will only improve your performance time and time again. Like anything else, you have to practice reducing anxiety, breathing deeply, and being mentally prepared and positive by utilizing these mental training tips. Otherwise, you’ll start breathing shallow, losing focus, not perform well through the tough times, or ever reach your optimal climbing potential (period)! Never allow yourself to become “mentally defeated”, and always summit every climb – no matter how slow your speed or how long it may take you. By conquering every climb no matter the circumstances, you will become a stronger and stronger climber during the recovery periods or days that follow. So get out there and “hit the hills”; learn to embrace each and every climb, every challenge, become a stronger climber, and turn that previous weakness into a strength. Best of Luck! Coach Parker
Endnote. If you need more specific guidance on this topic, interval training for, how often to perform intense hill repeat workouts, mental training for, sport-specific and climbing-specific strength training exercises, during ride or race stretches, “lightening your load”, improving your power-to-weight ratio, fueling & hydrating for, or the myriad of other components of successful endurance sports training and racing, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Todd Parker is a World-Renowned Cycling & Triathlon Coach, Fitness Industry Leader, and Corporate Wellness Consultant – consulted by Coaches, Athletes, Corporations, Governing Bodies, and Sports Supplement, Gear, and Apparel Companies Worldwide. Todd’s a former Professional Triathlete, Elite Cyclist, Personal Trainer, Strength Coach, Public Speaker, Guest Lecturer, and Professor. Besides his expertise in consulting in Training and Coaching, Todd is also a Corporate/Government Security Consultant. You can reach Todd at: TP2Coaching@gmail.com , by appointment only, or at his secure site https://toddparkertrainingprograms.com/