By Christopher Cudworth
It’s one of the tarsnakes of endurance sports that going uphill is both a wonderful challenge and a vexing test of your fitness. Uphill running and riding requires both intelligence and effort. How you approach a hill often defines your success in climbing it.
We’ve all crested a hill only to encounter another than looks twice as bad as the one we’ve just climbed. Often this is an issue of visual perception. When you’re higher than the next stretch of road or trail, your eyes read the entire stretch as part of the next hill. Yet when you hit the flats below and realize they are not actually part of the next climb, you feel both stupid and relieved. Any sort of break between climbing is appreciated.
Of course the very opposite can be true as well. We sometimes read a stretch of road ahead as a “false flat,” and that can be deadly to your pace and energy. Runners even have to beware of the camber of a road. A highly cambered road can throw off your stride and cause cumulative fatigue.
Cyclists meanwhile need to beware of the deadliest of combinations: a false flat combined with a crosswind. Oh, my, gosh can that be exhausting.
So it fits that we all need to have strategies and knowledge to be better climbers. For those that run and ride, there is plenty to learn between sports, and some that does not apply.
For example, in running there is a very limited transfer of downhill motion that can be applied to the very next climb. The great news for cyclists is that you can often “coast” going downhill, allowing your momentum to carry you on those rolling wheels. That’s a merciful truth that saves many a set of tired legs on a given day. Of course you have to hope your fellow riders are also coasting and not blasting away from you on the downhill segments. That happens.
What we can all learn from cycling hills
But when a cyclist approaches a hill bearing momentum from the previous hill, or when you are approaching a climb, there are some subtle dynamics going on between your existing pace and the gearing of your bike. It pays to keep your machine in the highest gear possible going into a hill at first. Momentum will carry you only so far, however. Imagine riding into a hill and not pedaling. At what point would the bike literally roll to a stop on the uphill? That transition zone between the base of the hill and where you might come to a stop is the not-so-imaginary Wall of Truth.
If you’ve ridden for a few years you have a sense of this zone whether you know it or not. If you’re a newbie it likely pays to ride a few hills of different slopes and sizes to learn where the bike slows down on its own. Getting a read on this “slope zone” is key to understanding when you need to shift and how to trick your bike into being your friend as you climb.
Building acceleration at the base of the hill should be done in high cadence and with even pressure on the pedals. Spin into a hill and your legs won’t be shot. But be wise and don’t underestimate your gearing needs. While you can go fast on the flat or initial rise of the hill you should. But not so fast that fatigue is pressuring your legs. You don’t want to fatigue yourself before you get started.
Then as you start to climb you will feel the pressure build with each gearing depending on the grade you are climbing. The trick is to beat that negative pressure with a more responsive gear. Notice that we don’t say “easier” gear. If you are climbing properly the gearing should feel like a balance between easy and productive. Go too easy too early and you’ll find yourself “spun out” and not putting enough energy into the pedals. Your cycling mates will often pull away because they have the balance right.
Of course there are always massive riders like Jan Ullrich of Germany who climbed in big gears. He’d be next to Lance Armstrong who was spinning his way up the hill and Ullrich would be pushing a gear so big that Paul Kerwin and Phil Liggett would be puking in their coffee cups just watching the big man ride. If you’re that kind of rider, good on you. But those types are generally rare. The rest of us need to “balance” our way up the hill by reading the slope zones with our pedaling.
So many hills seems to start gradual and end with a nice little peak at the end. Let’s all thank road engineers for this marvelous bit of dastardly construction. We must suppose that suits the needs of cars and trucks somehow, but it is hell on cyclists and runners.
But you have to deal with reality. That means conserving energy and efficiency for the crucial last phase of a hill.
Usually there are three zones therefore: A slight rise at the bottom followed by the critical middle grade where shifting occurs and the last 10-30% where true effort is required. That’s when you go into low gearing. Ideally if you are strong enough you should stay in the saddle as long as it is efficient. Stand up too soon and your quads and knees can tired out. So you want to visually measure where you might stand up to climb.
Cyclist Floyd Landis was a solid climber who contended that amateur riders should never stand up from the saddle. His contention was apparently that most of us are so inefficient in that position there is no real energy gain. Contemporary rider Geraint Thomas says the same thing in these six tips about climbing.
