In the UK, hill climbs are generally short time trial races up hills. They can last from anything between 2-10 minutes. Though there are also longer hill climbs of 10+ KM. Some races, like up Mount Washington, Alpe d’Huez can take over 30 minutes.
Training for hill climbs requires getting fit to race at this kind of intensity.
Stages in Hill Climb Training
Before hill climb training, you need a base level of fitness. If you’re new to cycling, don’t jump in at the deep end. A few weeks of hill climb training, and you might be tempted to give up the sport. If you’re racing in the hill climb season of September and October, you need a reasonable base of fitness over the past 6 months.
This base level of aerobic fitness, will determine the effectiveness and quality of more intense high level training. Over the past 5 years, I’ve found slow improvements in the amount of specific hill climb training I can undertake. When I was fairly new to cycling, I could manage perhaps 3 quality hill climb intervals. After five years constant cycling, that is now 7 to 10.
Training up Hills
A newcomer to hill climb training will definitely benefit from just riding up hills as quickly as you can. Warm up for minimum of 20-30 minutes to the hill of your choice, and then race yourself to the top.
It’s not exactly rocket science to train for hill climbs by riding up hills, but it is important to remember:
- The training will be very specific to the target of racing up hills.
- It gives you the opportunity to practise pacing your efforts. Remember a big part of racing hill climbs is being able to judge your effort. By practising racing up hills, you can learn to know that thin red line which is hard to measure by using a heart rate monitor or even power meter.
- It will work all the target muscle groups of climbing. For short steep hills you will be pulling on the bars – you won’t get this on a turbo.
If you really go for it up a hill, I would advise taking a significant rest before attempting a second hill. I may leave 10-15 minutes before doing the second interval. This will be harder because your muscles will be tired – you will notice this especially when you start. If you do the same hill, you will find your time is about 10-15% slower than the initial effort.
You can then repeat the hill several times. There will come a point when you just can’t ‘race’ it any more. Your legs just feel shot and your time will be perhaps 25% slower than first effort. When this happens, you can call it a day. You are no longer training in the race zone, so you might as well stretch your legs and work on recovery.
If you’re really keen, you might allow a longer recovery time ride 20+ minutes to the next hill. By then you might be more recovered for another hill climb session.
How Many Hill Repetitions to do?
There is no exact answer. It may be that after 3 hill repetitions of 4 minutes, you’ve done as much as you can for a day. If you’re fitter, you can do 5-7. The number is less important than the quality.
It’s not always advisable to push yourself to the edge. Even if you can do 7-8 repetitions, you will take longer to recover. If you just do 1 or 2 really quality hill repetitions, you may be able to do another two tomorrow. If you do 10, it make take three days to recover.
What Kind of Hill to do the repetitions on?
Any hill which replicates the kind of hill you will be racing on. Ideally, they would be 15-20 minutes ride away to allow a natural warm up / cool down period. Ideally, they will not be really heavy with traffic so that you can concentrate on training. For variety, I like to do many different hills. This season the National champs is on the Rake (0.9Km) , so I will be doing more training on this kind of short hills, like Streatley hill. It’s fun looking for suitable hills to train on. For variety, I may even drive to a different location to ride new hills.
How hard to Try on the Hills?
In training, I try as hard as I can, though it is still slightly less effort than in a race. This is partly because I want to do more than 1 hill. It is also because it can be harder to push yourself in training.
But, generally, I will be trying to simply do hill in shortest possible time. Therefore, I will be practising my pacing as well as training. When you push yourself in a 4 minute hill, you will have:
- Burning legs from lactic acid
- Gasping for breath
The body is sending many signals to slow down. Part of the training is learning to ignore these and keep pushing harder.
How Many Rest Days Between Hill Repetitions?
A difficult question. I looked at the number of rest days here. For hill climbs, a few things spring to mind.
- Usually I do want at least one day rest / active recovery between hill repetitions.
- However, there is a case for 2-3 consecutive days. British Cycling say that 3 day blocks of training can be very effective.
