Most cyclists strive after getting better at climbing.
Yet many riders don’t know where to put the focus when training for hill climbing.
If you want to become a faster climber there are two key factors to look at. The first factor is your weight and the second is the power you can produce. Better known as the all-important watts per kg (w/kg) equation.
In this article, I go over both parts of the equation to show you how to train for climbing as a cyclist and how to use the right technique. In my last post, I talked about how to ride uphill efficient and other factors in more detail. If you want to know how to bike uphill without getting tired before the top I recommend checking it out.
Anyways, there’s a reason why so much emphasis is put on the power-to-weight ratio, even though lots of factors contribute to biking hills faster.
If you’re unfamiliar with that term you just need to take your power and divide it by your body weight and this will determine how fast you can ride up hills. And when talking about climbing training for cycling we should start with how to train right by increasing our power.
The Right Cycling Training for Climbing
At first, increasing your power doesn’t mean a whole lot unless we have a clear time duration associated with that power. Your 5 seconds power, 20-minute power, and 4-hour power are all produced in very different ways and require very different training.
Asking “How to improve my climbing in cycling” is kind of the wrong question. What kind of climbs are you training for? Are you training for punchy 2-minute hills or are you training for long-lasting climbs? Training for these hills can be very different. So, I’m going to talk about prolonged climbs that take from 10 minutes to over an hour to traverse. Because that’s what most cyclists are talking about when talking about how to increase cycling climbing power.
And to get better at climbing in cycling you want to improve your FTP (functional threshold power). Your FTP is the power you can sustain for 1 hour. As I have a whole article on how to improve your FTP, most of what I’m going to write about is from that article.
Raising your FTP is as much about planning your training months and weeks as it is about planning specific threshold-focused workouts or hill repeats for example. When planning out your training month you want to apply progressive overload. As most people have a fixed time for training per week you can do that by increasing your hill repeats intensity or the interval length of the workout.
You need progression or your performance can stagnate because your body is already adapted to the stress its exposed to.
In addition, plan a rest week every 3-4 weeks of hard training to soak up all the workouts and recover properly.
When planning out your training week you want to have 2 interval sessions per week. More won’t probably make you faster and have you burned out after a couple of weeks as stated in a review for intensity distribution in cycling.
The rest of your training should be zone 2 endurance or recovery rides.
But push too hard on the easy days and the interval workouts won’t be as high-quality as they should be. Don’t skip endurance rides just because they don’t feel taxing. Zone 2 endurance rides are so important to become a better climber that I don’t know where to start.
Research on high-intensity (HIT) vs. high-volume (LIT) has stated that both HIT and LIT are important components of a training plan but also that important adaptations, like lactate clearance capacity, occur with low-intensity training that was not observed with high-intensity training.
When you don’t have both types of exercise in your plan, performance ability can stagnate and you will never ride uphill faster.
Now, once we’re done with our training months and weeks, it’s time for our specific threshold-focused workouts and hill repeats.
Workouts to Improve Your Climbing Ability in Cycling
To have effective hill training your threshold intervals need to be done at 95-100% of your FTP.
The interval length should last from 10 to 20 minutes with a rest period of one-fourth to one-half of the interval time to see the desired improvement. We’re looking for 30 minutes to an hour of work done at FTP during these sessions.
A beginner that wants to get faster at climbing might be doing a 3×10 minutes threshold workout with 5 minutes of easy riding in between. For an intermediate cyclist, this might be a 3×15 minutes session with 7 minutes of rest in between or 4×10 minutes with 5 minutes off. And an elite rider or pro cyclist could do 4×15 minutes with 5 minutes off or 3×20 minutes with 10 minutes off in between.
Training specific is important and when you have climbs near you it makes sense to do these workouts uphill.
On the other hand, high-intensity hill repeats like 5×5 minutes or 4×4 minutes will bring up your FTP quickly but you also max out the benefits more quickly. So, use them as a tune-up before your race or your hill-climbing attempt, and make sure to do them in a race-specific way.
Ok great, you know now how to increase your power to get better at climbing but that’s just one part of the process. How do you lose weight to become even faster uphill?
Ride faster Uphill by Losing Weight
The problem with most fad diets is that they’re not sustainable. You lose weight and then go back to your old diet only to gain the weight back. Thereby, you will never cycle up hills faster.
The diet to lose weight and ultimately make you a faster climber should be one that you can sustain for the rest of your life. You’re looking for a lifestyle change. You don’t want a diet where you are starving all day long and think about food like “If I gonna eat that bucket of ice cream, I’ll be finally happy –but I have to go race weight… Whatever I buy a super light climbing bike instead.”
If your constantly starving and thinking about food, your warning bells should go off because that is not sustainable.
But how can you make it stick, to reach your goal of faster climbing in the end?
Your diet should be low in calorie density, meaning that for a big volume of food you get a small number of calories. This will keep you satisfied with your portions while consuming fewer calories.
And this is what many studies concluded as well. In one study subjects ate more than 400 kcal less with a diet low in energy density compared to a diet high in energy density. This is the key to success: A 400 kcal deficit is all you need to see consistent weight loss, without starving yourself all day long.
And even a systematic review of energy density and body weight indicates evidence of a relationship between energy density and body weight.
You might be thinking now “Great Roberto low energy density is the key to faster climbing but how can I achieve this with real food?” When we compare the energy density of different food groups, fruit and vegetables are the clear winners with the lowest energy density of all.
So, this should be the center of your diet. While vegetables should make up the majority of your plate, fruit is great for breakfast, as a snack, or post-training to help with recovery as fruit is packed with carbohydrates and antioxidants, like tart cherry juice or blueberries, for example.
The rest is just secondary.
But on the other hand, you also want to eat as few processed foods as possible. For example, processed grains have a lot higher energy density than unprocessed grains. It’s not about counting calories, but rather about building a habit of eating a healthy and varied diet that will cause you to lose weight.
For that reason, if you eat low-energy-dense foods you will get better and better at biking hills. But remember your diet takes place around your workouts, eat too few calories during and you might fail to do your hill-climbing workout properly.
Better Cycling Climbing Technique
Now, when doing training to improve your climbing ability you want to take advantage of both the seated and standing technique.
While the standing technique is less economic on moderate climbs, it is more effective on steep climbs and the clear winner at high intensity compared to seated uphill riding.
So, when you do your threshold intervals on a long climb, just go out of the saddle occasionally to release pressure or the feeling of fatigue. But when you do intense hill repeats or very steep climbs use the standing technique to produce more power meaning you’re going faster uphill.
Lastly, there’s no best cadence for climbing in cycling. And many studies came to the same conclusion. For that reason, your freely chosen cadence has been shown to maximize uphill performance.
So, if you want to ride faster uphill, there are no shortcuts. You need to work consistently on your climbing technique, your workouts, and your diet. But as you’ve seen it isn’t complicated. Get the basics right and you get 90% of the returns for biking hills faster.
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