Tips for surviving hill training.

Climbing uphill on a bike used to be my idea of hell. I used to watch the Tour de France and think “but why on earth would anyone want to ride up those mountains?”.

For most of us, that never changes. But over the past nine months since we began training for Ironman, hill training has become an addictive torture. The benefits of uphill cycling are massive; I think Mirinda Carfrae is quoted as responding to the question of how beginner triathletes can get faster on their bikes, with the phrase “point your bike up the closest hill”. Riding uphill, despite being torturous, is great for strength and endurance. And that is going to make you a stronger cyclist.

Now, I’m certainly no mountain goat. Climbing doesn’t come naturally, and I struggle to maintain a pace anywhere near the boys when we ride hills (or ever, for that matter). But, I think my cycling has benefited most from our commitment to regular climbing, so I thought I would share my hill training survival tips for beginner triathletes and cyclists:

1) Small chain ring. Small gear. Sit down. Settle In. Unless the situation is extreme, I find it best to stay in the saddle for as long as possible to conserve energy (although this isn’t always true, as sometimes, in desperation, I need to utilise my entire bodyweight, plus gravity, to stamp down on those pedals to get to the top. And this means getting up. But generally, for long, more sympathetic gradients, take a seat and admire the scenery).

2) Find a rhythm and meditate on it. This is kooksville-to-the-extreme, but on some climbs, I count to eight as I pedal. Over and over and over and over and over and over… Like a ticking clock, your legs will get lost in the momentum and you will stop noticing that you’re trying. Although your legs, and your lungs, will still be hurting.

3) Relax. Place your hands lightly on the top of your handlebars. I used to grip on to the hoods for dear life, thinking that this white-knuckle hold was strong, and made climbing easier. But if you relax your upper body (which is somewhat counter-intuitive) and release your grip, it focuses all of your energy to your legs. And it makes the whole thing a bit less painful and more pseudo-relaxing.

4) Don’t go into the red. Ever. I get a bit over-enthusiastic sometimes, and the start of a climb is no different. But if you fly out of the traps to fast, or try to prove yourself by overtaking a 70 year old woman on a 1962 Campagnolo as fast as you can, just to show her how much of a cycling boss you are, you’re going to pay for it later. So stay out of the red. And by red I mean, don’t smash yourself really hard when you still have 10km or 15 switchbacks or 958m to go. I have learnt this one by experience. And the 70 year old soon came flying past me…

5) Prepare to meet yourself. You will come face-to-face with the real you. And the real you is the one that had the extra (five) mini Mars Bars. The real you is the one who skipped cycling training through Christmas and New Year. The real you is the one that snoozed the alarm at 4:30am and stayed in bed instead of training. It’s the real you that has to haul your body and your bike up the hill. And I curse the real me on regular occasions when I’m trying to maintain momentum to stop me from rolling backwards. You are alone, and there is no hiding from the gaps in your training or lack of consistency.

6) Let the iPod shuffle and see what happens. This is my favourite one, and can be applied to all areas of life. I know for a FACT that my iPod knows exactly what mood I’m in. And it always makes the perfectly accurate selection for every passing moment. Like this weekend, when we rode to Kinglake and put ourselves through 3 x repeats of the climb, it had these moments of perfection: this guy Bob, this guy Etta (I realise she isn’t a guy), and out of leftfield this guy Craig popped up from that part of your iPod that you didn’t know existed. Random, but I went with it all the same (I even sang along. Like I said, prepare to meet yourself).

Just to reiterate  I’m no mountain goat, and I’m certainly no hardcore climbing cyclist. But I love it. And I wanted to share the things that get me through the suffering and desperation that inevitably accompany cycling uphill.

And don’t panic if you find yourself praying for a puncture just for a legitimate break. This is normal. Now, go point your bike up a hill.

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28 thoughts on “Tips for surviving hill training.

  1. koyoandi says:

    I have no aspirations to do an Ironman or triathlons, but just the same…this post definitely got me thinking…I know I sure do miss biking and although I was never good at hills, always felt that satisfaction that comes from getting a little further up one each time I try…

    I will definitely be reading more of your posts. Like that I feel a little more fire in my belly to get back into some things I used to do!

  2. Thank you for this! I will admit my climbers were not what they needed to be in last year’s 70.3… exactly because the real me was avoiding hills (they’re so hard, haha). I paid for it, so this year I’ve resolved to embrace them and I appreciate the tips.

    No surprise, I find many of these are applicable to running and swimming as well… just the other day I found a rhythm swimming just counting strokes lap after lap and before I knew it 2,000 yards had come and gone like it was nothing!

    • Wow! I’m so glad you liked the article! A few people have said that it crossed over to running and swimming as well – I guess it’s that monotony and losing yourself in a trance-like state so that the endurance element is almost enjoyable. Let me know how the real you goes with the hills in your next race!

  3. maizeydaisy says:

    Thank u for following my blog! I actually find ur blog so interesting cuz I need to learn about strength training. I know nothing. Lol

  4. swimbikeread says:

    Great post! I often route my rides the flat way around hills even though I KNOW that riding UP is the best way to get stronger and faster. I’ll try to remember your advice when I start riding outside again (too cold for me in MA right now). Thanks.

  5. tomcorradino says:

    Reblogged this on Pushing Carbon and commented:
    Love the insight in this post. Embrace climbing. Remember, pain is weakness leaving the body!

  6. Yvonne says:

    What a great post! I’m not a cyclist but I’m getting ready to do my very first triatlon in March at the Pasadena Rose Bowl. You had me laughing with your comment questioning why on earth someone would want to climb a mountain (I often wonder about this when I hear about my husband’s rides). I especially liked your words on not going into the red and preparing to meet yourself. I have no idea what to expect the day of the triathlon, but I’m going to keep your words in mind as I train and on the big day. Also thank you for subscribing to my blog.

  7. bgddyjim says:

    I LOVE the mountain climbing – most fun I’ve ever had riding a bike, though admittedly, it was the coming down that held all of the fun. Great advice too – though I would add that out of the saddle is much easier for climbing once you find your rhythm – but if you go too fast, you’re absolutely right, you burn out just as fast. Great post. Reading it made me miss North Carolina and Georgia immensely.

    • Me too – except I have to admit, I’m a bit scared of the descents…. Can be a little hair raising at times. Need to just go for it I think!

      • bgddyjim says:

        The trick to descents is to ride in the drops – it may seem odd, but the lower center of gravity and having my hands below the bar really helped steady me out at speeds over 40 mph. There’s no doubt you’re right though – I did get itchy once when I got close to 50.

  8. Sandra says:

    Reblogged this on A Promise to Dad and commented:
    I should read this every day–then I should take her advice. Every training day on foot or pedal.

  9. scottsk says:

    To help with #3, I wriggle my fingers periodically…you can’t do it if you are holding on too tight.

  10. Great post. I agree as well, I love crushing the hills on my bike, and even on the run.

    My favourite part though has to be the decent. Makes all the climbing worth it.

  11. IowaTriBob says:

    Great advice and hills on the bike are still one of the hardest aspects of riding for me.

  12. erin says:

    Great tips! Hills are my absolutely favorite on the bike! And, in life… life happens on the hills – plus, you’ll never know the thrill of the ride down the other side if you don’t climb up first 🙂

  13. Kade Anderson says:

    Totally agree that riding up hills is an addictive torture. It’s even better when you know the road like the back of your hand. It feels like meeting up with an old friend.

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