Training Focus Article 4 - Climbing 101 - Pacing - Bringing it all together

As we have discovered over the preceding three articles, improving climbing ability involves optimising your body composition and also training in very specific ways. Training for 'Long Alpine Climbs'involves developing deep aerobic endurance as well as long duration muscular endurance. On the other hand 'Short Punchy Climbs' like those that feature in the classics demand a very high absolute power and the ability to produce power at maximum aerobic capacity.

To develop as an 'all round climber' you need to train all of your energy systems and improve your muscular skeletal system as well. We have developed a comprehensive 9 week "On Bike" Hill Climbing, Strength Building Training Plan that is ideal to complete over the winter. The plan will lay the foundations to improve your climbing strength and will make you a stronger and more dynamic climber.

So far we have explained how you improve your body composition and work hard at your training to improve as a climber. Both of these involve hard work and discipline.

What if I also offered you a totally free way of improving that involved only using your brain!

Clearly, increasing your power and/or losing weight will significantly improve your climbing ability. Losing weight is easier than increasing power but it has a finite payoff - i.e you lose so much weight that it negatively impacts the production of power.

The Climb for Free System - I first leant this system from my old Coach and mentor Tony Williams at Flamme Rouge - it is so logical but so widely ignored!

First find a local climb that is around 6 minutes long - a good Strava segment is useful as you will easily be able to see your average speed and time taken.

Now go out and try and ride up the climb as fast as you possibly can. Get back home, upload the ride and checkout the power or speed curve of the all out effort.

As he hits the climb his initial enthusiasm sees power increase to about 420w before the inevitable oxygen deficit kicks in at around 30 seconds and power falls off a cliff. Lactate is now accumulating at an ever increasing rate and power falls further and heart rate goes up. A brief rally into the finish and he is spent - matches burnt.

Next look at the average power or speed that you managed on your 'all out effort' - In this example the average power was 315w. Have a day of rest and go out to the same hill thinking only about one number - the average power or speed that you managed in your 'all out effort'. Ride for the first 1 min at 95% of your average power or speed - in our example 299w. After the first 1 min increase speed or power to your average from the all out effort for the remaining 5 mins - in our example 315w. Do not go above this figure. Finish the climb and take stock of how you feel. You won't be breathing as heavily as at the end of your first 'all out' attempt, your heart rate will be much lower and you won't have that horrible stinging in your legs. You will most likely feel that you could have ridden it a lot faster - and you can!

Go home, upload the data and look in amazement at how close your time is to your all out effort. So close but for what seems like half the effort. It's a free lunch.

A couple of days later go out and ride the same hill for the third time. Now armed with your new found wisdom you can set a new record for the climb. How?

Ride the first two thirds of the climb at your average power or speed - in our example this is 315w for 4 mins. We know we can do this because we rode the last 5 mins of our second attempt at this power. For the last third of the climb increase power or speed to a level that you think you can hold for 2 mins - in our example that might be somewhere near 375w, but pace an effort that will get you to the top.

If you have ridden the first 4 mins at 315w and the last 2 mins at 375w you will have set a new PB with an average power of 335w, a 6.5% increase in average power.

As you get more fit and more confident in this new found approach then start to break the climbs down into thirds or quarters aiming to be building speed or power over each segment, always finishing at your fastest. You won't be dropping your mates at the beginning of any climbs but you will be powering past them very quickly and for far less physiological cost.

The only training we have to do is training is with our minds - it's a mental strategy for improvement. We haven't increased our power massively, we have just maximised what we have already. Good cycling is all about economy of effort - blowing your lid off at the foot of a climb is neither economical or good.

Armed with this new strategy you are now much more more efficient and that means less energy expended and more left in the tank for the rest of your ride. On a long sportive this could be the difference between a Gold medal or a DNF.

We are not all built like Fausto Coppi who could glide up a mountain in a seemingly effortless dance, but we can all maximise what we have at our disposal. Climbing is not just about power and weight - it's as much to do with the mind and executing a proven strategy.

Even on the short punchy climbs pacing plays a vital role. You must try and understand your capabilities and ride to maximise what you have in your engine. I know that I can power up a short 30 second climb at full gas, but for more than 30 seconds I have to measure my effort. In racing, having the ability to punch over the top of a short climb and keep the hammer down is a very useful ability. With a power meter pacing becomes easy. In Training Peaks and other software you can examine your power curve, understand what mean maximal power outputs you have recently achieved, and use these to pace your efforts.

Would you like:

  • More muscular strength?
  • Improved neuromuscular power and resistance to fatigue?
  • Improved muscular endurance?
  • More snap and punch on those short steep climbs?
  • A higher functional threshold power?

Rob Wakefield / Founder & Coach / 07779136840