By: Heather Nielson
To become a better climber; that is always the question! I get asked about how to become a better climber from clients, friends and cyclists of all abilities more than any other topic. I find this ironic because I used to be a terrible climber. Reflecting back on why I can say that the main reasons were mostly a general lack of fitness as a beginner cyclist but also my mental attitude toward climbing. Anytime the grade went above 5% I immediately accepted my fate as the last one to arrive to the top; and believed I always would be. Why would that always be the case? Believing in yourself is a huge part of your success in life and if you tell yourself a story over and over again, you’ll do more than believe it, you will live it and act it out. If you want to get better at anything, you first have to change the narrative you tell yourself so that you can believe in yourself and then start acting as if you are successful at that one thing you want to get better at.
There’s a whole mental aspect to climbing, which I won’t get into here as I would prefer to focus on the technical parts of training to help you become a better climber. First, you have to get very clear about what types of climbs you want to be better at and why. When I first decided I wanted to be a better climber, my only reference was what I saw on TV in the Tour de France and the few races I’d done as a Cat 4; and both experiences told me that I needed to be able to do long, hard epic mountain pass climbs; climbs that took you over 15 minutes and up to an hour to complete.
However, training for long climbs is very different than training for short climbs and as I went through season after season I slowly learned that just because I could climb for an hour didn’t mean I was going to win a race that had climbs 10 minutes or shorter; and how could that be?
The effort and training required to complete long climbs is different from short climbs. In a race-like situation, if the climb is 10 minutes or less, you will need to be able to climb well above your threshold, then go back to tempo and recover quickly for the remainder of the race. For climbs that were 20 minutes to an hour long, you needed to be able to pace yourself very near your threshold in order to not ‘blow up’ before the end, as there is no recovery going up hill! You also needed to be able to respond to surges and attacks in the middle of a long climb, then go back to riding ‘on the rivet’. The training demands for both of those climbs are quite different and therefore you need to train specifically for different types of climbs depending your race, adventure or century ride demands.
First: Map out your race or ride. How long is the climb? What kind of grade is it? How far into the ride or race is it? Start training for those types of climbs at least 6-8 weeks before your main event.
For shorter climbs lasting 10 minutes or less, I would suggest doing repeats at your threshold and up to 110% of your threshold. Build your time and intensity over the next few months and depending on your event or race demands, you may need to be able to do several repeats. I would do a hard hill repeat session like this once to twice a week.
For longer climbs lasting 15 minutes to an hour, I would suggest building a base of threshold/sub threshold efforts on flats first several months before. Start with 2-3 x 15 minute tempo (85-93% of your threshold) with 10 minutes rest between each interval. Build up to 4×20 minute sets and if you can, a whole hour altogether! A few months before your main event start putting that effort onto long climbs lasting at least 15 minutes; and depending on your race/event demands do several repeats; or find one long climb lasting up to an hour and make an adventure out of it!
Training for short and long climbs takes different time and energy system demands and that doesn’t meant you can’t train for both just make sure you are getting proper recovery between hard days. Lastly, I am a big proponent of strength training and wrote more about that here.
Anyone can become a better climber but you have to first choose to become one first, then get specific about why and when and then figure out, or ask a coach how. Just like getting to the top of a mountain one pedal stroke at a time, reaching your goals also have to be broken down into single steps. Focus on one step at a time and don’t forget to recognize all your achievements along the way to help keep you motivated and positive and lastly….enjoy the whole journey or you won’t appreciate the view from the top!