Training & Nutrition

How To: Use Hill Repeats to Become a Stronger and Faster Cyclist

Coaches love to set them, cyclists hate to ride them - but hill reps can provide bang for buck if you're time starved

Hill reps – the session no athlete ever wants to see in their training schedule. However nasty and evil they may be, riding up a hill at full throttle before riding back down and doing it all again is an excellent way to up your speed on the bike.

These sorts of sessions help to build strength and power – exactly the attributes a cyclist needs. Being high intensity and usually under an hour, they’re also great if you’re short on time too.

The length of repeats you should ride will vary depending upon your goals as a rider, as well as your level of experience. We spoke to head coach at Revolution Cycling, Kerry Bircher, to get her advice on how to use hill reps to provide the greatest gains possible…

Would you recommend hill repeat sessions for cyclists looking to get faster? What are the benefits?

  • *Lactate threshold (LT) is the exercise intensity at which the blood concentration of lactate and/or lactic acid begins to exponentially increase.
  • Heart rate: 95 to 100 per cent of what you can sustain for one hour
  • Power: 91 t0 100 per cent of what you can sustain for an hour (FTP)

Yes, I do recommend hill repeats – many of my clients are training for epic sportives involving long alpine climbs, or they’re road racers looking to develop explosive power – hill reps can benefits these athletes. The purpose of hill repeats is accumulating time at lactate threshold*. For example, if you have 3×8 minute hill repeats you’re accumulating 24 minutes at LT intensity. Accumulating time at this intensity forces your body to adapt so you can produce more power from the aerobic engine, which means you’ll become a more efficient climber and have the ability to push harder if the pace changes or elevation  becomes more challenging.

Hill reps build strength. So would you suggest them as an alternative to gym sessions, or do you think they serve different goals? 

No, I wouldn’t recommend they replace a gym session for a female athlete – yes, hill reps do build leg strength but it is still a non-weight bearing workout. For long term health, for example preventing Osteoporosis and maintaining muscle mass which is difficult for female athletes, then I would still recommend a weekly gym session.

Check out Kerry’s suggested one hour gym sessions here 

Are there any important considerations to bear in mind when starting a hill reps session?

Generally, less experienced and less fit athletes should start with more, shorter intervals such as 4×5 minutes so that each interval can be completed at higher quality. As you get stronger – and as the training plans progress – the individual intervals typically get longer even if the total time at intensity stays the same.

Recovery between intervals is typically half the time of the interval, or 3 minutes between 6 minute efforts, and 6 minutes between 12 minute efforts for example.

How often should we aim to do a hill rep session? 

  • Ride hill reps once a week or once a fortnight
  • Keep recoveries half the length of the effort (eg 12 minute efforts have 6 minute recoveries)
  • If hill reps are new to you, start with more shorter reps to ensure you keep the effort high enough throughout each one
  • Always warm up for 20 minutes and cool down
  • Replicate the efforts with your gears if you live somewhere flat

Once a solid aerobic base fitness has been developed over several months, then hill reps can be started to develop leg strength and increase intensity.

How to Plan Training and Stick to It

Depending on the individual goals and specific event preparation, sessions could be completed weekly or fortnightly, however if for example you are training for a very hilly event such as the Welsh sportive the Dragon Ride, you should be looking at weekly progressive, hill reps combined with additional hilly, endurance rides.

How long should we aim to warm up and cool down for, in an ideal situation? 

Always warm-up for at least 20minutes before attempting hill reps. The warm-up should start at a low intensity and gradually build up with some short higher efforts to prime the legs. The cool down should be the reverse of the warm-up aiming to keep the cadence high to counteract the lower cadences of hill reps. Ideally ride to your hill of choice and slowly ride home allowing you to cool down.

How to Warm Up for Sportives, Time Trials and Road Races

No climbs near you? Up the gears and fake it!

What should we do if we live somewhere really flat?

Thankfully, lactate threshold intervals of any kind can really benefit hill climbing by training your body to hold high intensities for long periods of time and develop the capability to get into a rhythm and hold a strong, steady pace.

Equally, flat areas can often be windy so intentionally riding into the wind forcing you to generate more force is one option, or you can ride some of your regular routes in a bigger gear than you would normally chose and try to maintain the same speed. This slows your cadence and increases the force you apply to the pedals which is one way to simulate hills.

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Lastly, use the turbo trainer to stimulate hills and place a block under your front wheel and adapt your body position to replicate hill climbing by keeping your hands on the top of the handlebar and sit more upright.

Recommended Sessions

What kind of session would you recommend to increase leg strength and power? 

The point of these intervals is to settle into a good and sustainable rhythm for the early part of the hill and then increase your effort level and power output as you approach the summit. Roll into the hill at a moderate pace, and settle into a challenging but sustainable pace and a cadence of 80-90 RPM. Use your gears to stay at this effort level until you’re about 30-45 seconds from the summit, then start gradually accelerating, first by increasing your cadence and then by shifting gears, so you accelerate all the way to the top. When you reach the summit you should be at a 9 out of 10 in terms of effort level. Do not recover immediately, ride away from the hill for at least 30 secs before you slow down and recover.

What kind of session would you recommend to improve endurance? 

Climbing performance at lactate threshold can be improved by riding extended climbing intervals for around 10 minutes at 80-90 per cent max heart rate with 10 minutes’ recovery between each climb. For these, you need to be aware of the technique requirements – make sure you’re not losing form as you fatigue. Longer climbs should be practised sitting in the saddle and focusing on smooth pedalling technique, a ‘quiet’ upper body and higher cadence in order to develop climbing efficiency.

What kind of session would you recommend to improve sprint ability? 

If you want to become a better sprinter, find a short, steep hill with a flat road leading up to it. Ride toward the base of the hill at a moderate speed (15 to 20 mph). With your hands in the drops, get out of the saddle and start sprinting about 25 meters before you start going uphill. Continue sprinting for 10 seconds. Recover with five minutes of easy spinning between sprints.

Looking for more training tips? Check out…

7 Ways to Ride Faster that have Nothing to do with Fitness

6 Squat Variations You Can Do At Home

How to: Win the Mental Battle When Cycling Gets Tough


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