Climbing hurts! I have always struggled to hang with ultra-thin, ultra-fit riders. Over the years, I put in countless hours of training reach a level where I was somewhat decent at climbing. Then life hit me. I spent months off the bike, gaining weight and losing fitness.
When I finally got back on my road bike, I returned to one of my favorite local climbs and the suffering was immense. On the mountain bike, it was even worse. I was forced to walk many of the climbs I used to easily pedal up. It was like starting over. My struggle reminded me of how much I used to dread climbing as a novice rider. I used to avoid climbs and feared them in group rides or races.
So, I decided to go to our friends at Fast Labs for some expert climbing advice. Fast Labs was founded by Chris Case and Trevor Connor, who host “Fast Talk,” a podcast about cycling performance and sports science. They offer compelling insight into what it takes to become a better cyclist, and they have become one of the best sources for expert training advice. Fast Labs also offers performance camps that allow riders to get world-class, pro-level physiological testing, biomechanical analysis, and coaching.
Chris and Trevor sat down for a video chat to give me some tips, tricks, and words of wisdom. Their advice is perfect for anyone who wants to improve their climbing.
Why is climbing so hard?
Trevor Connor: “It really just comes down to putting out power. The reason it feels harder is the fact that you are fighting gravity. There is no break. When you're riding on the flats, even if you're not aware of it, when you start to fatigue, you can take little micro-breaks. You can kind of coast through the bottom and top part of the stroke, not generate any power, and then put the power down again. These little micro-breaks make it easier. If you're really getting tired, you can just coast for two or three seconds and miss a few pedal strokes.
“You can’t do that on a climb. If you aren't putting out power, you're slowing down really quickly. If you take those little micro-breaks where you stop pedaling, your cadence is going to bog down. When your cadence bogs down climbing, you're in trouble. That's what you're struggling with.”
Can you train for climbing without big climbs near you?
Chris Case: “If somebody lives in a flat part of the country ... They're not necessarily at as big a disadvantage as they think. They have all the same tools that they need as everybody else. Psychologically, maybe they're not used to the effects of climbing, or the sensations. But it does come down to the same elements as it does for everybody.”
Trevor Connor: “If you're on the flats, to simulate some of that effects of never getting a break, you can bike into the wind. In the wind, if you stop pedaling you slow down real quick. So there are some similarities between being in wind and climbing. You have a similar effect on the trainer. Trainers have a small flywheel so they don't have the sort of inertia that your bodyweight has on the road. When you stop pedaling, that flywheel slows down really quickly.
“When I was living up in Toronto and didn't have as much climbing around me, I would get on Zwift and do the longer climbs. Zwift is not as good as coming out here to Colorado and doing a real climb, but perceptually, you experience some of those feelings of ‘I can't stop pedaling.’ Especially if you have a trainer that can connect to one of those programs and add resistance as you get onto a climb. It's actually simulating a lot of what you're going to experience on a real climb.”
Is it effective to practice riding in a harder gear?
Trevor Connor: “I'll add a little addendum here for anybody who's really scared of the climb and all you care about is just getting over a climb. Put a compact on the front. Get the biggest gear you can get on the back. You are not going to be setting a record up the climb. But if you have easy enough gears, you can get over any climb. Anybody can get over any climb if they have the right gearing. If you're using standard gearing, one of the things that people really struggle with is cadence. Your cadence is going to bog down.
“Using a harder gear to get your legs familiar with that low cadence, high torque type of riding is definitely going to help. You can do that on a trainer. But it's a little harder to do out on the roads on the flats just because you have to go to pretty high speeds to generate the torque and keep it at a low cadence.”
What mental tricks can riders use to conquer climbs?
Trevor Connor: “The biggest one is to break it down. If you try to look at the whole thing as one big picture, it's intimidating. It's scary. You don't know how you're going to do it. So you want to break it down into little chunks — 1-, 2-, or 3-minute chunks. I race up Flagstaff (a hard local climb) fairly frequently, and on that particular climb, I have little time marks. The whole time I’m going up, I'm just focusing on getting to each time mark. It's never more than about two minutes to the next time mark. When you break it down like that and just think in two minutes segments, it becomes pretty manageable.
Chris Case: “If you're on a climb that you don't know, you won’t have those time markers, but you can use visual cues and break it down into chunks in the same way. Get to that next telephone pole. Get to that next house. Get to whatever the next landmark is on the climb. And just try to remain as present as possible. Stop thinking about what’s to come. Stop thinking about how long it might be, or that really steep section that somebody told you about. Just focus on the here and now. Use the little landmarks to help you stay present and deal with the pedaling that's taking place now rather than in another 20 minutes.”
Trevor Connor: “If you're putting out 300 watts, 300 watts hurts just as much on the flats as it does on the climb. The reason you can tolerate it a little more on the flats is, in the back of your head you think, ‘If this really starts hurting, I can stop.’ When you're on a climb, and you're having to put out 300 watts on a 15% grade...if you use visual cues like next telephone pole and go ‘just make it to there,’ that becomes more manageable. You're giving yourself what you have on the flats...an opportunity to quit.
"Usually, when you get there, you can look at the next telephone pole and go, ‘Okay, now I'm going to make it to that one.’ You just keep doing that bargaining with yourself and you'd be amazed how long you can go. However tough a climb is, you can get over just by re-bargaining with yourself.”
What physical tips do you have for climbing?
Chris Case: “Some people will benefit from adjusting their position, using different muscle groups, or getting out of the saddle to generate some more power if it's steeper. One thing we did see when we did a study a few years ago is that certain types of riders actually do better given those strategies. For example, Trevor's more of a time trial type of rider. So he likes to find a rhythm or pace that works for him and stay very steady. Other people, like myself, actually benefit to some degree by ‘attacking,’ or going really hard and then sitting back and settling, then going hard and settling again. We can recover better that way and take advantage of different attributes that we have as athletes to perform better.”
