Hill Climbing Tips

Climbing is a power-to-weight activity. World class climbers generally have less than 2 pounds of
body weight per inch of height. (For example, if you're 70 inches tall (5’ 10”), you would weigh less
than 140 pounds.) Since achieving this weight is difficult for most of us, here are a few tips for hill
climbing. If hills intimidate you, or are your weak link, take it easy. Go 5-10% easier than you think
you can as you get into the climb. Conserve. You can always pick it up later.

STAY SEATED AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
Although you develop more power while standing (you are taking advantage of all your upper body
weight pushing down on the pedals), you also use 10 to 12% more energy as your pelvis isn't in
contact with the saddle which means more work for your core and back muscles as you pull up on
the unweighted pedal. The net effect is more energy used (less efficient) to climb standing versus to
climb seated.

On short climbs, the length of a football field or less, it makes little difference. But on longer climbs,
stay in the saddle and spin at 80 - 85 RPM. This is particularly so if you are heavier as standing puts
just that much more weight on your leg muscles, while sitting uses the seat to help take the extra
upper body weight off your legs. Staying in the saddle will:

  • burn less energy - heart rate is approximately 8% lower for any set speed
  • use your bigger gluteal (butt) and hip muscles to your advantage

Want to train for climbing hills while seated?? Here is a drill you might consider. Go hard up short hills while seated. Find a climb that's moderately steep and takes about 30 seconds to crest. Hit it hard at the bottom in a fairly large gear. Beware of letting your cadence slow by the top. Use a gear that lets you pedal at 90 rpm or more all the way up. Start with two or three reps and increase as your
strength improves.

That having been said, on long, fairly steep climbs, it may provide a break to alternate sitting and
standing to employ different muscle groups. Just before you stand, shift to the next smaller cog, then
shift back when you sit. These gear changes will help you maintain a steady pace during cadence
changes.

And if you are going to stand, let the bike rock side to side under you - an arc of maybe 6 inches side
to side. And don't lean too far forward. Stay back so that your weight is directly over the crank.

BODY POSITION
Being bent over in the drops is the most efficient position on level ground, but hills are different as
there is much less aerodynamic resistance. You actually get the most power sitting up as high as you
can.

  • HAND POSITION Comfort overrides these comments, but for seated climbing, most riders
    prefer to keep their hands on top of the bars, perhaps 2 or 3 inches from the center stem. A
    wide grip on the top of the handlebar reduces breathing restriction. And remember to drop
    your elbows and relax your upper body.

    For out of the saddle climbing or aggressive climbs (where you are accelerating or attacking
    on the saddle) put your thumbs on the hoods and rest one or two fingers on the levers or
    wrapped around underneath. And when you get to that descent, most riders will go to the
    drops (keeping your wrists straight) for the aerodynamic advantages although others prefer the hoods for the feeling of control. But not the top of the bars as your hands will be too far from
    the brakes.
  • UPPER BODY STILL AND CHEST OPEN Keep your upper body quiet - the bike should rock
    under you (try pulling up on the handlebar opposite of the leg on a down stroke). Too much
    movement wastes energy. And your shoulders should be back and "open". If not, you are
    constricting your chest and cannot breathe efficiently.
  • SIT BACK ON THE SADDLE When you slide back on your seat, you gain a leverage
    advantage on the pedals. The only time you would want to slide forward is for a short sprint on
    a small rise.

WHEN YOU MUST STAND - pedaling while standing
If you must stand, remember it's hard to pull up because you aren't in contact with the saddle --
there's nothing to brace your hips to pull against -- and you will to power into BOTH the down and up
strokes (12 to 5 o'clock on the down stroke and 7 to 10 o'clock on the upstroke). You should use your
body weight to help you push down. Let the bike move fluidly under you. Don’t force it. The bike
should rock rhythmically side to side in an arc of about 6 inches (judged by the movement of the
handlebar stem). This gives each leg a direct push against its pedal and makes the best use of your
weight. This will help to maintain a smooth stroke and your momentum. Don't lean too far forward. If
the nose of your saddle is brushing the back of your thighs, you are just right. Farther forward and
you will press the front tire into the pavement and lose power. Stay back a bit and find the front-toback
sweet spot. This helps center your weight over the crank to drive the pedals as described. And
remember to shift up a gear or two just before you stand to take advantage of the extra power you
gain from standing (but which you can’t maintain for any length of time).

