Climbing is one of the most difficult disciplines in cycling. What makes it so challenging also makes it so rewarding. It blends physical challenge with mental struggle while balancing the need for specific technique.
I have found some simple areas to focus on improving that will help you exponentially become a better climber when used all together.
1. Everyone is “not a climber”
I want you first to throw out this “I am not a climber,” notion you might have. I hear this all the time, and honestly, no one really is a climber. Riding bikes up mountains was never part of human survival! Climbing is part of a sport that we do for fun, and just like all the other sports, you need to practice to get better at it. So, no matter your body shape and weight, throw out any preconceived beliefs about your climbing ability and ride up every climb focusing simply on the task at hand.
2. Embrace the struggle
Yep, climbing is hard. There’s just no way you are getting around that. So instead of fighting or dreading it, embrace it! In fact, this dance with pain and suffer you are about to partake is probably why you fell in love with cycling in the first place. With this in mind, begin each climb ready for the physical battle you are going to endure and enjoy the process of using your mind to overcome it.
3. Train for it
You actually don't need climbs to train for climbing. I grew up in Connecticut and I only had access to short rolling hills during the early years in my cycling career. Through proper training, I was able to arrive at mountainous races in good climbing form and perform better than riders who came from mountainous locations. To train for climbing you need to first address the energy zones needed, and then create the intervals needed to work on these zones.
4. Learn to be patient
The most common mistake I see when working with athletes is how they approach and pace the climbs. They typically start every climb with a huge acceleration. Whether the climb is 1 minute long or 1 hour long, they get too excited and enter the climb at 3 x the effort they were going prior to it. This often results in them going over their limit early in the climb and they then spend the remainder of the climb struggling to get up it. A better plan is to try doing just the opposite. Start the climb conservatively and let your momentum from before the climb carry you up the first part. Then, as you feel yourself start to slow down, gently apply pressure on the pedals little by little until you reach the minimum effort you need to keep moving up the climb. From that pace, you then can experiment with slightly higher and lower efforts to find just the right pace you will need to get to the top. If you are feeling good, the place to lay down the power is when you are close to the top of the climb. No matter what you do, make sure you push the pace all the way over the top.
5. “Ride” the terrain
This sounds obvious, but it’s not. Often times people start to suffer and completely lose the plot. Our brains don't work as well under stress and with less oxygen. But let’s be real, they still work! Instead of focusing on “going hard,” focus on “riding the terrain.” People often sit up to try and “recover,” on the flatter parts of the climbs but this is where you can make the most time! Just imagine you are driving your car up the climb. Certain places you need to push on the gas pedal and certain places you need to ease off it. It’s the same for driving (riding) your bike up the climb. Read the terrain and use more effort in places you need to keep your momentum. If you climb with this awareness you will not only climb faster, but also enjoy the experience much more.
6. Just relax
Pain causes your body to react with its natural defense mechanism which is tensing up to protect itself. Your body has a hard time separating the difference between the pain in your legs from pedaling and from that of being hit in the leg with a hammer! What would your reaction be if I ran up to you and starting swinging at your legs with a hammer? You would brace yourself by tensing all your muscles to protect yourself from my attack. The problem is, during climbing, you need all the precious oxygen you are gathering from your lungs to get to your muscles. Tense muscles restrict the blood flow, and thus, limit your already oxygen-starved muscles. Do your best to relax your muscles by a method similar to bio-feedback. Start with parts of your body that are already pain free, such as your hands. Relax them on your handlebars and then try and relax each muscle group from the hands all the way through your body. This process is not easy by any means, but with practice it can make a big difference.
7. Listen to your breathing
Just like listening to your car engine tell you when to shift, paying attention to your respiration rate will help you gauge your effort. Focus on taking deep and controlled breaths. As soon as you hear short and sporadic breathes, back off the pace a little until you get the rhythm back to normal.
8. Dump negative thoughts
I’ve been already been addressing this issue in many of the points above indirectly, but I will just come out and say it. Turn your brain off and focus on what you are doing! If you are thinking of all the reasons why you shouldn't be doing the climb, and all the things you should be doing instead, then you are going hard enough! Enjoy the struggle and throw out all negative thoughts!
Aright! Now go out and give these areas some thought and some focus. I think that when used together you will find yourself climbing to new heights!