How to become a better climber
Whether you’re a flatlands specialist, a mountain goat or something in between, there’s a fair chance you’d like to be a little stronger when it comes to climbing. And while there’s no quick fix, there are certainly things you can do to make yourself that little bit more competitive when the road heads up. Helen Kelly from Kelly Cycle Coaching has this advice.
Having coached cyclists for the past 15-20 years, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked “how can I climb faster?”. For those embarking on the Tour of Bright, the 3 Peaks Challenge, the National Road Championships in Buningyong and many other events that pit you against gravity, climbing faster would definitely be in your thoughts over the coming months.
So let’s look at what things can help you become a stronger and faster climber.
Are your glutes working and are they strong enough?
As a cyclist, having glute strength should be one of your major focuses. To ride well, and climb well, you need gluteal strength. Your glutes, along with your quads are large strong muscles that provide the majority of power to the pedals.
It is very common for riders to not use their glutes enough or at all. Those who can’t activate their glutes at all ride predominantly with their quads and hamstrings and are missing out on a massive amount of power that could be used for each pedal stroke. You can pick riders who don’t use their glutes as they have over-developed quads and hamstrings and under-developed glutes.
Your glutes can shut down from trauma such as crash or an injury. The body immediately goes into protection mode and locks the area down to minimise the pain. During this time the body finds other ways to function and this new way of riding becomes the “norm”. After the body heals, the glutes can remain inactive, unless a conscious effort is made to learn to use them again.
Without even knowing it, I had this problem. My left glute shut down after a crash. If I tried to contract it, only my hamstring contracted. A physio ‘screening’ to assess what was and wasn’t working picked up this problem. To make up for this lazy left glute, other muscles had taken over which left me tight and sore in several other areas.
It is a very common problem and one that cyclists at all levels experience. It is easily overcome though with a series of glute activation exercises to learn how to contract your glute properly again, followed by exercises to get them strong and working effectively.
Most riders will need assistance from a physio to learn to activate their glutes again. It is a matter of teaching the rider to re-establish the neural pathways that have been shut down. It can take up to three weeks for a rider to learn to do this (I’m speaking here from personal experience).
One of way of seeing if your glutes are working independently of your hamstrings is to lie on the floor with your foot against a Swiss ball with the ball against a wall, with your leg slightly bent. The other leg lies on the floor alongside the Swiss ball.
Gently push against the Swiss ball and feel if your glutes are contracting without your hamstring being used. You will need to put one hand on your hamstring and the other under your butt and feel for the contraction.
There are many other exercises a physio uses to assess your level of glute activation and teach you to use them better. Quite simply, a physio screening to improve your glute activation and strength has better power consequences than buying a set of Zipp 404s.
Do you have good core stability?
We see many cyclists who ride hard, training each weekend for hours and hours but have significant power loss due to a weak core. By weak core we are referring to a lack of functional stability through the thoracic and abdominal region.
This lack of pelvic and hip control and stability directly affects the transfer of power through the pedals. A big power gain could be had by strengthening your core and improving your stability so you aren’t losing power with every pedal stroke.
After an hour or two of riding, and especially climbing, we see many athletes complain of lower back soreness/tightness and lower back fatigue. When I started racing I was one of these athletes and after every hilly ride, complained of my back so I nicknamed the problem “climbers back”!
The answer was to buy a Swiss ball and a gym mat and strengthen my core muscles. Often the larger muscles such as the obliques and abs are strong, but it is the smaller stabilising muscles which need some work. The exercises prescribed were all designed to allow you to sit on the bike with more stability and to transfer more power into the pedals.
To be honest, the improvement I felt in my overall strength wasn’t noticeable until I stopped doing the core exercises! Then the lower back pain/tightness kicked in and I realised how important these floor exercises were to my overall strength and ability to maintain stability on the bike.
For our cyclists, we suggest they start by following the exercises here before progressing to harder exercises, based on their specific stability weaknesses. An athlete needs a good level of stability before progressing to weights.
Do you practice riding in and out of the seat and riding at different speeds?
A cyclist should practise riding in the seat and also out of the seat. These two positions use different muscles and standing can help temporarily rest and stretch the muscles used more in a sitting position.
Riding out of the seat is often hard for new cyclists, as the strength through their hips is underdeveloped, as is their knowledge of how to centre their weight over the bike. By this, we mean not leaning over the front wheel when you are out of the seat, as this will slow you down.
As a rule of thumb, the steeper the climb, the further back you need to put your weight by lifting your chest, to remain centred over the bike. On wet days, this will stop your front wheel slipping.
