Climbing on a mountain bike is hard for everyone. Your bike is heavy, your suspension and squishy tires steal power from your legs and your wide handlebars are better suited to working the front end through corners and over rocks than going uphill.
The key to climbing better on your mountain bike, no matter your fitness level or your body type, is practice. If you always try to blast uphill as fast as you can, you may improve your speed somewhat, but to develop good climbing technique, you will need to back off and go a pace you can sustain. Speed will come later.
And, think positive. Most long climbs end with a fun descent!
Long, sustained climbs are usually not very technical and take place on fire roads, paved roads or single track trails. Grades may be from barely noticeable to a difficult 12 percent or more for at least a quarter mile. In mountainous areas, it’s not uncommon to find grinders over 3 miles long at 6-14 percent, with sections much steeper.
Climbing long, sustained hills on a mountain bike isn’t much different than on a road bike except the road may be bumpier. Relaxing, finding your rhythm, pacing yourself and preparing yourself mentally will help you not only climb faster, but might even allow you to enjoy the experience.
Accept the climb. You’re outside and on a mountain bike. You are hopefully already having a good day! Embrace the climb. Hating climbing won’t help, and will actually make you slower. Avoid being the one in your group complaining about the hills.
Some mountain bikes are much better suited to climbing than others. Generally, hardtails and trail bikes with short travel full suspensions climb better than long-travel bikes regardless of wheel size. If you have bike with 6” of travel or more, long hills will probably require some extra patience, but you will more than make up for it on the way down!
Breathe and relax. If you’re stiff, you’ll burn more energy than you need to, and you won’t react well to sudden changes such as bumps or holes. Start from the top of your forehead and work down. Make sure you’re not frowning, relax your eyebrows and your jaw by exhaling. Relax your neck, your shoulders, your elbows, wrists and fingers. Wiggle your fingers a little to symbolize releasing the tension.
Your actual breathing should be deep and rhythmic with full exhalations. This will help you relax as well as lower your heart rate.
Body position: stay seated. If you have one, raise your dropper post to the high setting. Lock out your suspension if you can. Your body position should be neutral and comfortable, with your shoulders wide and chest open for easier breathing. Keep your head up, eyes looking where you want to go, relax your shoulders and bend your elbows slightly. Your wrists should be flat, to be in line with your forearms. Your grip should be loose. If the trail or road is not bumpy, rest your thumb on top of the grip to save a little more energy.
Stay seated to conserve energy as much as you can. Keep your upper body quiet and relaxed. As the pitch steepens or you lose traction, you may need to lean forward to put more weight over the front wheel. For a quick steep rise with plenty of traction, stand and pedal hard to give yourself a little power. For a technical rise or where traction is poor, you may need to “hover” slightly over your saddle while leaning forward. Otherwise you may spin out your rear tire if you apply too much power. Pulling back on the bars with each pedal stroke increases traction even a little more.
If it’s a very long climb you may need to give your rear a break from the saddle and vary the muscles you’re using. It’s OK to pedal standing up for a while on a very steep part. Or shift gears one or two harder and stand. Stay smooth and keep your momentum and lower your cadence to keep your heart rate down. Standing uses more energy than riding seated, so keep the standing breaks short.
Find your rhythm for efficiency. You may think that mashing a big gear at a cadence of 40 to 50 will make you go faster. Really it will only wear you out. Pick an easy gear and spin as high a cadence as you can with smoothness and power. Aim for 70 rpm or higher, ideally 90, as long as you can pedal smoothly. If you’re bouncing on your saddle or on the suspension, you’ll be wasting energy you’d rather see converted into forward motion.
Pace yourself. Your pace during a fun ride with friends will probably be different than if you’re racing, but either way you should feel not completely spent at the top. Plan to go slower early on in the climb, and in an easy gear. If you’re fresh as a daisy at the top, go a little harder next time, or push your pace as you get closer to the crest. Conversely, if you’re completely toast halfway up, go easier at the start next time. Use your breathing or heart rate to help you judge your effort.
On a road or trail you’re familiar with, choose some markers such as rock formations, tree stumps, signs or whatever at regular intervals to help you tick off progress. Roadies often use mile markers. On a MTB, you get to be creative. For a three mile climb, as an example, you may want to break it down into six roughly half mile segments.
A good mental exercise is to think of pedaling circles, and imagine a winch at the front of your bike. Toss the imaginary hook and cable uphill to a tree or post, and visualize the winch pulling you up. When you get close to that tree, imagine tossing the hook to another tree.
If you’re out for a leisurely ride or are working on improving your fitness, feel free to stop at the top or at a particularly scenic place on the way up to enjoy the view. Otherwise, try to maintain your pace to get your body accustomed to longer duration efforts.
Eat and drink! A long, sustained hill may be a good opportunity to refuel yourself, since your hands are less busy. Catch up on plain water especially if it’s hot out. If you’re racing, grab some food in small bites. Liquid nutrition or chews that you can let dissolve in your mouth may be best for climbs, since these are less likely to interfere with breathing and make your heart rate spike. Don’t overdo the food, however. Eating too much at once (more than 100 calories at a time, or more than 200-300 calories per hour, depending on the person) may cause stomach issues just as it would during any intense activity.
In summary, do the best you can. Hills are difficult on any bike. Eventually, with training and practice, you’ll go faster up long, sustained hills on your mountain bike. It will always be hard, your speed will just be faster. Enjoy your improvements and these hills may even become a fun way to get to the downhill part.
Coach Elaine Bothe is a Level 2 IMBA Certified Instructor and works with all levels of mountain bikers and cyclocross racers.