Technique: How to flatten even the steepest of hills

Power up those steep inclines

Want to flatten any hill you encounter? Then you need to learn from the best. Matthew Barbour talks hill climbing training and technique with four British national champions.

For the UK’s road racers, early autumn signals the start of a kind of silly season. Throughout September and October, you’ll find cyclists searching out two-mile-long virtual cliff faces so they can take part in hill climbs – short, sharp and painful uphill time trials.

For many of us, as the topography goes up our speed – and spirits – spiral downwards. Just the idea of voluntarily finding a kilometre or two at 25 percent and riding up it as fast as possible makes lungs burn and gives a sicky taste in the mouth.

But don’t dismiss entering a hill climb out of hand – you can find loads at www.rttc.org.uk – and definitely don’t dismiss the advice we’ve gathered from the country’s best hillmen. Although they excel on the short, sharp stuff, the training tips below will help you ascend almost anything with confidence.

Spin to win

With a focus on cadence – the speed at which you spin your pedals – Lance Armstrong has perhaps done more for climbing as a discipline than any other rider. Using lower gears and a higher cadence is the single most important rule in climbing according to Matt Clinton, this year’s defending hill climbing champion, even though he competes on a singlespeed.

“Every racing climb I’ve won has been on a single, fixed gear,” says Clinton, “but you need a race without any downhills otherwise you’ll be left with dust in your eyes. There isn’t that same mentality anymore about going for big gears and bragging about tackling climbs in your top ring. It’s much more efficient to twiddle your way up a hill rather than grinding and zig-zagging your way up.”

On longer climbs you should always aim to spin smaller gears from the saddle says Guy Andrews, author of The Cyclist’s Training Manual. “This doesn’t mean continuously spinning at 120rpm like Armstrong,” he says, “but a steady cadence of around 85-95rpm in a gear that feels relatively easy.

"The key is to be able to sustain your cadence and level of effort for the entire duration of the climb by adjusting your gears to suit the gradient – and key to that is doing some homework about the climb so you know its length and gradient, and can judge the level of effort you can realistically sustain.”

If you do have to get out of the saddle – to overcome a gradient change or to ease aching muscles, especially on longer climbs – Andrews says you should keep pressure on the pedals and rise up a gear to maintain speed.

Take a seat

Although there may be times when you need to stand, sitting down is a more efficient way to climb than standing up says Stuart Dangerfield, who won the National Hill Climb Championships five times in the 1990s.

Standing up wastes energy, he says, because you’re having to support your body weight as well as propelling yourself skywards. “If you’re always getting out of your saddle on climbs it’s a sign that you’re gearing's wrong or you need to work on your power,” he says.

Dangerfield’s view is supported by the results of separate studies carried out by the University of Franche-Comté in France and Utah State University in the US. The French researchers found that standing was less efficient – you use more oxygen – when intensity is lower than 75 percent VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can take in and use during exercise].

The Americans reported that on a five percent incline sitting down is 3.7 percent faster than standing at a high intensity power output of 400W. However, the US study went on to report that the speed difference between standing and sitting is negligible above an incline of 15 percent.

Richard Allen, author of Elite Performance: Cycling, agrees. “Standing up can rapidly eat into limited energy stores,” he says, “and cause you to suffer fatigue much earlier than would have otherwise been the case. But for group rides, going into oxygen debt can be worth it if it means staying with a fast-moving group and making significant energy savings later on.”

Small steps

“So much of climbing is psychological rather than physical,” says Jim Henderson, another five-time UK hill climbing champion. “On longer rides particularly, it’s important to break a hill down into sections, to see it as a series of minor victories rather than get daunted by the scale of the whole ride.”

His advice is to play it out gradually, changing your focus on each bend, and to think about what’s going to happen 10 metres ahead, not over the next 10 miles. “One trick I’ve learned over the years,” he says, “is to count revs as I’m pedalling to stop my mind racing off and panicking, especially when it gets really steep. It keeps you motivated at the same time as focusing on something genuinely important.”

Focusing too far into the future can also shred your nerves. Jamie Edwards, sports psychologist and founder of elite sports consultancy Trained Brain, says: “The weight of the task in front of you makes you nervous, burning huge amounts of precious glycogen and taking you away from the calm zone where elite cyclists perform best. You’re focusing too far ahead, asking yourself too many ‘what ifs’ rather than focusing on the present.”

