Hill climbs can become a bit like scaling, Mount Everest if you don’t know the right technique or have the right kind of training.
What are hill climb intervals and how can they help improve my hill climbs?
Hill climb intervals are a set of exercises designed to improve a cyclist’s ability to cycle uphill. It doesn’t only train all three types of muscle fibres (slow-twitch, fast-twitch, and super-fast twitch). Training in intervals also increases the power you can maintain in an hour of cycling, referred to as Functional Threshold Power, or FTP.
By training in shorter or interval sessions, you’re training your body to cycle at higher levels of power than what you can normally maintain for long hours. Hill climb intervals offer an increase in resistance and therefore can increase muscular strength and improve aerobic capacity. Equipped with the right technique, this method of training also boosts your climbing ability, well beyond your usual lactate threshold.
How to start hill climb intervals:
- Always start with warming up for about 15 minutes.
- Don’t be afraid to use low gears in starting steep sections.
- Know your Mt. Everest – know the gradient (including the maximum), length, and estimated time needed to scale the hill.
- Stay seated on the saddle as much as possible throughout the ride. It is good practice for beginner hill climbers to break the habit of standing on the pedals as soon as the track goes uphill.
- Standing on pedals at the foot of the hill is less efficient, uses 10% more of your energy, increases the heart rate by 5-10%, and is generally less aerodynamic. It also requires a greater effort to increase in power in small unsustainable bursts by activating the fast-twitch muscle fibres. When these type of muscle fibres are lactic-filled and exhausted, the short term increase in power wanes and you’ll find yourself tiring too quickly.
- Reserve standing on pedals only in areas with greater gradients, say above 10%. A good tip is to shift into a bigger gear before jumping out of the saddle. Also, if you’re interval training in a group, cycling etiquette requires you to wave a hand backwards to signal to the rider behind you that you’ll be standing up and might be slowing down a bit while going uphill. That way there will be no sudden “samurai swords” to contend with.
- While maintaining the required speed, try to keep your breathing at a steady, sustainable pace.
- Try maintaining a higher than normal cadence while climbing. An average of 75 – 80 is sustainable and can offer you a bit of wiggle room should the gradient increase. Keep effort to about 90-95% of your maximum, so you can still have room to go full on if needed.
Basic Hill Climb Interval Workouts:
1. Accelerations: Start with a sustainable pace until about 200-300 metres from the hill’s summit. Accelerate while remaining seated on the saddle until you’ve just passed the top. Just before and after passing the summit, keep focused in increasing cadence and shifting gears up while increasing speed. Then recover with easy spinning for about five minutes. Repeat.
2. Over-Unders: For the first 2 minutes, cycle “under”, utilising only about 86-90% maximal power or 92-94% maximal heart rate while maintaining a smooth and steady pace. Then for one minute, accelerate “over” to about 95-100% and 95-97% of your maximal sustainable pace for power and heart rate respectively.
Beginner hill climbers: 4 accelerations
Intermediate riders: 2 sets of 4 accelerations; recovery time of 10 minutes easy spinning between sets
Experienced and advanced cyclists: 2 sets of 6 accelerations, recovery time of 8-10 minutes in between sets
Repeat once or twice, getting a total of 6 or 9 minutes with 2-3 sets of “unders” for 2 minutes each and 2-4 sets of “overs” for a minute each.
- Beginners hill climbers and Intermediate riders: – 3 sets of 6 minute intervals; recovery time of 6 minutes easy spinning between sets
- Experienced and advanced cyclists: 1-2 sets of 9 minute intervals; recovery time 5 minutes in between sets
By shifting back and forth from “under” a steady pace to accelerations “over” with greater intensity, this interval training helps your body develop better power control even at lactate threshold limits.
3. Hill Sprints: For a flat road leading to a short, steep hill, cycle steadily at 25 to 35 kph. Before reaching the point where it goes uphill, position hands in the drop bars, jump out of the saddle and sprint for 25-50 metres. Sprint continuously for about 10 seconds. Leave 5 minutes of easy spinning for recovery in between sprints.
- Beginners hill climbers: – 3 sets of 4 hill sprints; recovery time of 5 minutes easy spinning between sprint sets
- Intermediate riders: 2 sets of 3 hill sprints; recovery time of 10 minutes between sprint sets
- Experienced and advanced cyclists: 2 sets of 5 hill sprints, with 4 minutes between sprints
Generally, repetition of sets (often called Climbing Repeats) like other workouts for lactate threshold builds intensity through time.
As you gain more experience through training, you can shift from shorter to longer intervals and increase frequency from twice to three times a week. Keep recovery periods in between sets to about half the amount of the time needed per interval.
With enough endurance and training experience, you can even go for a pyramid interval programme or the High Performance Interval Training by Dr. Gordon Wright.
Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned climber, always remember to set reasonable training goals. Cool down after each full session of hill climb intervals, and go on recovery rides in between training days.
Cycling uphill requires mental focus and physical stamina. With the right guidance and interval training, you’ll soon be scaling greater heights – climbing and conquering your own version of Mt. Everest – on a bike of course!
What bicycle clothing works best for hill climbing?
In general the same as for most other cycling - with some nuances.
- Light weight - as you don't want to drag extra weight up the hills - so lighter weight jackets and socksfrom the newer lighter technical fabrics such as Meryl skinlife
- Stay with the normal skin fit knicks, bibs and capri - avoiding baggy/loose shorts that are going to get caught up on the seat or require extra standing height. Some find the more cut away racing cut chamois slightly easier due to the changed and more forward position when climbing.
- Consider using chamois cream - the changing position and shifting weight causes additional friction and in some different places.
- If you are hill climbing in the high country we suggest having access to a light weight jacket and sunscreen! Conditions are very changeable and we know many that have been suffered significant discomfort from unexpected conditions at both ends of the spectrum.