But it seems like everyone and their mother still stands up in the pedals. And having your weight to shift to each pedals can be a help as you climb. So think about that and use your body to shift from side to side as you climb.
You are no longer “spinning” once you stand up. You are basically running up the hill with your feet on the pedals.
The main difference is that you are also still propelling the weight of your bike, your water bottles and everything else you choose to carry up and down hills. So the sweet little benefit of momentum going into the downhill is now cancelled out as you try to crest a hill. That’s the ugly glory of cycling. The lighter you are going uphill, the more you have the advantage.
Climbing hills as a runner
Doing hills as a runner is basically the same as being a cyclist in the last stages of a climb. You are responsible for your form and carriage and must make best use of your energy to spread it out over the length of the hill.
When taking on any climb, a runner needs to consider form over the course of the hill to adapt of any changes along the way.
1. A long steady climb over a quarter mile does not require much change in form other than responsive arm carriage if the hill steepens toward the end.
2. A climb that increases in grade toward the end must be approached conservatively. That means you maintain form and keep eyes up to read the hill. Then when the climb grade increases, you increase pushoff first. Knee lift is not the issue unless the hill is extreme, and even then it’s more about turnover and maintaining pace than lifting your knees. A skilled runner rises onto the toes when moving up steep grades. That allows you to cut down the amount of plant time with the length of your foot. You are pushing and driving.
3. A really steep grade requires form adaptations. You will naturally feel your head drop and your shoulders hunch. Counter this tendency by actually driving your arms back behind the plane of your body and swinging the wrists up next to your ears. This driving motion is of course in sync with your legs. Again, concentrate on driving your legs forward, not up. It takes a really fit individual to use knee lift alone to climb hills. The rest of us need to use efficiency and a driving form to climb effectively.
You should be feeling your feet flex as you run up a hill. If not, you are likely still striking your heel as you run. Unfortunately that’s not the most effective way to get up a hill. It’s like you’re stopping with every stride, and you can visually pick out the heel strikers on an uphill. Their arms will either drop way down by their sides and the tendency to overstride or understride becomes pronounced as the grade increases.
To cure those tendencies you need to go out to a hill and practice running up. Jog back down at first. Concentrate on the uphill portions, and take note of your form as you hit the steep portions.
See, the force of gravity affects us whether we’re on a flat or a hill. Hills just illustrate the fact a bit more.
That means whether you are a cyclist or a runner, you need to use form and forethought to respond to the demands of a hill. That takes practice. And it hurts. But you will hurt a lot less when it counts if you go out and do some hill work before the Moment of Truth.
It’s best to practice on three types of hills.
1. Long, slow climbs. Ride repetitions of 15-30 to practice form and build strength.
2. Climbs that start slow and increase in grade. Ride reps of 8-10 during a training ride.
3. Climbs that are acute and steep. Each requires pedaling practice to successfully ascend. Do 4-6 of these once a week.
Conditioning naturally occurs when you climb regularly. You build muscles necessary for climbing and form as well. You’ll be surprised the difference it makes.
1. Long, slow climbs are a great way to combine interval training with hill training. Set up a workout at a hill between 200 and 400 meters in length. Run two early repeats at a pace that feels like 70% full effort. Then repeat up to 12-15 times after warming up well on the flat. Jog down the hills at first, preferably in grass if you can until you build up tolerance for hill work.
2. More pronounced climbing must be approached with respect. Warm up properly so that you do not strain your calves or achilles tendons. Plan on initial workouts of 4-6 hill repeats and work up to 10-12 if the climb is difficult.
3. Short, sharp hill workout is more about building form than endurance. Unless you’re the ghost of Walter Peyton, most runners don’t need to hit steep hills for training very often. But you can improve your speed working on steep uphills, so look at that as a way to enhance your repertoire!
In some parts of the world, hills are an unavoidable fact of life. For those of us in Illinois and other flatter portions of the world, hills must be sought in order to be conquered.
But when we travel to southwest Wisconsin to ride, we Flatlanders get a rude wakeup call about our hill-riding capabilities.
With thought and practice however, we can all improve as climbers. And unless we’re in peak shape, we all need to lose a little weight. That always helps on the uphills.