With the right training plan and good technique, anyone can become a faster climber. Here’s the training, pacing, nutrition, and skills that will help you summit hills faster and more efficiently.
For more information on climbing and training check out Ask a Cycling Coach Ep 278.
What Makes Someone a Good Climber?
Three primary skills are needed to be good at climbing. The first is the ability to sustain power consistently. How well you sustain power impacts your overall efficiency and pace on a climb. Second, a good climber can sustain a high power output throughout an entire climb. The higher the power value you can hold, the faster you will reach the top of the hill. Finally, a strong climber has great endurance and repeatability. When your endurance and repeatability are well built, you can out climb your competitors.
The good news is, all of these skills can be trained. Even if you wouldn’t label yourself as a climber, it doesn’t exclude you from improvement. Anyone can get faster uphill with the right training.
Power to Weight Ratio
Your power in proportion to your weight gives you a general summary of your climbing abilities. Weight determines how much inertia is necessary to propel yourself forward up a hill, and power decides how quickly you can overcome this inertia. This relationship between power and weight is referred to as your power-to-weight ratio or your watts per kilogram. Your watts per kilogram is represented numerically by your functional threshold power (FTP) divided by your weight in kilograms. (FTP/kg = Watts per Kilogram). On a hill climb, the athlete with the highest power to weight ratio should theoretically reach the top of the climb first.
This metric can help you understand how efficiently your body is producing power in proportion to your body mass. Driving this value up will make you a faster climber, and all around, a stronger cyclist. With that said, while weight does factor into your power to weight ratio, you don’t need to lose weight to improve your W/Kg and become a faster climber. While losing weight would theoretically make you faster, it’s much more impactful on your climbing skills to focus on improving your FTP instead.
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That’s not to say you won’t lose any weight or positively impact body composition when you prioritize power. Usually, when your FTP increases, you’ll have a greater work capacity, burn more calories, and build more muscle. This, in turn, improves body composition. With this also in mind, the best way to become a faster climber and improve your watts per kilogram is with a training plan that targets your climbing capabilities and increases your capacity for work and power.
Training Plan for Cimbers
A high power to weight ratio, sustained power capabilities, increased FTP, endurance, and repeatability are what will make you a faster climber. A climbing-specific training plan targets these abilities, and more, for the demands of climbing and the general challenges of racing and training. With a full Base, Build, and Specialty phase, you will progressively establish the fitness you need for every climb you want to conquer.
Climbing specific training begins with a Base Phase. Base training establishes aerobic fitness and increases muscular endurance for the robust endurance and high repeatability you need to be a strong climber. It also trains your aerobic energy system, which is the energy system responsible for fueling all sustained efforts longer than three minutes. Many climbs are longer than three minutes, so having a strong aerobic foundation is especially important as a climber. This initial training also serves as a foundation for the harder and more intense work done in Build and Specialty.
The Build Phase is where your newly established aerobic fitness is built up and fine-tuned for climbing, racing, and conquering big days in the saddle. The focus of the Build Phase is to increase your FTP so that you can do even more work. This phase also begins to establish anaerobic and neuromuscular abilities, all the while continuing to reinforce and build the aerobic fitness that’s established during the Base phase.
The Specialty Phase will take the aerobic and anaerobic power built during Build and Base and fine-tune it for the specific discipline of racing that you do. If you’re a road racer targeting a long, rolling course, then a Specialty Phase like the Rolling Road Race plan will sharpen your ability to punch over the steep, short hills. If you’re an athlete training for a course with long sustained climbs, then the Climbing Road Race plan will maximize your fitness to push high levels of power for a long time.
Training for Long Climbs
Beginning with the Build Phase, you can decide what type of climbing capabilities you want to work towards. If you want to prioritize longer climbs or your priority event has an extended climb, then the Sustained Power Build plan will train you for this type of riding. The Sustained Power Build training blocks emphasize developing greater sustained power through strength endurance work, lactate tolerance, and a few maximum aerobic power intervals.
You can take your training a step further during the Specialty phase with the Climbing Road Race plan. The Climbing Road Race plan fine-tunes your power with an emphasis on long sustained efforts. It will develop your ability to exert high power levels over prolonged periods of time while still strengthening the diverse range of power zones needed in any road race.
Example Workouts for Long Climbs
Carpathian Peak +1 is an over-under workout in the Sustained Power Build plan. The primary objective is to increase your ability to tolerate and utilize the byproducts that accompany riding above your FTP, all while maintaining a reasonably high power output.
