Do you struggle with climbing? Join the club! I have won some of the biggest races in the world on climbs, and sometimes I still grapple with the intricacies of climbing! The discipline of cycling climbing arguably the most difficult part of the sport. Many of us watch in awe during races such as the Tour de France that showcase the highest level of cycling climbing on the world’s most iconic climbs. But even the World Tour riders experience the same frustration and strife when climbing. Whether you are a professional cyclist, amateur racer, or just a recreational rider, you need to be able to climb well. Climbing is one of the most prestigious disciplines in the sport of cycling and is essential to road, gravel, and mountain bike riding. However, climbing fits into your cycling aspirations; below are three powerful ways you can improve your climbing overnight.
You might be thinking my three tips are going to increase your power, lose weight, and ride more climbs, right? While these concepts can certainly help. I have found three things that work BETTER than those standard tips you have been reading and hearing about for years!
I have found that you need six zones specifically for climbing. You will need three below your Lactate Threshold and three above your Lactate Threshold. This requires a two-fold approach with many pace changes as well as the ability to flood and clear high amounts of lactate while under physical pressure. Many people make the mistake of just training their lactate threshold, but the reality is you rarely use this zone when climbing. Also, the steady sub-threshold training that most do to increase their threshold is nearly impossible to perform well on climbs in this manner.
But you need to do more than just creating these zones; you need to train them as a climber. You don't need to train these zones for long periods, or in large quantities, but you do need to train them in specific, and quite minimal amounts consistently. While this sounds simple, most people end up training outside of their climbing zones. Why? Usually, because the terrain they have to ride on is full of many short rollers, or they train on group rides where riders take massive pulls or attacks. All of these efforts are TOO hard and are over the key zones that need attention to create efficiency for climbing.
To prevent this, I suggest making days where you specifically train the climbing zones, and apart from other riders that will encourage you to push over them.
I suggest creating two types of climbing intervals.
The first one is a simple zone efficiency specific interval where you just train one zone at a time. For threshold and subthreshold zones, I recommend 5 - 12 mins in length for these. For the over threshold zones, I recommend creating intervals 30 seconds to 4 mins.
The second type of interval is the pace change interval. This is where you develop and improve the critical lactate flooding and clearing mechanism needed in climbing. While there are many climbing combinations of zones you can do, I suggest a 3:1 ratio in time spent in the lower threshold zones to the time spent in the over threshold zones. For these pace change intervals, they can be as short as 5 minutes and as long as 12 minutes.
Climbing requires using a mix of low and high cadences, so you must incorporate training them both on their own, AND with the zones used for climbing. In general, use lower cadences (50-75 rpm) for managing speed/momentum up steep terrain or to react to decreasing speed from a gradient change. To maintain a constant and steady climbing pace, use a mid-range (76-85 rpm). To accelerate up to speed, to surge, or to attack, use a higher cadence (86-100 rpm).
To incorporate these three cadence ranges, I recommend doing two types of cadence intervals.
The first interval is one that you focus on one cadence rpm to one isolated zone for each interval. This could look like a 5-minute Low Threshold interval at a mid-range cadence of 80 rpm. You need to train EACH zone with EACH cadence range. This will create the depth of cadence ability and efficiency in all zones you need for climbing.
The second type of interval is a cadence changing interval. Very similar and often combined in the zone pace change interval, the cadence change work is pivotal to improving climbing. Being able to change your cadence to both adapt to the terrain. As well as changing cadence apart from terrain to create speed is a skill that will take you to a new level. I recommend creating cadence changing intervals that use distinctly contrasting cadences in 1:1 (high/low) ratios.
An example of this would be a 6-minute interval where you hold a steady power, but each minute you change the cadence — one minute 50 rpm, then the next minute 90 rpm. Always change the cadence at least one whole range.
The two essential body position techniques I created that are optimal for climbing are Standing Power Climbing and Seated Power Climbing. Below I break down the purpose of each position and detail how you create and execute each position using your "three points of power" or your hands, core, and feet.
But First, you must understand the 3 Points of Contact
STANDING POWER CLIMB
This position is used to produce the most power possible out of the saddle on climbs. The purpose of the Standing Power Climbs position is to increase torque delivery by adjusting body weight and the angle of your body over the bike. This can be used for holding your speed and momentum on the climb as the terrain changes or holding your speed in a solo effort like an uphill effort or a time trial or solo move.
