Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Finding Your Climbing Power


It's that time of year: when we look at our upcoming races and the terrain we'll need to cover, and we start to get more specific in our training. If your races involve hills, that means training on hills. Over the years, I've been lucky enough to cycle with some great hill climbers and learn a few tips that have made me a better climber. I'm still learning and growing as a cyclist, but here's a few things I've learned along the way:

While it might look dramatic on TV to be climbing while standing on the pedals (in fact, I had to laugh out loud when I watched the Ironman Florida television coverage - the footage they got from the bike course was of athletes standing on their pedals to climb the only "hill" on the course, an overpass. The triathletes were just stretching out their legs after miles and miles of flat windy riding, there was no other reason to get up off your seat on that tiny incline!), in reality you're often better off staying seated while climbing. This is especially important if your build tends toward the sturdy and muscular and not to the slim and whippetlike. A top road biker who is an expert climber will generally weigh (in pounds) no more than twice his height (in inches). Yes, that's  144 pounds for a 6' tall male. If you haven't yet (or never want to) achieve this body style, every extra pound you carry will cost you in the climb.

Staying seated has many advantages: it keeps your weight partially supported by your saddle instead of by the muscles in your legs (a rule of thumb is that you use about 10% more energy as soon as you stand up to climb), it uses less of your core and arm muscles (fewer muscles engaged equals less oxygen consumed), it utilizes your legs and glutes more effectively with less wasted motion, and it allows you to keep up a faster more consistent cadence.

In order to stay seated, you have to use your gears wisely. Many triathletes who are not yet comfortable on their bikes tend to avoid shifting as much as possible. You wouldn't do this in your car, where you would hear your engine lugging or over-revving when you refused to shift. Your body is doing the same thing when you don't shift to keep your cadence constant. So picking the right gear for the start of the hill and then staying on the shifters to maintain your cadence in the 70 - 90 range is crucial. Keep those pedals spinning and your heart rate in a manageable zone as you cruise up the hill. Hammering a hill and flooding your muscles with lactic acid (especially in a race) might look cool in the moment, but is a recipe for disaster. Those lactic-flooded legs will feel dead on the run!

If you do need to stand, either to change body position, give your back a break, or because the hill is too steep to stay seated, work on keeping a steady line while rocking the bike back and forth underneath you. This is a skill that will come with practice, but many triathletes weave and wobble when they stand on hills, potentially endangering any athletes trying to pass on the side. So when you're out training on hills, be sure to get some practice with standing climbs. Use your body weight to help you push down on the pedals and let the bike travel side-to-side underneath you, but not too far (6 - 8 inches is enough). Observe the track of your wheels and make sure you're still traveling in a straight line. Don't lean way far forward over the handlebars as this takes efficiency away from your legs, try keeping your weight centered over your cranks as much as possible. Don't forget that just before you stand you may need to shift into a higher gear to account for the increased power of a standing climb.

Best way to get good at hills: stop fearing them and start doing them. I know I used to hate hills but now I kind of find that I like them. I've started tracking my times on some local doozies so I know when I'm getting better over the course of  a season, and even when I've started off a new season with better climbing skills than I started the last one. This year's Crossfit training has made me a stronger hill climber with lower body weight and more power, so I'm eager to see how I'll stack up against my benchmark hills this season!

3 comments:

Jon Gilchrist said...

spot on.....

Kristin (Triathlon Dreams) said...

Thanks for all the great info you have. This is so true. I am a competative cycler and its easier to relax, think nice even circles with your feet instead of pounding the hills. I've learned over the last couple of years. The more you practice, the better you become!!

Kristin (Triathlon Dreams) said...

This post is so true. I have been a competative cycler for the past 2 years. It is easier to stay in the saddle as long as you can on a hill. WE have more power in our hamstrings and glutes in the sitting position. I have learned to stay calm and think about even stroke pedalling because once you start losing your control you focus on hammering up the hill...