How to improve your bike climbing skills for beginners

Main image credit – Rob Bates

I don’t think there a cyclist out there who doesn’t have a love/hate relationship with hill climbing. Slogging up gradients is tough work, particularly if you’re at the end of a long ride and your enthusiasm for life on two wheels is waning. But equally, there is a reason that the mountain stages of the elite bike races are so intriguing – as fierce rivals battle it out with each other to eke their way up the mountainside without blowing up and come out on top. I’d go as far as to say that conquering a steep incline and getting a PB in the process is one of the most rewarding experiences in cycling – leaving the rider to enjoy the exhilaration of the descent.

There’s no denying that hill climbing can be exhausting, gruelling work, but there are ways and means to make it a little easier. Here we’ve suggested 5 tips to help you improve your bike climbing skills, particularly if you are a beginner.

Cadence is King

If you are a cycling novice then you may have heard the word cadence bandied around a lot, but what does it actually mean? Well, it’s simply how fast you turn the pedals. It’s generally measured in revolution per minute (how many complete turns of the pedals you complete in 60 seconds).

Cadence is important when it comes to hill climbing because it impacts your endurance – how long you can keep going before you’re exhausted and have to slow down or stop. It may seem counter-intuitive, but pedalling faster (a fast cadence) allows you to keep going for longer.

  • Pedalling faster in a low gear means that you are putting less strain on your muscles with each pedal stroke. This action uses slow twitch muscles and these muscles are exceptionally good at avoiding fatigue and recovering quickly
  • Conversely, pedalling slower in a higher gear uses fast twitch muscles. These muscles suffer from fatigue quickly and are, relatively speaking, very slow at recovering

There is also plenty of evidence to show that a fast cadence increase blood supply to the muscles. More blood = more oxygen and a better aerobic performance.

So now we know that we should use a fast cadence during a climb, what does that mean and what should we be aiming for? Well there is no absolute right or wrong here and every person is different – but a good rule of thumb to aim for is a cadence of 90 rpm throughout your bike ride. On the flat this obviously means a higher gear or you will be spinning your feet around and going nowhere, but when you hit the hills, don’t be afraid to drop down to your small ring and use all of the gears available to you in order to maintain the same cadence.

So how do you know what your cadence is at any given time? Well, one way is to simply count. Set a timer of 1 minute, pick a knee (left or right) and count how many times it comes to the top. This will be your cadence. Obviously, that’s a very manual approach and not so easy to achieve over and over throughout a ride – so an alternative is to purchase a cadence sensor. This attaches to your crank arm and measures the RPM, typically outputting the results to a small handlebar mounted display. We’ll be covering these in a full review in the near future – but for now you can check out a good selection of these at Amazon by clicking here.

If you’re a beginner rider it may also be helpful to use a turbo trainer to build up your muscles and monitor and increase your cadence without worrying about the pesky distraction of actually steering the bike or watching where you are going. Check out our review of the best turbo trainers currently on the market.

Stand or Sit?

It’s a long debated topic as to whether you should sit or stand during an ascent. Certainly, on the really steep gradients it becomes easier to stand on the pedals, but for steady 5% inclines, which is better? Watch a pro-race and you’ll generally see a mixture of riders adopting both tactics.

What we would say is that when your speed drops below approximately 10 mph, then wind resistance becomes negligible – so from that perspective, it really doesn’t make a great deal of difference for the amateur rider. Sitting allows you to be more controlled in your cadence and your approach so ideally, we would suggest remaining sat down for the bulk of the ascent if possible – but the best advice would probably be to try both and see which works best for you.

Shed Some Timber

There’s a reason that the pro cycling teams invest huge sums of money on developing the lightest bikes. At that level, even a few grams of extra weight can sap energy as you fight against gravity. Equally for the amateur rider, there’s no point spending £1,000’s of pounds on a carbon fibre framed bike if you’re a good 10 pounds overweight.

Of course, cycling regularly is a great way to keep fit and healthy and shed some of the extra weight, but you should also be mindful of what you eat if you are making a concerted effort to drop some timber. Check out this page at healthline.com for more info on how to eat healthier to lose weight. Next time you are pushing your way up a gradient your body will thank you for it.

Practice Makes Perfect

No-one said this was going to be easy. Simply put, the best way to get better at hill climbing is to do it as much as possible. Any good running training plan will include what’s known as hill repeats – that is, running up a hill, then running or walking back down it to recover. Then repeat several times. Cycling is no different and taking some time out each week to ride hill repeats will greatly benefit your overall hill climbing

It’s fairly straightforward. Find a hill nearby that will give you a good couple of minutes of riding on an incline. Cycle up it as hard as you can (remembering our cadence and gearing advice from earlier in the article). When you get to the top, turn around and coast back down – using this time to recover. Then repeat. And repeat. And repeat. We’d suggest that a good starting point would be 2 minutes of climbing repeated 10 times. But you can increase or decrease the repetitions and the climb time to suit.

Fill the Tank

Cycling, and particularly cycling uphill, burns energy rapidly. Just like driving a car, if you have little to no fuel in the tank to start with then once you are empty you’re not going to be able to keep going.

Preparing for your ride with a suitable intake of food and eating on the way around to keep your energy levels topped up is extremely important. And it goes without saying – what you eat is very important too. Stocking up on carbohydrates are essential for providing you with the slow burn energy you need to last throughout a ride, which sugars can provide a quick burst of energy help you get through any moments where you may be flagging. Below we have suggested some foods to fill the tank before you set out and some snacks to top you up on the way around.

The night before

  • Pasta
  • Homemade Pizza
  • Chicken with beans and rice
  • White fish with rice

The morning of

  • Omlette or scrambled eggs
  • Brown bread toast
  • Porridge
  • Banana smoothie

On the way round

  • Cereal bars
  • Bananas
  • Handful of Jelly Babies
  • Isotonic sports drink
  • Energy gels

So there you have it. Put these tips into action and you’ll be flying up the inclines in no time. If you have any comments to make or would like to add some of your own tips, please feel free to comment below.

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