Roan High +2 is a workout from the Climbing Road Race plan. The lower-intensity Sweet Spot intervals continue building aerobic power while the harder efforts are aimed at improving muscular endurance.
Training for Short Climbs
For athletes who tend to race on rolling courses with short, punchy climbs, the Short Power Build plan will build the explosive yet sustained power necessary for quick, punchy courses. In this plan, you’ll still face your fair share of muscle endurance work, but there will be a further emphasis on VO2 Max capabilities as well.
If you’re looking to specialize in short climbs, the next step is the Rolling Road Race plan. This block sharpens your sprint, anaerobic, and VO2 max power, all while maintaining your aerobic fitness. By targeting these zones, you’ll not only be prepared for short climbs but will also be ready for the wide variety of efforts demanded in a rolling road race.
Example Workouts for Short Climbs
Matthes +1 is a workout from the Short Power Build training plan. This workout targets high power outputs for tremendous improvements in both aerobic and anaerobic power can be achieved—all in very little time.
Huxley is a workout in the Rolling Road Race plan that targets anaerobic capabilities to improve lactate processing capabilities and acidic tolerance to greater levels of muscle fiber recruitment and increased fiber size.
How TrainerRoad Makes You a Better Climber
It takes more than just one or two workouts to become a better climber. A progressive training plan from TrainerRoad uses science-based coaching principles tailored specifically to your discipline. Additionally, it’s designed for your schedule and your goals—all to make you a faster climber.
You can use Plan Builder to build a custom training plan, take your climbing workouts outside with Outside Workouts, train year-round indoors using the TrainerRoad app, and learn about. Each of these features offer unique benefits to make your climbing better and the training process a little easier.
Indoor Cycling Training
The constant nature of indoor cycling offers a specific advantage for climbers that can’t be achieved on the road or the trail. During indoor workouts, you must pedal throughout the entire duration of the workout, with no coasting, descents, or breaks in-between. Even the rest in between intervals requires that you keep pedaling.
Indoor training is convenient. You won’t have to go searching for the perfect hill to repeat because your workouts will replicate every hill you could imagine. You’ll also be able to train regardless of the weather.
Getting Started With Indoor Training
Practicing Your Hill Climbing Strategies
When it comes time to put your climbing to the test, there’s more at play than fitness alone. Your TrainerRoad workouts are the perfect opportunity to reinforce important skills and strategies. Nutrition, pacing, and technique contribute to how fast and efficiently you reach the top of a hill. Experimenting with different nutrition, pacing, and gearing strategies during training can help you create your own race day plan and nail a strategy that works well for you. Here are some tips on nutrition, pacing, and gearing and how you can integrate them into your TrainerRoad workouts.
Fueling Your Climbs
Remembering to take in enough fuel on the bike isn’t always easy. Your TrainerRoad workouts are the perfect time to practice active fueling and a great low-risk opportunity to find the types of fuel that work for you.
Carbohydrates are especially important during endurance activities and sustained power outputs. The more you can consume during a race, the better off you’ll be. Some people have no problem consuming 90-120 grams of carbs per hour. Others find that this many carbs on the bike can lead to GI distress. Progressively working your way up with the quantity of carbs you eat during your TrainerRoad activities can help your digestive system grow accustomed to utilizing the maximum amount of carbohydrates. Having a few extra carbs on board during a race could be the reason you have the extra energy to make it up the final climb first.
Pacing Climbs and Climbing Races
Even with the right fitness, pacing can still be a mental and physical challenge. Targeting your ability to sustain high power will naturally increase your stamina on climbs and your endurance during races. Additionally, training will give you a broad understanding of your limitations and where they lie. You can go a step further when you race and optimize your energy expenditure with a pacing plan for your entire event. For more information check out How to Build a Pacing Plan for Long Events.
Out of the Saddle Pedaling
Depending on the climb’s length and gradient, you may also want to integrate some out of the saddle pedaling into your training and racing. Standing can help you break up a climb, accelerate up a steep pitch, or pass a competitor. Out of the saddle pedaling can be tough because it’s inherently much less efficient than seated pedaling.
With that said, there’s a time and place where standing and pedaling is necessary, and while it might be less efficient, it only gets better when you train it intentionally. Some TrainerRoad workouts have integrated standing drills, but athletes can also integrate their own standing drills.
Gearing and Cadence
Efficient shifting, the right gear ratio, and good cadence are additional techniques that will impact your pacing plan and how efficiently you can climb. For example, grinding a large gear can overtax your muscles. During your TrainerRoad workouts, you can experiment with different gears to find a gear ratio that allows you to maintain a higher cadence. Good cadence during training makes for a good cadence in racing.
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