Tips for Climbing - It's not just about W/kg in the real world

At 6’5" and 180# you might look at me and think I can’t climb. And up until about three years ago, I couldn’t. We live and train in the flattest, windiest, rainiest, and coldest state in the union: Chicago, IL. How in the world can someone from IL climb?

I’ve learned that climbing is a skill. It’s not like Zwift where the person with the highest sustained W/kg wins. In the real world, skills and experience can help you climb faster, even if you are a tall (and heavy) rider like me.

  1. Most amateurs climb wrong. They go as hard as possible at the bottom of the climb, die at the top, and coast over the crest because they are full of lactate build up. When the road turns down they coast over the top. A faster way to to climb a short hill or rolling hills is to climb them at a steady low threshold from bottom to top, and accelerate over the top. By accelerating over the top for 10 seconds into a descent you can gain speed and then use gravity to pull you down the hill while maintaining tempo at a lower cadence.

If you are riding with experienced climbers they will attack over the top of hills. So never let off the gas over the top. It’s the best place to drop a rider.

  1. For taller and heavier riders always start the climb at the front. You can surf backwards through the group as you climb short hills. Lighter riders will ride around you as you surf backwards. This technique only works if you know the terrain and position yourself up front BEFORE the bottom of the hill.

  2. Long climbs are like slow TTs where aerodynamics are less important. That means you can stand and change your body position without getting punished for being tall. This is where climbing can be a skill and practice counts.

If you climb seated at the same cadence and same power for 30 minutes I’m sure you can visualize your quads hurting a lot. Now visualize that same 30 minute climb but vary your body position and cadence: stand, sit, high cadence, low cadence, shift forward back, go into the drop. By doing all this you can move the work around all the muscles in the legs. So rather than destroying your quads for 30 minutes, you can use ALL your leg muscles to either reduce fatigue or produce more power.

Long, sustained climbs works your lower back muscles and upper body, especially if you stand a lot. If you want to climb well, strengthen your core and lower back.

  1. Once you figure out there is an upstroke, power will go up 15 - 20%, making you a faster climber. One of the biggest differences between amateurs and pros is pedal stroke efficiency. They make more power on the upstroke. They pull up on every pedal stroke. You can see it in how their body rocks back and forth while seated. This rocking is caused by pulling up. This takes a lot of practice, starting with high cadence drills. And it will crush your hip flexors. But over time you can master this skill. You can use it while climbing to either make more power or spread around the load to reduce fatigue.

  2. The fastest way to go up a hill is to use grade changes to your advantage and gain speed as the terrain flattens out. This mean you conserve in the steep section and accelerate in the shallow or flat sections: exactly the opposite of how amateurs climb.

For example, when the grade kicks up to 10% or more you don’t drill it. Ride a strong, steady tempo to low threshold. Save energy for accelerations to come. As the grade flattens out and especially if the grade slopes down ACCELERATE quickly for 10 seconds, and use gravity to help you gain free speed.

  1. Keep tension on your chain when you are shifting. If you let off for one second while shifting you can lose one bike length. That is one bike length of wasted energy. This is a skill and requires practice. You can practice on the trainer. Watch your power as you transition and make sure it does not drop. Think about losing a bike length every time you drop the power while shifting. Improving this does not take more power, just practice.

Here is a video of me practicing transition control: https://vimeo.com/412073830/ee2d38e107. I take videos of myself like this and play them back to look at my body position and review power control. Look at the power control going from High Threshold to Tempo every minute.

  1. Drop your weight into the peddle. Again, this is a skill that takes practice. Rather than muscle through the peddle stroke while climbing, focus on actually dropping your entire body weight into the pedal. This allows you to resist fatigue and use your body weight to generate power. This technique requires stabilizer muscles, so you need to practice it. But once those stabilizer muscles are strong enough, your body weight becomes a new source of power. Again, spread around the load to reduce fatigue or generate more power.

  2. I think the last thing for me is mindset. I tell myself that my height does not matter on climbs, and my power and skills can overcome my weight. I know how to move the load around my legs so I can resist fatigue better than less experienced riders. And, I have more muscles that I can call on to produce power. So my power to weight in the real world is less than climbers, but I can still out climb them.

Many of these concepts are discussed in Tom Danielson’s recent book. He is one the greatest climbers of all time.

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@dfriestedt This is fabulous, THANK YOU! Anxious to practice this more in and out!

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Thank you Drew! I see a few immediate mistakes I can fix afterwards (or try to fix) well, it’s a Zwift race, so maybe all the dynamics wont come into play but I will try. I’m doing a charity race which ends up the terrible Keith Hill in London world. It’s a climb with flat and downhill and variations. Almost 5 km long. Will definitely write a few of these points and try them!

