Building strength for alpine climbing for a recreational road cyclist

I ride recreationally in the UK in the southeast and therefore cannot train effectively outside for the two trips I make annually to the Alps or the Dolomites (or similar) to tackle many of the iconic climbs over a three to five day trip. My objective this year is to build strength to cope better with prolonged sections of climbing in excess of (and sometimes well in excess of) 7%. I seem to have better cardio endurance than strength. These climbs last anything from 40 minutes to 2 hours, with the occasional stop for a breather and include sections at altitude well over 2,000m.

As a relative newcomer to TrainerRoad, I find myself working on its programs seemingly constantly at 90rpm or more. However, when I have experimented on my ERG machine on keeping the same power target but reducing the cadence to between 60-70, it feels more like the hard pulls at 10% or more.

Am I best advised to stick with 90rpm or more or mix in some lower cadence? Are there programs on TrainerRoad that I need to target?

Any tips appreciated.

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Hey Andy,

Firstly, our recommended Training Progression for this type of trip would be:
Sweet Spot Base I and II
Sustained Power Build
Century Specialty

If you would like more control over your lower cadence work, I would recommend using Resistance Mode for those workouts since that will allow you to pick your gearing and cadence without any outside influence. You can then adjust your cadence and gearing to match the power target, rather than ERG trying to do it for you.

In general, you will probably want modt of your workouts to lie in the 90 rpm zone for the health of your knees, however, mixing in low cadence work during a few Sweet Spot intervals per week can be a great way to increase your ability to generate force.

One thing you may want to consider would be a lower set of gears on your road bike for your annual trip. If you can get lower gears and spin 90 up those 7% climbs, you will likely find yourself in a better place physically when you reach the top. This, of course, depends on your bike setup, but many modern rear derailleurs can now handle an 11-32, which gives a significantly lower climbing gear than may bikes come with stock.

Feel free to reach out if you have any more questions :slight_smile:

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Thanks Bryce for such a prompt response.

I find that simply slowing my cadence in ERG mode to say 65 rpm on Wahoo Kickr brings up the resistance very quickly without any fuss. As regards mixing in low cadence work, I was doing ‘Kaweah’ (in SSB2) the other day and included two or three 90 second segments of 65 rpm within each of the ten minute near-to-FTP segments. Is this what you had in mind in for ‘mixing in’ lower cadence without trashing my middle-aged knees? Or should I have a go at a longer or very different lower cadence effort?

I realise that I can experiment and respond to feedback from my limbs, but if there is any accepted wisdom or guidance about how much lower cadence work makes sense for a non-racer?

Andy

PS I’m already on 11/32!

If you want, you could work at 5-6 minutes straight of low cadence work to really get your muscles burning, but be sure to listen to your body for any pain signals whatsoever. Any sign of pain means you should increase your cadence right away. No adaptation is worth damaging your knees :wink:

As for cadence, there is really no reason to drop below 65RPM, so it sounds like you’re in a good range!

For these types of things, its all about specificity. If you would never drop your cadence below 80 when riding outside, then there is no reason to train at a cadence below 80. But if you will routinely see low cadences, it makes sense to train those low cadences to improve your outdoor performance.

This x 1million.

The machismo around gearing for cyclists seems to be thankfully slipping into the past. The big groupset manufacturers realised a while back that recreational cyclists are a much bigger slice of their revenue so cater for that with compact chainsets and bigger cassettes.

Your legs will thank you.

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@Andy_C, I live in Bedfordshire so I’m a bit short of long climbs like the alps or dolomites. I’ve done events in both places and once the gradient gets above about 8% , I do find it is really hard to push a lot of watts. I have decent endurance and TR has really helped with that but I think it’s the lack of being able to ride on a long climb for an hour or more that holds me back ( I tend to do more outdoor riding from April onwards)

I use TR with a Kickr and there is a YouTube video linked on these forums somewhere describing the subtle differences between doing ERG workouts in the big and little rings. Basically, in the small ring, there is a subtle shift in use of the hamstring/bum muscles. That theory certainly matches my experience of the past 3 years of doing events like the Maratona, Etape and Ventoux.

I even found that, after 6 hours riding several climbs, I could still push decent watts on the flat. So basically, I get conditioned to ride the short sharp hills and long flattish segments within 50 miles of my home.

Long story short, I’ve started to mix up my use of the Big/small rings when doing TR workouts. If you have a 52/36 (or 50/34) and 11/32 setup, you should be OK on almost everything in the alps and dolomites, although I did find passo Giau was over an hour of pain and suffering but that’s what we all love isn’t it?