- If you keep training sessions fairly short – 2 to 3 intervals, it can be good to do these 3-day blocks, earlier in the season.
- Often I race on consecutive days. But, if you just do one hill climb (one interval) it’s quite easy to do another one the next day.
The Racing Season
In the racing season, My training schedule may be like this
Sat 4 minute race
Sun 5 minute race
Mon rest / recovery
Tues – 2.5 hour hill interval session. 5-6 hill intervals
Wed – easy 1-2 hours
Thurs – 1.5 hour hill interval session 3-4 hill intervals
Fri – easy 1 hour
It’s not a lot of training. But, the intensity is very high.
Hill repetitions can take you a long way. But, this year I’m adding a new dimension to the training. I will be having a few weeks of incorporating pyramid intervals into the training program. The idea is that training includes quite a few very short ‘sprint’
- intervals 7 * 15 seconds with 4 minute recovery
- intervals 7 * 1 minute with 5 minute recovery between
- intervals 3* 3 minutes with plenty of recovery.
The philosophy behind this is that you can train more of the fast twitch muscle fibres which are utilised in hill climbs. It increases top end speed and increases the overall length of time you can train in the hardest zone.
I will let you know how I get on…
A key element of hill climb training is the motivation and determination to train in that difficult zone. You will be close to maximum heart rate, well above VO2 maximum. It is painful, and the instinctive reaction of the body is to slow down. Part of the training is the ability to simply stay in the zone and push yourself harder.
This is why it’s better to do less training, but more high quality. Long miles won’t do too much to improve your hill climbing ability.
Lactic Acid Tolerance
Hill climbing isn’t an Olympic sport, but it’s similar in effort to the 4Km pursuit. Both last around 4 minutes. Therefore, in training for hill climbs, it worth examining what the Olympic teams do for the 4km pursuit. In the early season, they often prepare by long sessions of lactic acid tolerance. This involves 3-4 intervals of 15-20 minutes up long alpine passes. Riding at threshold pace, gets the legs used to riding with increasing amounts of lactic acid in the legs. This will help for the intense 3 minutes effort where lactic acid will start to burn the legs.
Another aspect of hill climb training is peaking for the biggest race. For me this is the national hill climb championship at the end of October. The hardest training will come at the end of August and September. Throughout October you start to taper.
This basically involves maintaining the intensity of the intervals, but reducing the quantity.
In September, I might try 7 intervals in one session. In the second week of October this might be 3 intervals. By the last week of October, I’m just doing one. Usually week before National Hill climb championship is the shortest training week of the year – perhaps 6 minutes in total!
If I was more disciplined, I would do more upper body exercises. Situps, pushups to increase strength for pulling on the bars when climbing steep hills. I would recommend it, though I don’t listen to my own advice.
Rather than weight training, I spent quite a bit of time this year riding really steep hills in the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales. At 25% – 30% they really work all aspects of hill climbing. You need more upper body strength for this kind of hill. It’s also psychologically good to train on the hardest hills in the country. (Wrynose Pass / Hardknott Pass)
There’s no hiding the fact that power to weight ratio is everything in hill climbs. For example, if you fell from 80Kg to 70 Kg, you could see your time on a climb, like the rake (100m height gain) fall by 30 seconds. This is a huge time difference when the winning margin was 0.4 seconds (2005 national championships)
One thing is you can’t leave it to late August, and then start thinking it would be nice to be 5KG lighter. I won’t go into weight loss here. But, it is part of the long-term training.
Training for Alpine style Hill Climbs
Some hill climbs last over 30 minutes. This is essentially quite a different kind of race to a 3 or 4 minute effort. It’s easier to think of it as a 10 mile time trail uphill. It involves racing close to a threshold which can be maintained for that time. Training becomes more focused on ordinary time trials rather than the more explosive team pursuit efforts.
Some cyclists like Daryl Webster (who won National champs in 1983-1986) didn’t used to train for hill climbs, but just use his general fitness from a seasons racing.
Other National Champions like Jim Henderson were hill climb specialists. Towards the end of his career, Jim was just doing hill climbs.