To combat nerves, practise structured ‘belly breathing’; while holding the brake hoods with a wide grip to open your chest for better air intake, breathe in through your nose to a count of three, pause, then slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of four.

“It’s a similar principle to using a paper bag for panic attacks,” explains Edwards. "The longer breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous system and actually slow down your heart rate which helps you develop a more normal breathing pattern, reducing anxiety.” Focusing on the counting helps keep your mind in the here and now.

Excuses, excuses

Too many riders think it’s impossible to get the required training in to be a good hill climber if they either don’t live near a major mountain range or have a full time job. Not James Dobbin, National Hill Climbing Champ in ’06 and ’07, who commutes on a far-from-mountainous route between Bath and Bristol every working day.

“It’s about power output,” he says, “and that can be achieved on the flat too, if you put your mind to it. I do short, intense intervals on my daily commute from Bath to Bristol, 30 seconds at over 30mph, ease off, then repeat. And I get to know my local hills and know what time I should be aiming for – it’s like a personal VO2 max test.

"When it’s dark I do what all half serious cyclists do and get on my turbo trainer, but again, I focus more on intensity than counting hours or miles in the saddle.”

Elite cycling trainer Andy Wadsworth suggests jump squats for improving your power output off the bike. “The jump squat combines the explosive strength of plyometric exercises with the strength and control of the power lifts,” he says.

Here’s how: using a pair of dumb-bells that add up to about 30 percent of the weight you can squat one time, stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding the dumb-bells at arm’s length next to your thighs, your palms facing each other.

With your chest out and your shoulders back, assume a squat position by drawing your hips back and bending your knees so that your legs form a 90-degree angle. Once in this position, jump explosively while exhaling fully to straighten out your body up and into the air.

Keep your arms by your side, lifting the dumb-bells as you rise. On your descent, inhale and draw your hips back while bending your knees to softly land into the starting position.

“Pause only momentarily before you begin your next jump to get your muscles firing as quickly as possible,” says Wadsworth. Try five to eight jumps in a row, and concentrate on achieving maximum height in each jump, landing as softly as possible.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers found that athletes who did such jump squats improved their vertical leap height by 17 percent in just eight weeks – their 20m sprint times improved by similar amounts.

Lose pounds, save pounds

“What amazed me with how well Bradley Wiggins did in this year’s Tour de France is his power-to-weight ratio, which is what it’s all about,” says Chris Boardman, four-time UK hillclimbing champ, currently working with the GB team to surpass the Beijing medal tally in 2012. “Brad obviously had the power from his track work, so he must have lost a whole load of weight to get the results he did, especially in the hills.”

Basically, Boardman says, you have to improve one or the other to better your performance – if you’ve got a couple of spare stones to lose, you’re much better off dieting or even spending some cash on a personal trainer than splashing it on a lighter bike, which will only shave grams off your total weight.

“I’m naturally quite skinny,” he says, “so I work on my power with interval training, but most regular sportive riders probably need a bit of both. It sounds obvious, but think how much you spend on slightly lighter components without looking at your body.”

Take a 200lb (90kg), 5ft 10in cyclist – applying 200 watts of power on a flat course, he or she will do about 20mph. If they dropped their weight to 160lb (73kg) and applied the same power to the pedals, their speed would increase to 21mph. Transfer that situation to a 10 percent hill and applying the same power, the cyclist would up their speed from 4.2mph to 5.1mph.

“The key to any weight loss has to be gradual and healthy,” says Anita Bean, author of Food For Fitness. Try incorporating gradual changes to your diet. Start by increasing your intake of nuts – 70 almonds per day, to be exact. That’s the number that people in a City of Hope National Medical Centre, California experiment ate daily for six months to drop eight per cent of their body weight.

“They’re a nutrient-dense food with healthy monounsaturated fat, protein and fibre, and make you feel full,” says Bean. Keep a bowl on your desk and grab a handful when you’re feeling peckish – you’ll be less likely to overeat at meals or to snack on rubbish. And don’t forget to drink. “The worry with hill climbers is they might not fully hydrate prior to a race,” says Bean, “which could literally be fatal.”