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@dfriestedt thank for this!! This is totally how i attacked hills before i started working out with @Coach_Theia. Of course i didnt realize i was doing it that way at the time. The idea of taking the hill at a lower cadaence and then accelerating at the top was one of the first things from Theia that resonated and i found myself changing how i approached ‘hills’ whether the little upgrade on my way to work or the ‘hill’ down on the lake path around 40-45th. I immediately noticed a difference and then when I did my real hilly rides last summer, just kept playing that in my head. I found i didnt have to stop as much as i had the summer before and my overall times were better. I even play this in my head when i have hills on Zwift outside of workout mode. Hopefully i will get to try it again later this summer IRL. You’ve added a few more things to think about and practice so I’ll have to add that in!

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Thanks for this @dfriestedt! I really have to work on the upstroke, I rely too much on the momentum of my body weight to carry me through the entire pedal stroke.

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Same

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Thank you for sharing this. It makes so much sense. Everyone around here wants to spin up the hill but I always feel like I just don’t have easy enough gears. I’ve been doing this a bit on my own as it seemed to be the only way I could hang with a group.

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There is a recovery workout where Theia has us focusing on upstroke for a looong time. My hip flexors were so incredibly sore. I read your tips, @dfriestedt, and attempted the upstroke during just the minute of low power/high cadence today and Bam, I could instantly feel it. Going to work on it every ride. I’ll definitely work on the other tips, as well - thank you!
-Angie

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Thank you for sharing. So much to think about and work on.

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@dfriestedt Thanks for these tips. They are awesome and give me all kind of ideas to try. When the grade kicks up to 10% it is hard to save energy. I have a few hills (like Montreux and Zoo Hill) where I go as steady and easy as I can to keep my HR down as long as possible. but by the end of the climb, I have max’d out my HR. I changed to a mountain bike derailleur and added a 32 gear which has helped. I am thinking about changing cassettes to get a 34.

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Thank you for the great tips @dfriestedt ! The more I ride, the more I learn.
Like you, I live in a relatively flat area. We have a lot of short, punchy climbs and moderate rollers.
I don’t have a power meter, so I work on my outdoor climbing in a variety of ways. I have a stretch of road that is 1 mile, 4% grade. I use it to practice climbing using different cadences. I go up at 75 rpm, then 80 rpm, and increase up to 90 rpm. Sometimes, I target a speed ( so I may be shifting frequently) other times I stay in the same gear and my speed will change. I will also practice with different hand positions.
We have a few steeper climbs. On these, I practice seated and standing climbing and work on coordinating my breathing to the effort. I ride a lot of gravel and mountain. Being on the coast, our gravel is very sandy. On these surfaces, it’s important to have a smooth spinning of the wheels. Too much torque will send your rear tire slipping. Many of our gravel roads are not graded, so you have to practice smooth techniques with massive holes and potholes.
I have found Zwift a great place to work on extended and steep climbing. One of the best things I learned from Theia’s workouts was riding through the crest of the hills.
I will never be a top climber, but I’ve definitely improved by working at the different techniques.

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Great feedback everyone. Glad you liked the post. I’m looking for a video of me doing an endurance pace with pulling up vs no pulling. I can’t seem to find it. So watch this video instead. Cory Williams is one of the fastest sprinters in the US. He is the CA state champ and his brother, Justin, holds multiple national championship jerseys. They captain Legion of Los Angles - the fastest cycling team in the US.

Justin is in the All Black Jersey with White socks. Watch his body shake all over the place. He is recruiting all the muscles in his leg, and to do that your body rocks all over the place. This is cool to watch.

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That was so interesting to see! Thank you!

Hi, I just wanted to report back from a hill climb effort I just did outside. I am collecting data files with different max efforts for e-racing verification, and today my plan was to do a 20 min max effort hill climb. I changed the climb because of traffic, so went for a gravel climb. At first its steep, then flatter, with undulating terrain. Small crests followed by a slight downhill or flat section. This goes on for about 3.5-4 km, lost of small kickers, maybe like 10 of them spread out.

I went hard-ish on the steep part, just found that grinding effort. I find that easier when its steep for a bit, I think the steep part is like 12 minutes effort, then the challenge is to keep momentum on the parts where it flattens out, or where there are false flats. I tried to focus on good pedalling, pushing and pulling. Using variation in cadence. I think the most effective thing was attacking the steeper small kickers and keeping the pressure over the crests and gaining speed on the small micro downhill/flat parts. It worked like a charm! My previous record was 26:10 I think, today I got 23:30! And I got all the crowns :smiley: Yes its fun taking some QOMs. Thanks again, looking forward to the next climbing challenge!

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Wow! Well done @Silje! congratulations on the QOMs!

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Incredible, @Silje!! What a feat to shave off that much time for a relatively short segment!

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@Silje that is awesome. Congrats on the accomplishment and putting it all
Together.

Way to go @Silje!! You are rocking this!!! Way to shave off those minutes!!!

Fabulous effort @Silje! Congrats on such a massive improvement on time AND on the QOMs!

Awesome! Gopro it next time if you can. That route looks amazing!

I can overlay your power on the video. You can learn a lot from looking at your own efforts like this. Plus we can give you some pointers on where to accelerate and use momentum to gain speed.

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