3 Points of Power:
Hands: Hands are located on the hoods, primarily using the thumb to make the grip firm and equal on both hands. Opposite of the thumb, use the heel of the hand to bear the majority of your body weight, not the center of the hand. This will lock in the core. Elbows are bent, bringing the chest is low and forward over the handlebar.
Core: The core is engaged by slightly bringing the elbow in on each upstroke towards the knee that is rising. On the upstroke, focus on pulling knees up using your stomach and hip flexors. Sway the bike more than the "Flats" to really get the connection of the elbow, core, and upstroke together.
Feet: Your body weight is supported directly on the balls of your feet. During the downstroke, drive your pedal down on the ball of your foot with your heel up and toe down. On the upstroke, curl the bottom of the pedal stroke with your toes and then pull your heels up with your hamstrings, calves, and glutes. You will know when you nailed down and the upstroke with perfection. It will feel like you are dancing on your pedals with the balls of your feet.
Position Over the Bike:
Your center of gravity should be lower and more forward on the bike, with the chest over where the stem and handlebar meet. This allows for the perfect angle to drop your body weight into each downstroke. Your triceps are the arm muscle that controls your center of gravity in this position.
Seated Power Climbing Body Position
This body position is intended to produce the most power possible in the saddle, on climbs. This position enables you to generate power efficiently on climbs over more extended periods while seated in the saddle. This position usually follows an acceleration or a terrain change to maintain momentum and speed.
3 Points of Power:
Hands: Handgrip should be relaxed and equal on both hands. Hold onto the bars by using your thumbs to wrap around the inside of your hoods. Your grip should be centered around the thumb so that the palm of your hand should be hardly touching the hood. Move your elbows slightly up and out to enable your forearms to relax.
Core: The core is fully engaged and locked while your pelvis is slightly tilted forward. Shift your body forward on the seat and engage the core with a focus on your hip flexors pulling up during the upstroke. This should result in you finding a rhythmic rocking motion side to side with your upstroke. Embrace it, as this serves as your guide to keeping momentum.
Feet: Focus on the heel and use it to pull and push the ball of your foot against the pedal. Guide your heel in the direction it needs to go during the pedal stroke to turn the cranks: concentrate on dropping the heel and pushing with it on the downstroke starting at the 1 o'clock position and then on the upstroke pulling with it starting at the 7 o'clock position.
Position Over the Bike:
Focus on positioning yourself more on the front of your saddle and upper body forward over the front of the stem. Elbows are slightly bent to keep the chest open for breathing.
Now that you have the climbing techniques, it's time to practice them. Just like the zone work and cadence work, I believe there are two optimal ways to train these techniques.
The first way is by creating intervals that focus on only one body position at a time. I recommend training each body position with each zone and each cadence. As you will experience, certain zones and cadence will expose the shortcomings you have with the techniques. I also advise that you address these shortcomings with more work and attention rather than chalking up the struggle to exposing inefficiencies that you should avoid during riding. I suggest creating your intervals in 2 - 3 mins increments in each body position as I have found that to be the ideal sustained amount of time.
The second way to practice body position techniques is by creating intervals that have transitions between each body position. Just like cadence, I found the 1:1 sitting to standing ratio to be the most effective. You can also get creative, adding different zones and cadences to each transition in body position. During body position transition work, you can also pay special attention to your shifting of the gears. You will notice that in general, you will have to shift a gear or two harder BEFORE standing and then shift a gear or two easier AFTER sit. As a coach, I love the body position technique transition work because it is such a massive real-world climbing skill. I have found people improve their climbing immensely by training this way.
So there you have it, three extraordinarily effective and cutting edge ways to improve your climbing. By implementing these strategies, you will see your climbing performances exponentially improve while your climbing comfort will also increase. You must stay consistent with using these in your training in each training ride. Finally, be patient with yourself. Each of these three areas, while extremely useful, is also very challenging. Stick with it, and don't obsess with perfection. Progress should be the area of focus for you within these three areas. Let me know if you try any of these techniques! I can't wait to see you all crush it!