Technique: If climbing is your weakest link

Stare that hilly beast in the face

We all know how demanding cycling can be, particularly when it comes to racing. Not only do we contend with a variety of strategies employed by opponents, but we also have many environmental factors that impact on our ability to perform. Chief among the latter is the hilliness of the terrain.

Performance on hills is a primary factor in determining success in cycling events. Whether it’s the ability to power up a key climb in a road race, grind over a lump during a solo time-trial or make it over the slope to the next feed station, a common feature in any event you may have entered will probably be the presence of hills. It’s typical that novice performers show particular weakness in their ability to climb well and recover effectively.

Considering this, training is paramount in order to develop your performance level and will allow you to overcome the chinks in your armour. Targeting hills as part of your regular training rides will begin to enhance your physiological engine.

Do

To start with you need to identify the kinds of hills you regularly tackle during your training and are likely to cycle over during the events you wish to enter. There are those that require a short sharp burst to clear the crest. These rely on non-oxidative (anaerobic) energy provision and the recruitment of predominantly type IIA and IIX muscle fibres.

Forces can be produced very quickly creating great power and speed, but with the accumulation of metabolites, that affects muscular performance, fatigue quickly ensues and speed drops. Alternatively, there are the less steep, but much longer climbs that result in a slightly different response. With exercise intensity lower than that of the short sharp climbs, a greater demand will be placed initially on the oxidative (aerobic) energy systems. With muscle fibres being recruited in a hierarchical fashion (type I > type IIA > type IIX), oxygen demand will become greater as the climb continues, with a more gradual accumulation of metabolites.

More often than not, you will probably encounter both types of climbs and need to have the strength for a sudden effort, as well as the stamina for the prolonged ascent.

Be King of the hill: It is therefore important to identify your specific weaknesses first before integrating any into your training rides. Obviously avoiding hills will not improve your ability to climb them.

Where: Within your training schedule you need to find a circular course that incorporates a good selection of hills interspersed with flat sections for the recovery. Choose a course that is several miles away from home, so that the ride out is your warm-up.

Do

Once you get there, gently ride around the course assessing both the gradient and length of the hill. Clearly this will dictate the type of effort and gear selection you make. So upon ascending try and work out the type of effort needed and the gear that you can sustain. Having checked the course, start to work your way around. Just before each short sharp climb, select the appropriate gear, build up some speed and hit it as hard as you can. Keep pushing all the way over the top and only change gear if you really need to. Use the flat section to recover before the next effort. If the next hill is a long drag, keep seated, choose the gear and try to maintain a set tempo all the way to the top.

Don’t...

..crunch up your torso or shoulders, but rather try to keep your hands relaxed and maintain a good posture on the bike. This will firstly allow for the lungs and diaphragm to be more open assisting ventilation, and secondly will reduce muscle tension that would otherwise increase oxygen uptake and calorific expenditure.

Do

Make sure you have ample recovery between hills. Depending on the size of the circuit attempt to do as much as you can in 45 minutes. Time how long it takes you to ascend each hill and keep a mental note; you’ll find after several rides your ability should improve and your times become faster.

Be King of the hill: Remember to use the ride home as a warm-down. Finally, ensure that you do not do hard workouts on back-to-back days. It is important that you allow yourself at least two rest or very easy days between hard workouts. By paying attention to your body you will be able to identify your recovery – if your heart rate isn’t going up easily, or you feel particularly tired, take a day or two off. Don’t push it and do the intervals otherwise you’ll get sub- standard training and you’ll risk burn-out.

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