You should try to avoid settling into a climb and always climbing at a steady pace, especially if you race. You need to train your body to climb at a steady pace and also to surge when you climb. By surging or varying the speed during a climb, you will teach yourself to go with attacks or attack yourself. So try not to only climb at the one pace all the time.
Can you torque the bike out of the seat?
To accelerate your bike up a climb or put down extra power to get through a steep hairpin on a climb, you need to learn how to torque your bike when out of the seat. The idea is that your body remains still (to minimise energy loss) but you torque/angle the bike beneath you to improve your ability to accelerate or put power through the pedals.
Riders who keep the bike completely still, typically need to rock their body over the bike when they try to accelerate, which is much more energy-sapping.
When you torque the bike, your front wheel should not snake/zig zag up the climb — it remains heading in a straight line. To test if you can do this yourself, try to find a climb with a white line on the edge of the road and keep both wheels on the white line, as you lean/torque the bike from side to side in sync with your pedal stroke.
It almost feels like you are pushing the bike from side to side with pressure felt through the palms of your hands and your wrists moving to allow you to lean the bike from side to side. As your left leg straightens, you push the bike away from you (angled to the right) and vice versa. Be aware of your body not leaning over the front wheel.
Riders who torque the bike fluidly look like they are ‘dancing on the pedals’.
Cassette choice and crank choice
The older readers amongst us will remember the different riding styles demonstrated in the Tour de France between the big German, Jan Ulrich (the grinder) and the American, Lance Armstrong (the spinner). There is certainly a lot to discuss and take away from these two different climbing styles.
Grinding or climbing at a low cadence (let’s say below 70-80RPM) puts your muscles in a contraction for a longer period of time, compared to climbing at a cadence of 90-100RPM. When your cadence is higher, your muscles don’t contract for as long during each pedal stroke and thus don’t get as tired. In very simple terms, the lower the cadence, the longer the muscle is put under load and the faster it fatigues.
Each rider has his/her ideal climbing cadence. This cadence can, however, be changed and often increased, with training. We often see cyclists climbing at 60RPM all day and wonder why their legs feel horrendous. We definitely prescribe training at a lower cadence to build strength but learning to climb at a higher cadence gives you the ability to climb longer, with more pedal efficiency and less muscle fatigue.
Depending on the terrain, using compact cranks (such as a 50 x 34 combination) and cassettes with a 25, 27 or even 29 cog can help you find a comfortable cadence without grinding it out on every climb. It largely depends on the weight of the rider. Heavier riders will typically need small gears (i.e. a larger cog) to achieve the same cadence as a light mountain goat climber.
Power to weight ratios
Improving overall power is the crux of why many of us ride/train. The fact is, most of us who ride want to become faster. It is the competitive streak in us. So improving power relates to a combination of:
– doing a strength workload (for example, by doing specific climbing reps over-geared and getting strength in the gym)
– doing threshold efforts and above threshold efforts to improve your threshold
– working on your pedalling efficiency
– improving your stability and core strength
– having a structured training program that encompasses blocks of periodised training load combined with having adequate rest to allow for adaptation.
What makes cycling complex is that every single person is different. What works for cyclist A may not work well for cyclist B due to varying backgrounds in sport, prior injuries, current strengths, current core and stability differences, pedal technique, ability to cope with training load, personal commitments, amount of rest and recovery needed and so on.
Let’s say that as a cyclist you are training constructively and are improving your power. The other side of the equation to assess is your ideal race/climbing weight.
We know this can be a sensitive topic, but we are frequently amused to see cyclists hunting for the lightest carbon bike with carbon wheels to minimise the weight of their ‘cycling machine’ … when they are 15-20kg overweight.
Riding is a great way to trim down but if your food choices are poor or you eat too much, then you still may find yourself carrying that muffin top around. In a nutshell, finding the ideal body weight will make a massive difference when you try to conquer gravity. We never suggest dieting, but we do advocate healthy eating habits with a good variety of food.
Often, the food choices you make are good, but the quantity is too much for what you need on a daily basis. So by looking at your portion sizes (if needed) you can take care of those extra few kilograms that you are carrying up every climb.
So what’s your ideal body weight? It is so individual. We always say that a rider should focus on functional body weight and try to minimise excessive non-functional body mass. We never look at BMI calculations or skinfolds.
Don’t smash yourself on every ride
To climb faster, you can’t ride hard every day. You will eventually plateau and slowly see a decline in your ability to ride fast. If you want to become faster, then give yourself harder and easier days. There is some truth to the motto of having to sometimes “ride slower” to get faster.
We hope the above tips help your ambitions to become stronger and faster. Good luck and happy pedalling!