Believe it or not, there are some riders who are just natural born climbers. They’re generally on the light side, and more often than not they actually enjoy the mountains and the molehills and find it hard to understand why the rest of us struggle so much. Those who are not natural born climbers, however, can without a doubt train themselves to become more comfortable and stronger on the ascents.
Here’s a look at some of the common but avoidable mistakes we make on the climbs, and how to knock them on the head…
Panic smashing at the bottom
Panic smashing is what happens when you go too hard over the opening metres of kilometres of a climb – only to grind to an almost halt half way up the ascent having 'gone into the red'.
The number one rule is to avoid that red line. Don't step over it - the results are not positive. You need to stay within your limits. Even if you're not riding with heart rate or power, most riders can rate on a scale of 1 to 10 their output - and 10 is not a good number to be experiencing early on.
Once you get to know a climb, you can often form a better idea of when to start ramping up your effort. However, all too often when you’re aiming for your very best time or best performance, it’s easy to overdo it. Try breaking the climb up into three portions mentally, and tell yourself you’ll do the first section at an 'easy' or ‘moderate’ pace, the middle one ‘tempo’ and the final one ‘as hard as you can’. You’ll probably find the result is you ride all three at a similar intensity/speed as your legs fatigue, and you discover what was ‘easy’ is actually pretty hard to maintain!
If you’re approaching a climb of unknown length or gradient, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Once you can see the top, then you can put in that 'final attack'.
Over-gearing the whole way
The general understanding is that adding extra resistance by selecting a bigger gear will make you go faster. If you’re riding for a short period of time and don’t have to worry about fatigue, that might be true. Riding in a high gear and using low cadence generally recruits more fast twitch muscle fibres that are used for explosive power and speed.
By all means – power it up the mini 20 second climbs in a high gear, if you’re comfortable that you’ve got energy to spare. However, use these up at your risk – because these muscle fibres get tired quickly. If you’ve got a long day ahead of you, you’re much better off using a higher cadence with a lower gear – thus recruiting slow twitch muscles that promote greater endurance.
A high gear also puts more strain on your muscles and tendons, so you can risk an injury by sticking with the big chainring too often.
Hyperventilating (well, almost)
Breathing doesn’t just provide your body with oxygen – it also informs your brain of your mental and physiological state. Sometimes the perceived threat of a climb, coupled with heavy breathing as a result of a ‘panic smash’, can lead our bodies to react as though the threat is much more dangerous than it is.
As Josephine Perry, who runs a sports mental training clinic, Performance In Mind told us: “Breathing is really important in all our sporting activities. Everything our body does physiologically feeds back into our brain and gives it signals as to how we are feeling. [Fast breathing] makes us tighten up, puts us on alert and gets our hearts beating much faster. Our brain’s reaction to that will be to slow down the body. This is clearly not what we want to be doing. So teaching our body to react well to situations like a climb coming up can be really beneficial."
She gave us a selection of tips for beating this reaction – the key lessons being that we need to think consciously about controlling our breath; practice breathing deeply, not quickly; and work on staying positive about our own performance and abilities.
When approaching a tough climb, you want to be well fuelled – but not to the point that you can actually feel the energy bar you ate about 20 seconds ago sitting in your gut.
When it comes to the repeated short climbs of the UK, aim to drink and nibble something every 20 minutes or so throughout your ride to ensure you’re constantly well fuelled. You don’t want to chomp down some food right before a ten minute Surrey hill, because for starters it will take twice as long as the climb for it to actually become absorbed into your system.
When approaching a 30 to 60 minute epic abroad, it’s really important that you don’t forget to drip feed yourself on the ascent. Again, you don’t want to make yourself feel ill or cause digestive upset by eating in large chunks, and in this case a carbohydrate energy drink is probably the best option and will ensure you stay well hydrated – too.
Never riding up hills
Let's illustrate this one with a common scenario:
Rider A: “I’d like to be a better climber"
Rider B: “Have you been practicing much?"
Rider A: “No, I hate hills…"
We often have a tendency to believe that being a good climber is all about having an optimum power to weight ration. Read: being light. However, there’s two parts to that equation, and regular hill climbing can really help to boost your power.
Not only that, but the more you climb, the more comfortable you’ll feel with riding up hill. You’ll learn your own rhythm, and become more accustomed to where your ‘red line’ is.
Discussing her preparations leading up to the hilly Rio Olympic course, Lizzie Armitstead told us: “Climbing isn’t just about losing weight. You get better at it by climbing. Spending as much time as you can in the mountains – learning the rhythm of climbing, and power as well – it comes down to more than just being lean." And really, the training tips and opinions of the World Champion are probably worth listening to.
Looking for more training tips? Check out…