Don’t Overdo the Hills – The Value of Training on Flat Terrain
Many cyclists rightly observe that riding hills is more challenging than riding flats and then wrongly interpret that to mean they should ride hills on the majority of their rides. Riding hills can be a useful part of a road, MTB, crit or century training plan, but not to the exclusion of flats. In fact, one or two days per week in hills is plenty, even for riders specifically preparing for hilly events. More is detrimental. Several times we’ve seen huge improvements in fitness when riders shifted their training grounds from mostly hills to mostly flat with occasional hills, even with no change in training volume.
Flat roads do not need to be pancake flat. They just need to be close enough that you can spin 90 rpm in your target heart rate zone or at your target power very consistently. What if you live somewhere very hilly and flat roads are hard to come by? You can find some sort of flat stretch of road even in hilly country. If there is only one flat road in your neighborhood, ride it repeatedly and practice your u-turns at either end. If you get bored with that road, ride a trainer, or drive somewhere flatter to train frequently.
What if you live somewhere with no hills at all and you are preparing for a hilly race? Several times I attended the mountainous Tour of the Gila stage race in Silver City, New Mexico. I noticed that the riders from the flat lands of Texas and Florida had no particular problem with the up hills. In fact, some of them led over the tops of some very big climbs. Some of the flat-landers did however have trouble keeping their bikes on the road on the descents. So, if you are planning to race in hilly country, you can develop the needed fitness on flat roads, but at some point you need to practice descending on hills about as steep, if not as long, as the ones you’ll find in your events.
It’s not exactly clear why riding flats is so important: It might be that continuous pedaling at a steady cadence, which is often impossible on hills, is important to fitness. It’s possible that training on the flat is more efficient since routes with up hills inevitably include down hills. It may be that riding the flats challenges the rider to develop a more complete pedal stroke since the hill isn’t “pushing back” against the bike so much. In any case, riding flats several days per week and hills only once or twice seems to lead to bigger fitness gains than focusing on hills.