Most of my professional cycling career was spent stage racing in Europe. I remember climbing Alpe d’Huez with a pair of tiny Lithuanian twins who rode the entire 13-kilometer ascent out of the saddle. I had done it almost entirely in the saddle.
With climbing, there is no one-size-fits-all technique. So, when creating workouts for my clients, my starting point is understanding their body type and physiologic strengths. I have one client who is built like the tiny Lithuanians. She needs to develop power on the climbs at a lower cadence. Another client, who has a bigger build and more power, needs to increase his cadence to deliver more aerobic capacity.
For both, I need to improve their ability — mechanically, muscularly and metabolically — to climb more efficiently.
A good mental plan is key to surviving a climbing workout. For long climbs, it helps to break the climb into sections. Focus your mental and physical energy in the current section, then tick it off and focus on the next section. This breaks a long climb that can feel overwhelming into manageable sections and stops your mind from wandering up the road in anticipation of what lies ahead, which can act to limit your current effort.
Here are three of my favorite workouts to hone climbing fitness for a 30-minute climb. During these workouts focus on finding a smooth, efficient pedaling rhythm. I encourage my clients to think about keeping the spine in a neutral position, and not rounded or hunched over. This neutral position is our most strong and stable position to deliver more power to the pedal and reduce energy leaks. When climbing out of the saddle, I try to find that sweet spot, where I can keep my center of mass over the bottom bracket and use that weight to help push the pedals.
Lastly, a word about cadence. In my opinion there is no absolute prescription when it comes to cadence. This is based on body types and physiologic strengths. A lean rider may have a high aerobic capacity and thrive.
I give my clients a warm-up that includes 6 x 30 seconds – 1 minute, single-leg drills for each leg. Single-leg drills are a valuable starting point to break down the pedal stroke and provide feedback on weak areas around the stroke, and reveal differences between the left and right, in terms of coordination and strength.
The goal of this workout is to create a smooth pedal stroke under resistance, and to recruit the correct muscle group at the right time. I recommend finding a gradient that is not too steep, perhaps 4%-5%. Then, climb with a cadence of somewhere between 40-60 rpm.
Start these at a medium endurance intensity with 8 x 4 minutes, and then build to 6 minutes. Over time, transition the medium endurance intensity to threshold, starting with 1 minute at threshold and 5 minutes at medium endurance, increasing your threshold minutes weekly.
Transitioning this workout from medium endurance to threshold allows the workout to develop cycling-specific strength to specific power. Recover for approximately 2 to 3 minutes.
Speed and power efforts to develop in- and out-of-saddle mechanics
The goal here is to efficiently generate power into the pedals, and to develop in- and out-of-saddle mechanics. Again, find a hill with a 4%-5% gradient. Start from a very slow roll, over-geared, and complete up to 4 sets of 4 x 30-second efforts, increasing cadence to 40-60 rpm, hitting VO2 intensity for the final 15-20 seconds. Recover for 1.5 minutes, and then begin the next set.
Another workout of this type would be out-of-saddle sprints. Increase the grade to 8%-10%. From a rolling start, perform 2-3 sets of 3 x 30-second efforts. On the first effort you are significantly over-geared; the next effort slightly over-geared; and final effort optimally geared. Recover for a minimum 3 minutes.
Sub-threshold to threshold hill intervals
The goal is smooth pedaling under power. Find a climb that resembles one from your upcoming race and choose whatever rpm you’re most comfortable with. Start with 3 x 10 minutes, alternating 4 minutes at sub-threshold and then 1 minute at threshold. Continue to advance this workout by changing the ratio, and then start extending out the time, for example 2 x 15 minutes, working toward your 30-minute effort.
Another variation on this workout would be to include some out-of-saddle efforts. These are a great way to experience the mental and physical change in rhythm and sensation between in- and out-of-saddle climbing. Start with 4 x 7 minutes at sub-threshold, and every 2.5 minutes, get out of the saddle for 30 seconds, then back into the saddle at sub-threshold. Advance these to 4 x 9 minutes.