Remember that if you are in a group, you need to consciously protect those behind you when you stand to climb. How you stand on a hill is very important - do it wrong and the guy behind might suddenly be on the pavement. The issue is the brief deceleration that can occur as you change from sitting to standing incorrectly, which, relative to other riders has the effect of sending your bike backwards and can cause the following rider's front wheel to hit your rear wheel.

On short, rolling hills, the trick is to click to the next higher gear (smaller cog), then stand and pedal over the top with a slightly slower cadence. This keeps quads from loading up with lactate because it helps you pedal with body weight. In fact, it can actually feel like you're stretching and refreshing your legs.

The correct way to stand:

  • It is good etiquette to announce "Standing!" a couple of pedal strokes before you do so.
  • Stand smoothly as one foot begins its downward power stroke - don't lunge, keep your effort
    constant.
  • As you come off the saddle, push your hands forward a bit. This helps to ensure that the bike
    won't lose ground.
  • When returning to the saddle, continue pedaling evenly and again push your hands forward to
    counteract any tendency to decelerate. This will gain several inches and put the seat right
    under you.

You can practice your technique with a friend during a training ride. They can ride behind and let you
know when you've got the hang to it. That's when the gap between their front wheel and your rear
wheel doesn't narrow each time you stand or sit.

 

FIND YOUR SPEED AND RHYTHM
Climbing should always be done in your comfort zone. Ride at your own pace - Know your limits and
listen to your body. If you become anaerobic, you won't recover, so let faster riders go. It's a common
mistake: Trying to keep up with better climbers on the lower slopes, then reaching your limits and
losing big hunks of time. Take it a bit easier and you have a much better chance of catching them
later. You don’t want to over exert and go anaerobic. If you're nearing your red line on that hill, slow
slightly, breathe deeply and continue at a speed within your ability.

Use the right gears and shift early to balance the work of your muscles and aerobic system. New
riders often make the mistake of pushing their muscles until they cannot push any more. When they
decide to shift to an easier gear -- if they have one -- it is often too late. The muscles are exhausted
and unable to continue.

KEEP THAT CADENCE UP
Think about this. If you ride up the hill in two minutes at 60 rpm, you've divided the total work into 120
pieces (consider each revolution of your pedals as a unit of work). But if you spin at 90, there would
be 180. As you've done the same elevation gain, but now broken it into smaller bits, there will be less
work (and strain on the knees) with each revolution. (And if you do have knee problems, take a break
and stand during hills - which will change the biomechanics and give your knees a break).

Gear down before the hill. The goal is to avoid producing large quantities of lactic acid and then
pedaling through the pain. You want a sustainable rhythm. Try to keep your cadence above 70 -- any
slower puts excess stress on your knees. The optimum spin rates for efficient pedaling are
somewhere between 70 and 80. One rider reported that he actually went faster as he increased his
cadence in a lower gear. For example, he would maintain 6.5 mph at 50 rpm in one gear and then, as
he geared down, he found he maintained 8 mph at 70 rpm without a perceived increase in effort. If
you find that things are going well, you can always shift to a harder gear later.

Try to find the cadence that would let you "climb all day". You are pushing too hard if you:

  • can't keep a smooth pedal stroke
  • are panting or breathing irregularly

Ride your own pace. The energy you save may help you catch someone who started too fast near
the summit.

BREATHING
If you start to breathe irregularly, take a deep breath and hold it for a few pedal strokes. Try
synchronizing your breathing with your pedal stroke - start by taking a breath every time one foot
(your right one for example) reaches the bottom of a stroke. Then try 1 1/2, and finally every two
strokes. You will actually deliver more oxygen to your system with a controlled rate than an irregular
panting or gasping one.

Descending Hills
What goes up must come down (at least if you ride an out and back route). Here are a few tips.

Pedaling on descents [instead of coasting] helps blood continue to circulate rapidly through your legs
as muscle contraction helps clear pooled blood from the muscles and returns it back to the heart.
After hard efforts, such as a climb, blood will tend to pool in your lower muscles. That blood contains
a lot of lactate, so you want to circulate it back to the heart and lungs as quickly as possible.

Many times there are several hills or mountains in a row, and pedaling down the first descent can
make the next climb seem a little easier. Your legs feel fresher because light to moderate pedaling
downhill has helped clear out the lactic acid that accumulated during the climb. You don't get the
heavy, sluggish sensation that occurs when you work hard up a climb, coast down the other side, and
then try to ride hard again.


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