Swapping a steady slog for intervals will shed pounds too, say Australian researchers at the University of New South Wales. Over 15 weeks, men who cycled hard for eight seconds then lightly for 12 seconds for 20 minutes, three times a week, lost 6lb – three times more than those who exercised at a continuous pace for 40 minutes. This perfect ratio eats into glycogen energy reserves faster while allowing for aerobic recovery.

So there you have it: spin, sit, sprint, diet… and you'll fly up those hills.

What the pros say

Jim Henderson (National Hill Climbing Champion 1998-2001 and 2003)

“One of my favourite climbs has to be Winnats Pass in the Peak District in Derbyshire. With several 1-in-4 sections it’s really tough, but what sets it apart are the high hills and grassy banks on either side as it winds its way up – it’s about as Alpine as any climb I’ve done in the UK.

"As you come round the corners you can actually feel a bit claustrophobic, and the wind can funnel down into your face making it doubly challenging. But with each bend you discover more, with better and better views, surrounded by these daunting, imposing mammoth hills.

"There have been a fair few national hill climbs there, with spectators lining the road. I did it in the Polka Dot Sportive and a good number of people were walking. It’s great for the soul to do a ride like that, riding past some guy pushing a Colnago top-end bike.”

Jim's power session

“My one core hill session is short, sharp and guaranteed to improve your power output in a matter of weeks. First, find a quiet road that has a gradient of about 1-in-7 to 1-in-10 – you’ll be too exhausted to move out of the way of on-coming cars so don’t take risks.

Starting at the bottom, do a 100 percent one-minute effort so you literally couldn’t put one more ounce of energy in if you tried. At the top, stay on the bike, coast back down and do three minutes of active recovery, gently cycling around. Repeat this four times, then do 15 minutes of easy pedalling and repeat the whole session.

“Don’t worry about technique here, just put everything you have into it so your muscles are overloaded and you’re hurting with all the lactic acid pumping through your whole body. In all it should take about 90 minutes, after which you’ll be completely spent.”

Matt Clinton (current National Hill Climbing Champion)

“I think the only truly great climb is the first one you do that you thought you couldn’t – for me it was Curbar Edge, near Macclesfield, which I did in my first year at Leeds University. You revisit it and see how far you’ve progressed to achieve the feeling that you’ve beaten it and are getting better and better. Of course, there’s also the views, and it’s about 10 percent average incline and a mile long, which I guess is my perfect hill.

“Others I love are Crag Vales in Yorkshire, which is four miles long, with a gradient shallow enough to get novices interested in hills. There’s also Stocks Lane and Halifax Lanes near Halifax which are corkers, and of course there’s always some classics you still want to do: Snake Pass, the Cat and Fiddle, Horseshoe Pass, and I’ve heard great things about Catford and Beck in the South. It’s all about staying motivated and looking forward to the next challenge.”

James Dobbin (National Hill Climbing Champion 2006 and 2007)

“For me a great climb has to have a decent road surface and be longer than those that most other competitive climbers might go for – I’m just not as competitive on short climbs.

“My UK favourite has to be Hardknott Pass, purely because it’s just so steep – you literally can’t sit down in places or you wheelie. The cars can be a pain, though I’m more worried about exhaust fumes than getting hit – but the views down over the Eskdale are breathtaking.

"There’s also the climb up to Lecht Ski Station in Scotland on the A939, heading from Balmoral towards Tomintul, which as well as its length and varied gradient is usually made harder by the weather!”

Stuart Dangerfield (National Hill Climbing Champion 1992-93 and 1995-97)

“A great hillclimb for me is five to six minutes long rather than the two-minute ones you get in the National Championships; it’s a bit less of an outright sprint and a better test of what you’re made of. I guess the real appeal has to lie in fighting your inner demons and winning the mental battle – I can honestly say I never enjoyed the pain of doing them, I just enjoyed being successful.

“I still head for the hills, specifically to the Welsh Border, the Clee Hills and Long Mynd. If I do want to build my power I do Angel Bank in the Clee Hills, which is about three miles long with a 1-in-8 gradient. I remember the European pros complaining in the Milk Race and Tour of Britain about our climbs, which always made me smile.”

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