Trevor Connor: “Get comfortable with lower cadences, because that's inevitable on climbs. Put yourself in scenarios to get used to pedaling without breaks. Get used to getting out of the saddle, because then you are using very different neuromuscular firing patterns. If you have little climbs around, just hit those and get out of the saddle and get some practice with it.
“Obviously, just get comfortable by going out and doing climbs. It's probably more psychological than anything. If you're living here in Colorado, and you're doing an hour climb every weekend, you're not gonna be scared when you see it in a race. I do think it's more mental than physiological.”
How much does weight affect climbing? Is lighter always better?
Trevor Connor: “To a degree, no. But when you start to get to the edges of cycling performance then, yes, lighter is better. It is right around 180-195 pounds where, as you get heavier, your climbing is going to suffer. This is called allometric scaling. Most things, physiologically, scale relative to weight. Some things scale equally with weight, some things scale more than weight, some things scale less than weight. The power we can generate scales equally with weight until about 190 pounds and then you hit a point where muscles can't continue to get stronger to equal an increase in weight.
“Right around 68 to 72 kilograms (149-159 lbs) is where you see the best power to weight ratio. When you look at the history of Tour de France winners, that's where most of them are at. They can climb as well as the climbers but they can also time travel on the flats better than the pure climbers...
“But something that doesn't scale equally with weight is VO2 max. Lighter riders tend to have a better VO2 max relative to weight. If you took an hour climb and you had a little climber guy and a 70-kilogram time trial rider go up a climb together, they would actually get to the top and about the same length of time. The advantage might even be to the time trialer. The difference is that little climber, say a little 120-pound guy, has a really great VO2 max. They have the ability to go over threshold for a couple of minutes and put out a scorching effort. The 70-kilogram time trialer guys, if they go above threshold, they pay for it. That's why when you watch the tour, you see the little climbers attack and attack and attack where your more typical GC looking guy is just going to sit there and grind up the climb.”
What can heavier riders do to climb better?
Trevor Connor: “The heavier you are, the more you have to take on a time trial mentality. Which means when you hit that climb, you go your own pace. You don't respond to people. The biggest mistake I see heavier riders make when there's a climb in a race is ... The second somebody attacks at the base of the climb, they try to respond to it.
“Like I said, Chris can do a little attack like that, and being the smaller climber, can recover and be just fine. If I do that attack, I'm done. So the heavier you are, the more you have to ignore what anybody else is doing and pace up the climb.”
Chris Case: “Surging back and forth is not going to benefit a larger rider. In terms of psychology, if we're talking racing here, then it's about having confidence. If the little guy attacks, he has a burst, but eventually he has to settle down. If you just maintain as much as you can do, there's a chance you'll be able to pull them back some, if not all the way. Outside of the racing, if you're just doing a gran fondo, a big event, or just going out for a ride, and you want to enjoy yourself, it's always going to be more enjoyable to find a rhythm. It's just about finding the right pace, putting the head down, and pedaling away.”
Trevor Connor: “The other advice I'm going to give for both the little rider and the big rider is, still train your weaknesses, but really train your strengths. A little 120-pound rider does not have as much muscle mass ... They need to spin more. If they get bogged down to 40 rpm, they have less muscle mass to generate the torque to keep the pedals going over. If you're 190 pounds, and you've got some good muscle mass in your legs, sometimes you can grind out that gear a bit more than the little rider. When you're going up climbs, train it, get used to it ... Take advantage of your greater muscle mass and learn to be a more comfortable going 40-50 rpm.”
Is climbing different for road vs. gravel vs. mountain biking? Should you approach each discipline differently?
Chris Case: “In terms of riding a steep climb on a mountain bike versus a steep climb on a road bike, there are differences in the style of riding and where you need to put yourself on a bike. Traction is an issue. A lot of times on a mountain bike, if it's a super steep climb, you can't get out of the saddle to generate more power. So you stay seated and you have to grind at a low cadence. You train specifically for that.
“Same thing with the big gravel races that take place in the Midwest. There’s not long, sustained climbs, but a lot of shorter, steep rollers ... So those are different. Those are more power climbs. Sometimes it's advantageous to get out of the saddle and sprint over them to use your momentum to carry speed over a climb versus sitting down and grinding it out through all the little undulations.”
Trevor Connor: “15% is super steep on a road climb but on mountain bike trails you're hitting 30% or steeper for very short periods of time. It is far less consistent, far less steady. You have to power over or get off the bike and walk. It's a very different style of climbing. As Chris pointed out, the ground moves underneath you. So traction is important. Where you position yourself on the bike is important. On the road, we can talk about optimal positioning for putting out power. If you stand up and get too far forward on your bike on the road, you're going to look a little off, but you're going to get up that climb just fine. If you do that in a mountain bike trail your rear wheel is going to spin out. So you do need to train technique. Technique is a huge part of it.
“The other thing that you need to train for mountain biking, and also to a degree for gravel, is shorter, punchier, hard efforts to get over those 20-30 second, or one-minute climbs that are quite steep. You got to hit them hard or you're not getting over it. You have that in road climbing, but not nearly to the same degree.”
Where can riders learn more about Fast Labs?
Chris Case: Our website is fastlabs.com. The podcast that we've put together for 111 episodes and six years now is called ‘Fast Talk.’ You can find that on all the popular podcast apps including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.
Do you struggle with climbing? What have you done to improve? Let us know in the comments!
All photos courtesy of Fast Labs.