As we have discovered developing climbing ability takes many forms as different types of climb have radically different physiological demands.
In this article I am going to focus on the demands and the necessary training to climb long alpine style climbs well. These climbs can take anything from 20 minutes to 90+ minutes to climb and generally have average gradients of 6-8% but often with much steeper sections of up to 15%.
Let's take a look at 2 examples
Col du Galibier from Valloire - one of the most iconic climbs in the alps.
Length: 18.1km. Average slope: 6.9%. Maximum slope 12%
Colle San Carlo from Morgex - a climb that I rode with 225km in the legs at the Tour de Mont Blanc 😭
Length: 10.5km. Average slope 10%. Maximum slope 15.5%.
Clearly the nature of these climbs mean that you have to condition the body to be able to cope with a high level of effort for extended periods of time. Galibier will take a good club rider around 90 - 120 minutes to complete, San Carlo 50 - 90 minutes. During this time your leg muscles will be under constant tension.
These climbs place a great deal of importance on developing very deep aerobic endurance and long duration muscular or strength endurance.
Whilst absolute strength is important, the levels of force needed to conquer these climbs will be well below a rider's maximum, as long as the gear set up has been chosen wisely. In the alps I always go with a compact 50/34 chainset and these days a 11-32 rear cassette. I like to keep my climbing cadence at a minimum of 70rpm and this gear set up achieves this for me most of the time.
To start building deep aerobic endurance the rides below will be very effective. Alternate between the two to keep changing the stimulus you give the body (and to fit in with the time you have available to train).
Aerobic Endurance Ride: Ride for 2hrs at a relatively easy intensity of 4/10 or 60-70% of your max heart rate or between 55- 75% of your functional threshold power. Aim to keep intensity down on the hills and build duration over time. How long should you go? It depends on your ultimate goal, but if you are aiming to be a good club standard rider you should build these rides to 4hrs with the odd longer 'summer day ride' of 6hrs or more.
Intensive Endurance Ride: Ride for 90 minutes at a moderate, but still mainly aerobic intensity of 6/10 or 70-80% of your max heart rate or between 76-90% of your functional threshold power. The aim for this ride is to accumulate training time in the tempo or zone 3 training zone (an intensity you will spend a lot of your climbing time at). How long should you go? Again it depends on your goal, but 2.5hrs is a decent amount of time to accumulate enough stimulus for most club level riders.
Muscular or strength endurance describes the ability to ride with the muscles in the legs under constant tension. In simple terms, you want to be able to push a fairly hard gear for a long period of time. Specificity of training to match the demands of the climbs.
To start building muscular endurance the rides below will be very effective. ATTENTION WARNING ⚠️ . In a world of lower attention spans and sales and marketing spin, many workouts have in my view, become overly gimmicky. I see so many sessions where intervals seem to change at least every 2 minutes. I understand the need to mix things up to keep workouts interesting, but not at the expense of the effectiveness of the session to match the demands of the training goal, in this case becoming better at riding long steady gradient climbs.
All the sessions below are extremely effective ridden indoors as you are able to keep the muscles constantly under tension. Many third party apps now simulate alpine climbs so these are excellent training tools. If you don't live in an area where there are long climbs then training on a flat road at a climbing cadence is also effective. The key is keeping the leg muscles under tension for extended periods of time.
Extensive Muscular Endurance Rides (Tempo Intervals): Start by riding 3 reps of 10 minute tempo intervals at 6/10 or 70-75% of your max heart rate or 80-88% of your functional threshold power. Recover for 5 minutes between efforts. Progress interval duration every workout. An effective progression might be 3x10, 3x12.5, 2x20. Building time in tempo zone up to 90 minutes with a 3x30 minute workout would be ideal for most good club riders.
Intensive Muscular Endurance Rides (Sweet Spot Intervals): Once you can complete the 3x30 minute tempo set then you can look to build intensity to just below your threshold. Start by riding 2 reps of 20 minute sweet spot intervals at 7/10 or 75-85% of your max heart rate or 88-95% of your functional threshold power. Recover for 5 minutes between efforts. Progress interval duration every workout. An effective progression might be 2x20, 3x15, 2x25. With these workouts if the legs are willing you can build intensity in the last effort to around your threshold. Building time at sweet spot up to 60 minutes with a 3x20 minute workout would be ideal for most good club riders.
Aerobic Capacity Rides (Super Threshold): Once you can ride at sweet spot for 60 minutes your body will already be nicely adapted to the demands of long climbing. In reality, when riding in the alps, you will be riding at tempo and sweet spot for a lot of the time, especially on long rides. Here is my power profile for Tour de Mont Blanc - a total of 5.5hrs in zone 3, tempo.
Once you have completed a solid block of tempo and sweet spot training you can introduce more intensity to your training. I find that efforts just above threshold are very effective at further improving muscular endurance and raising aerobic capacity.
Start by riding 4 reps of 3 minute super threshold intervals at 8/10 or greater than 90% of your max heart rate or 100-110% of your functional threshold power. Recover for 5 minutes between efforts. Progress interval duration once you can deliver totally consistent repetitions. Working above threshold is demanding so the repetition of workouts can be useful both physically and also for improving confidence and mental resolve. Once ready, progress interval duration to a maximum of 10 minutes with total effort time of 40 minutes with a 4x10 minute session.
How to combine the training: We have described a series of workouts that will help you become much better at long climbing. The initial focus should be time in the saddle with endurance rides combined with tempo intervals. Aim to ride 2 endurance rides and 3 tempo rides per week if time allows. This phase of training should last around 6 weeks. 3 back to back days are good for building fatigue resistance and improved recoverability.
When you are ready you can introduce the sweet spot rides.
What we love about sweet spot training is that it optimally balances intensity and duration making it a go to choice for time crunched riders looking to gain all the aerobic and muscular endurance adaptions without causing too much fatigue.
Sweet spot training is the most effective training intensity for all of the aerobic adaptions we are seeking to improve long climbing ability. Aim to ride 2 endurance rides, 2 sweet spot rides and 1 tempo ride per week if time allows. This phase of training should last around 6 weeks. 3 back to back days are good for building fatigue resistance and improved recoverability. If you are riding endurance at the weekends then a Tuesday sweet spot, Wednesday Tempo and Thursday sweet spot sequence will be effective.
When you are ready you can introduce the aerobic capacity rides.
Aim to ride 2 endurance rides, 2 aerobic capacity rides and 1 sweet spot ride per week if time allows. This phase of training should only last for around 8 weeks. Make sure that you are fresh for the harder rides in this block. 2 back to back days are good with the first being an aerobic capacity ride followed by a sweet spot ride, then a rest day before the next aerobic capacity ride, with endurance at the weekend.
The training as outlined above will make all of you much more accomplished on the long climbs. It will also make you much faster on rolling roads and improve your sportive times significantly. The training is not sexy. It has no gimmicks. It is highly effective.
And the best news........none of it involves flogging yourself with super hard anaerobic workouts 😃. A very limited block of anaerobic training at the end of this process might yield some additional aerobic benefits, but it is not an essential component of the training.
This turned out to be a much longer piece than I originally intended so if you have read to hear then thank you! I firmly believe that anyone can develop into a good long range climber if they focus on maintaining a healthy body composition and are willing to commit the time to the right type of training.
Happy training and strong climbing everyone!
Rob Wakefield / Founder & Coach
firstname.lastname@example.org / 07779136840