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How to improve your climbing on short punchy climbs and long ascents

There is a lot more to improving your climbing that getting stronger or losing weight.

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In this column, we give you tips and tricks to improve your climbing ability, including short punchy climbs and long mountain passes.

Climbing is synonymous with cycling – images from Alpe d’Huez, switchbacks, hairpins, 12 percent gradients, goat track climbs, and so much more. But climbing in cycling isn’t just about the long stuff. Anything above a one percent gradient could be considered a climb. For beginner cyclists, a 500-meter ramp at three percent is a full-fledged climb.

Regardless of your FTP, climbs can be intimidating. I bet that even Jonas Vingegaard is intimidated by the 20.8-kilometer climb up Mont Ventoux. Whether it’s an Alpine pass or the hill right outside your house, climbs can be painful and demoralizing.

We’re here to help. In this article, we’re doing to tell you how to improve your climbing. This includes power-based training, climbing form, and your power-to-weight ratio. Let’s jump right into it with how to train for climbs.

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How to train for climbing

Climbing ability is all about the power-to-weight ratio. We’ll explain more about this formula near the end of this article, but right now, we’re going to focus on the first part of the occasion: power.

In order to improve your climbing ability, you need to get stronger. That’s boring advice, isn’t it?

Instead of telling you to improve your FTP, we’re going to be much more specific. When training to improve your climbing, you need to be training in the right zone.

Your power-based training zones are typically divided into five different zones, from easiest to hardest. Zone 1 is reserved for coffee rides, while Zone 5 is for VO2max efforts and racing. When training to improve your climbing, you need to know what power zone you need to target.

Zone training is applicable for both heart-rate-based and effort-based training as well. Heart rate is typically broken up into five zones just like power, while you can gauge your effort based on RPE (rate of perceived exertion if you are riding by feel).

So what zone should you target?

The answer is revealed in the length and intensity of the climbs that you are training for. For longer climbs, you should target a lower power zone, and thus a lower intensity. Conversely, you should focus on punchy, high-intensity efforts if you are training for short climbs. Here are some examples.

Let’s say you’re training for a Gran Fondo that is 100 miles long with 10,000 feet of climbing. There are three main climbs throughout the course, each lasting about 20–40 minutes. For climbs of this duration, you should be focused on improving your Zone 3 and Zone 4 power, or your Tempo and FTP zones. Try this workout to improve your 30-minute Tempo power:

  • 10-minute warm-up
  • 3×10 minutes Tempo (76–83% FTP) with 5 minutes rest (45–55% FTP)
  • 10-minute cool-down

Start here, and as your fitness improves, increase the length of each Tempo interval whilst maintaining the 5-minutes of rest. Eventually, you should be able to perform three 30-minute Tempo repeats with just a few minutes of rest in between. 

Now let’s say that you’re training for a 60-mile road race with a handful of punchy, three to five minute climbs. For this, you’ll need to work on your VO2max power, or the maximum power output you can sustain for about five minutes. Here’s an example VO2max training session:

  • 10-minute warm-up
  • 3×4 minutes VO2max (110–120% FTP) with 5 minutes rest (45–55% FTP)
  • 10-minute cool-down 

Related post:How to Improve Your VO2max

After you’ve completed this workout a few times, you can start adding reps or intensity to the VO2max intervals. Don’t increase the duration of each interval over five minutes because then you’ll be training a different system other than your VO2max. Eventually, you can work your way up to, for example, 5×5 minutes at 115% FTP. 

Remember that specificity is key. Don’t overcomplicate things, and train specifically for the demands of your goal event. 

Is there a best climbing form for cycling?

It’s no secret that riding up a hill feels different from riding on the flats. The steeper the hill gets, the more your body weight shifts back on the saddle. That’s part of the reason that we stand up on steep gradients (>10%) because getting out of the saddle helps shift our body weight forward and maintain our balance.

There is no “best climbing position,” at least that we know of based on a few studies. Just watch a mountain stage at the Tour de France and you will see just about every climbing form imaginable. Riders are in the drops, on the hoods, exclusively in the saddle, constantly out of the saddle; metronomic like Remco Evenepoel, or fighting the bike like Romain Bardet.

Instead of overthinking your climbing form, focus on maintaining your most comfortable cadence, and your climbing form will start to form naturally. You can certainly experiment with different climbing styles to see what they do to your heart rate, power output, and RPE (rate of perceived exertion).

Training your climbing muscles

Kuss on the move in the Ardeche Classic
Climbing king Sepp Kuss lit up the Ardèche Classic to open 2022. (Photo: James Startt)

While climbing, you are likely to use different muscles than riding on the flats. Depending on your climbing position (in or out of the saddle, on the hoods, or the tops), you may recruit more or less of your glutes, quads, and calves. If you haven’t been training on climbs, you’ll be able to feel the soreness forming after just a few minutes.

The best way to improve your climbing form – to get your muscles accustomed to the effort – is to climb more. But if you live in the flatlands, you can still train your climbing ability by riding out of the saddle, increasing your flexibility and range of motion (ROM), and strengthening your lower body muscles through strength training.

Here is our list of the Best weight training exercises for cyclists.

This is also a word of warning for cyclists who train almost exclusively indoors. No matter how much you increase your FTP through ERG mode trainer workouts, it is a different beast to go and tackle a climb in real life. If you’re training for a hill climb, mountainous Fondo, or anything in between, make sure you get outside and climb as much as possible leading up to the event.

Power-to-weight ratio

There are two components to the power-to-weight ratio, of course: power and weight. The power-to-weight ratio is perhaps the closest metric we have to a gold standard for measuring cycling performance. With very few exceptions, the higher your power-to-weight ratio, the better you are at cycling.

So far, we’ve been focused on improving the power part of the equation. But there is also your weight. Attempting to decrease your body weight can put you on a slippery slope, but you can also lose weight in a healthy way.

If you have some weight to lose, here are some tips for healthy and sustainable weight loss:

  • Cut out excess calories (soda, candy, pastries),  not essential nutrients
  • Fuel each of your workouts with sufficient carbohydrates for energy
  • Aim for no more than a 200–300 calorie deficit (burning more calories than you consume) per day 
  • At most, aim to lose one pound of excess body weight per week

Above all, remember that you cannot gain power and lose weight indefinitely. There is an inflection point at which your weight is too low and you no longer have the energy to train and get stronger. Many cyclists have reached this point, and it’s not a fun place to be.

Focus on fueling your training and maintaining healthy eating habits. Weight loss should come naturally, not from starving yourself. And in most cases in cycling, it is better to have more power than less weight.

Conclusion

As you can see, there is a lot more to improving your climbing that getting stronger or losing weight. Specificity is key in your training – focus on the specific power zones that you will be utilizing in your goal event. And if you’re just training to improve your overall climbing ability, train your climbing weaknesses first.

While climbing more will improve your climbing, you don’t need to overdo it and start climbing every day. Remember to take adequate rest, and aim for two hard training sessions per week, at the most. Those rest periods and recovery rides are when you get stronger.

Lastly, remind yourself that climbing is literally an uphill battle, both physically and mentally. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t finish a hill rep on the first try. We’ve all had to unclip on a climb before, whether it was Alpe d’Huez or the driveway. Focus on the things that you can control, and soon you’ll be climbing faster than ever.