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Hey Coach, How Can I Climb Faster?

The fastest climbers may not always be the fastest Granfondo riders or the winningest racers, but climbing speed is an honest measure of fitness. You don’t make a good time on a long climb by sucking wheels or otherwise taking advantage of other riders. You have to do the work yourself, and speed up the local climb brings bragging rights.
So, how can you shave seconds, or minutes, on your local test climb or the timed climb in your next Fondo? I’m sure you’ve heard that climbing speed is all about power to weight ratio, suggesting that anyone should be able to improve climbing by increasing power or decreasing weight. Some people mostly need to lose weight and others to increase power, though, and riders often choose the wrong one to work on. (Pacing is also important and we’ll return to that later.)

Which is it?

Before you embark on a project to increase your sustained power or decrease your weight, determine which one or both of these is actually holding you back. How? Simple: On a long flat road, if you can ride side by side with the riders you want to match on the hills but you fall back on the climbs, you are overweight. If you can’t ride side by side with the riders you want to stick with when they are riding hard but steady and you can’t match them on the climb, you lack power and may be overweight as well. (If you can’t keep up on the flat but can on the climbs, you are already a climber and should go read another article).
The majority of riders are heavier than would be ideal for climbing, so for most losing weight is going to be an important part of the quest for climbing speed. Losing weight is very challenging though, so it’s tempting to try to balance the equation completely by training to increase power. Many riders mistakenly take that route. If you are overweight for climbing and you train really, really well, you may improve, but you’ll still be dropped by other riders that are lighter but train as well as you do. If you are 20 pounds  (9 kg) overweight, you’ll have to generate as much power as an appropriately light rider on a 36-pound (16 kg) bike to match his speed up hill. If he is well trained, it can’t be done.

How to Lose Weight

There is no one way for all riders to lose weight. One way that won’t work for anyone is exclusively riding more without paying attention to eating. You can eat in a few minutes as many calories as you burn in an hour of riding, so diet has to be part of any weight loss plan. I don’t have room in this article to cover all the approaches to weight loss that may be effective for any given rider, so I’ll just list a few rules that help the majority of riders and skip the less common issues:

  1. Cut out all sweets and sugar except while you are actually exercising. When you are riding, sugar is fuel. You can burn it as fast as you can absorb it. It won’t turn to fat. When you are not exercising, your body can’t do anything useful with sugar as quickly as it can be absorbed, so your body stores sugar as fat.
  2. Eat your veggies. The scientists say 5-9 servings per day and they are right. Veggies are packed with nutrients but have very few calories compared to meats and starches. They can fill your belly with fewer calories so you can comfortably eat less. It’s rare to see a really lean rider who doesn’t eat veggies.
  3. Eat plenty while you ride, especially in the final hour. Dieting while riding might sound helpful, but it makes you hungrier after the ride. Most riders who try to diet on the bike will more than make up for any caloric deficit by eating more in the hours after they get home and have access to food again.
  4. Be patient. Turn your ideas about healthy eating into habits. Most riders can’t realistically lose more than 1 pound per week long-term without either losing energy for training or getting so hungry that they pig out and undo any weight loss they have accomplished.
  5. (For a handout of additional tips, please email me at [email protected])

If You Need More Power

Another common error among riders comes from noticing what is happening just before they get dropped. They always get dropped while riding as hard as possible, so they mistakenly think that they need to do super hard intervals to be able to ride harder. It is possible to develop the ability to keep the heart rate well above the LT heart rate for most of an hour, but the power produced will never be much above lactate threshold power for more than few minutes. Unless the climbs on which you want to excel are only a few minutes long, it the power produced below lactate threshold (below the intensity that brings on heavy breathing) that will get you over them, and in fact, unless the climb is at the very end of the ride, overall average speed is likely to be higher if one rides the short hills aerobically or close to it.
Here are a few exercises that will help you increase power for fighting wind or climbing, assuming you have developed adequate endurance to complete your Fondo at a comfortably enthusiastic pace. (If not, work on steady paced endurance riding first).

  1. Hilly Tempo Intervals: After an easy warm up of at least 20 minutes, do three climbing intervals of 10-20 minutes with five-minute rests in between. For each interval, increase effort to a level just below the effort that makes you breath too hard to chat (zone 3, about 92-96% of FTP or LT heart rate if you are using a monitor). Do these intervals on a hill you can spin up or close to it in this zone. That way you’ll be practicing spinning up hills. After the third interval, spin home easily. Don’t turn this into a long ride. Do this a maximum of twice per week, with all other rides at an endurance pace (Zone 2, below 80% of maximum heart rate or 90% of FTP)
  2. Endurance Push Ride: After an easy warm up of at least 20 minutes, pedal at about 70 rpm until the cool down. Keep the whole ride in the Endurance Zone.
  3. Big Gear Little Gear (For very experienced riders with no knee problems!!) After an easy warm up of at least 20 minutes, pick gears that make your cadence about 50 rpm and about 90 rpm on a flat road, and keep switching back and forth between those two gears for the rest of the ride. That means on an uphill, your cadence may well be below 50 rpm. This is  a leg breaker. Do this a maximum of one day per week.
  4. Avoid excessive hills: This may seem counterintuitive, but riders who ride exclusively in the hills don’t tend to climb as well as those who mix it up, riding flats on at least 2/3 of ride days, and hills on 1/3 or less. This probably has to do with the effect of keeping one’s legs permanently fatigued rather than letting them recover between hard rides.

Pacing

No matter how light or aerobically powerful you are, you won’t climb fast later in a Fondo if you have spent your hill-climbing matches before the climbs, nor if you attack the climb and blow up early. To make the best time in a GranFondo (or one of the shorter versions if you are not super-fit), you’ll want to do most of the ride at a pace at which you can easily chat or even orate, getting close to LT only on the steeper hills. Doing that saves your juice for when you need it to make quick work of a hill or the final miles of your event.

In Conclusion

Most riders can improve their climbing by getting lighter, training for power and smoothing out their event pace, but one or two of these are likely to be much more important than the other(s). If you want to climb faster, work on all three, but put most of the emphasis on the one that is most likely to pay off.

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