Ask Coach Connor: Struggling on hills
How do I keep up with my weekly group ride on short, punchy climbs?
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
“I am struggling to keep up with my weekly group ride. It’s a smash-fest; all-out fast as you can go on one- and two-minute rollers.”
Rollers are tough. I always tell my athletes rollers aren’t “climbs,” because it’s often not the climbers who dominate the rollers. Having a big anaerobic capacity to put out a powerful short effort and then recover quickly is the key to the rollers. So, with that in mind, here’s a few tips to help get to the end of the rolling group ride:
• Work on your VO2 max power and anaerobic capacity — yes, we lose some of this with age, but that’s all the more reason to put a lot of work into staving off those losses. Use intervals like Tabatas and sets of 8x1x1 (eight repeats of 1 minute all-out, 1-minute rest) or 6x2x2.
• Work on your base endurance — that may sound strange, but if you’re at the back of the field struggling on the way to the rollers, you’re already in trouble. It’s very hard to put out a big one-minute effort if you’re already on the rivets.
• Position yourself for the rollers — strategy can compensate for a lack of raw power. Hit the roller at the front, let yourself drift back a few positions on the first half of the roller and then push over the top. Don’t hit the bottom all out. You’ll blow up.
• Work on the spare tire — power-to-weight is still a factor. Skip the beers and that piece of chocolate cake.
Evan Huffman’s climbing intervals
In many ways, this climbing workout is about training your ability to never ease off. “The hardest part is the easier section, because you’re mentally trained to do the effort and then just coast,” says Huffman. “There’s a big mental benefit. Like building that endurance to not just do a hard effort and then stop pedaling.”
If the goal is simply to get over a big climb, then threshold work is all you need. Racing a climb is different, says Huffman. “It’s not very steady in a race, especially on shorter climbs,” he says. People attack and you must respond. So, training your ability to surge and then recover at moderate intensities is crucial.
This over-under routine is not a year-round workout. During the base season, just focus on building your engine. Huffman starts this routine about a month before his first race and then does it weekly during the season to get good race specific work.
Let’s start with Huffman’s “pro” version and then offer ways to modify it. Huffman uses a 15- to 20-minute climb and performs four repeats where he will average around his threshold or FTP power. But his goal is to mimic racing where each climb gets successively more aggressive:
- First Climb: Ride steady at 90% of FTP
- Second Climb: Do repeats alternating between 3 minutes at 90% FTP and 2 minutes at FTP
- Third Climb: Do repeats alternating between 3 minutes at 90% and 1 minute at 120% of FTP
- Fourth Climb: Alternate between one minute at FTP and 10 seconds all-out for 10 to 12 minutes
For the rest of us
Fifteen-plus minutes, four times is a superhuman effort. You also may not have a 20-minute climb near you. So, here’s a few ways to make the workout more realistic:
- Just do three climbs with the first, second, and fourth protocol above
- Or, shorten each climb to 8 to 10 minutes (i.e., fewer repeats)
- If the longest climb you have is just a few minutes, start each repeat on the flats and time it so you finish at the top.
Add cadence work
Joe Dombrowski does a lot of cadence work when climbing. You can add a little cadence work to the protocol above by:
- On the first steady climb, alternate between 3 minutes at 55 RPM and 3 minutes at 100 RPM
- On the second and third climbs, do either the over portion or the under portion at 55 to 65 RPM.
Trevor Connor is a long-time cycling coach and elite racer. He holds degrees in exercise physiology and nutrition from Colorado State University.