EDIT: Having just re-read your OP, I’d say from experience that increasing your average overall cadence is a good thing to work on. In the end, the really hard climbs come down to how slow you can ride without falling off!!

Thx Stueyboy.

I’m in Herts and rely on the short sharp stuff in Chilterns and other hills. Just one clarification from your response. Are you suggesting that using the small ring with the Kickr is best for the conditioning/strengthening that I am seeking from the TR programmes? Or do I need to mix up the use of small and big rings?

My advice would be to try and do long cadence/high power intervals. I live the eastern US, where the terrain is rolling but definitely not a ton of climbing. I did a granfondo in Portugal this past summer (most of it lol I did 78 miles and 11k ft and quit with 10 miles/2k ft to go) and I was woefully underprepared for the low cadence stuff on some long sections of over 10%. In fact, I ended up cramping in both quads, I believe because of the unusual cadence for me (I was eating well and paced myself wonderfully until the first HC climb). If I were to do it again, I’d definitely try to simulate those efforts on the trainer.

I’m in Lincolnshire so barely have a hill I like workouts such as Mount Goode and Kaweah where I’m spending longer periods below ftp and spend one or more of the intervals nearer 75-80 rpm.
The other massive benefit for trips to the alps is lowering weight as much as possible. You might already be a climbing goat but when you’re spending 2 hours climbing, often at a pretty constant gradient without respite every kg helps.

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@Andy_C, yes, if you plan to be doing a lot of slow climbing in the small ring then training long steady intervals like that should help. I’d also recommend losing weight if possible. even 1kg will make a difference. I’ve also had the dreaded quad cramp which isn’t funny.

why not Climbing Road Race instead of century for specialty phase?

Climbing Road Race is designed to help riders cope with unpredictable race environments like attacks, breakaways, and other intense efforts that are needed when riding in a pack.

Presumably, when Andy goes on his trip to the Alps or Dolomites, he will be climbing at a constant and self-selected pace. The Century Plan caters to these consistent efforts extremely well :+1:

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x 2 million

Be the cyclist who can keep pedaling, and not the one who has to stop because they don’t have enough gears. Nobody is looking at the cassette/crank size… they’re too busy suffering :sweat_smile:

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Thought I’d toss in some thoughts as I live and mostly ride in a flat area. Have targeted the big climbs in California - coastal mountains and the Sierra Nevadas. A lot of long climbs ranging from 30 minutes to 3 hours, and even a day with 8 hours of climbing. For context on those times, I’m a big guy and relatively slow climber at 2.5 to 3W/kg. Here is what I’ve learned over the last 3 years, and using TR for a year:

  • #1 focus is on building strength endurance via longer and longer sweet spot and threshold intervals. This has proven to deliver great results.
  • #2 focus is on higher cadences (trainer), my target is 90-95rpm. In combination with #1 above, I’ve achieved better pacing and climbing results despite slightly lower W/kg versus 2017.
  • for climbing rides I have Ultegra 50x34 subcompact and 11-32 cassette, seriously considering upgrading rear derailleur to 8000 series which allows 11-34 cassette for the steeper/longer pitches at 9+%. With 34x32 and TrainerRoad plans, I’ve been able to achieve 84rpm on a long 10 mile climb at 5-6%
  • my preference on Kickr 2017 is larger gearing as it requires higher torque on resistance changes which makes it feel more like riding on the road (both climbing and flat roads). I’ve experienced great results (e.g. best HC climb despite lower W/kg) by following TR plans with 50x15 gearing. Having tried 34x15 gearing repeatedly, I’m going to stick with 50x15 (or 53x15 with my flat road setup) and not bother chasing possible marginal gains. As they say “your mileage may vary” and do what feels natural and keeps you motivated to train.
  • we are fortunate to have a lot of steady/strong wind, when training outside I can ride for 50 minutes into a brutal headwind and simulate climbing by sitting up instead of going aero. Those long 50 minute intervals (prior to training indoors) allowed me to successfully train and complete a 117 mile / 4700 meter climbing ride my first year of road cycling in 2016. I got the idea from a couple of GCN videos on training for climbs when you live in flats.

Hope that helps.

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Totally correct presumption, Bryce. And from the other posts I guess I’m not alone!

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Yes, I’m in a very similar situation to the OP, and I’m actually planning to change to a 46/30 chainring setup for my big target rides this year - all of which are long climbs, which we have none whatsoever of here on the prairies. Better safe than sorry I figure.

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my next upgrade is going to be 34x34 gearing, this spring I’m hoping to do a long 19 mile climb that begins with 12-15% for 2.1 miles.

I fitted the new ultegra rear derailleur and the 11-34 cassette for Ventoux last year which was very much welcomed on the day

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