How to train for big climbs when you don’t live near the mountains
Training for a ride in the European mountains can be difficult if you live in an area with flat roads and small hills. But with some intelligent training methods you can boost your climbing skills wherever you live
From the snaking roads of the Alps to the jagged peaks of the Italian Dolomites, the mountains of Europe are a beautiful high-altitude playground for cyclists. But if you live in an area with flat roads and smaller hills, like the UK, Holland or Belgium, it can feel much harder to train for the unique physical challenges you will experience on a summer holiday, training camp or sportive in the European mountains.
The secret is to learn how to perform climbing-specific drills on flat roads, and how to use your own natural local conditions – like strong headwinds or small hills – to your advantage. British cycling coach Matt Clinton, the founder of Clinterval Coaching (clinterval.co.uk), knows that with some intelligent training methods you can prepare for big climbs, even if you don’t have any 2,000m mountains near your home.
Clinton won the UK National Hill Climb Championships in 2008. He also finished second in 2009, 2010 and 2014, and third in 2007, 2011, 2012 and 2013. By developing his own original training ideas, he built the heart, lungs and legs of a climber while living in the UK.
Here Clinton reveals eight easy ways to improve your climbing.
If you have only a few small hills in your area, it is still possible to simulate a longer climb by doing hill repeats. Find a small local hill that will take 5-10 minutes to climb and repeat that climb 5-10 times, or for a period of 30-60 minutes. “Hill repeats are great because you’re climbing the same climb over and over again to build up the overall ascent,” explains Clinton.
“Remember, you can’t go ‘full gas’ each time as you have more repetitions to do. So it is more like riding a longer climb in the mountains. This means that you are not just improving your climbing performance, you are also learning how to keep a good rhythm. You’ll listen to your body and you’ll learn how hard to pace each climb in order to be able to complete all of the repetitions.”
The aim here is to try and pace your efforts evenly by focusing on riding for a fixed period of time, for a fixed number of repetitions, or at a fixed speed or power output.
But as your fitness improves, and your confidence grows, you can start to push harder. “You might end up riding each repeat a bit harder than on a full mountain climb, building up your fitness in the process,” says Clinton.
Sweet spot sessions
‘Sweet spot’ training is another great way to prepare for longer mountain climbs, even if you are riding on flat roads. ‘Sweet spot’ is the term used when riding at between high power zone 3 and low power zone 4, or around 88-93% of your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) – the power you can sustain for 1 hour. These sessions help to build the kind of extended high-power output and aerobic fitness required on a longer mountain ascent. Start with 2 x 20 minutes at sweet spot, with 5 minutes of gentle spinning in between each effort.
European mountain climbs are rarely consistent. They have steep segments and erratic gradients. So you need to blend in some ‘over-under’ sessions as well. An over-under session is when you repeatedly go above and below your threshold to prepare your body for the various changes in effort required over the length of a long climb.
“There are lots of ‘over-under’ sessions you can do, but a great one involves riding at 5% above your threshold for several minutes and 5% under your threshold for several minutes,” says Clinton. “You can do short blocks of 2 minutes or even up to 10 minutes per effort as your fitness improves.”
Big gear efforts
To prepare for the unique challenges of climbing a steep mountain, you need to ride in a bigger gear. Although you would normally climb a mountain in a smaller gear, using a big gear on flat roads helps to simulate the extra effort and power needed to turn the cranks on a steep climb. Try doing 20-minute efforts in a big gear while riding on flat roads or a gentle incline to build up your climbing-specific strength and endurance.
‘Tractor pulls’ may sound like a task for farmers or strongmen athletes, but they can also be helpful for cyclists who are training for the mountains. “‘Tractor pulls’ are sessions where you ride in a bigger gear, slow down, then start to build up your speed again from a very slow speed,” explains Clinton.
“The aim is to try and bring you up to speed from a very slow speed to a faster speed, while remaining in the big gear.” This serious strength-builder will help to prepare your body for battling up steep gradients and hairpin bends. Aim for 10 x 30-second efforts, with 2 minutes rest in between each effort, moving up from 10rpm to 90rpm over the course of each effort.
You may not live near the Alps or the Pyrenees but if you live somewhere with strong headwinds you can use these winds as your training partner. “Pushing into a headwind is very similar to climbing as you’re getting additional resistance even on a flat road,” explains Clinton.
Aim for 3 x 15-minute efforts – at the middle or top end of Zone 3 (80-90% FTP) – to boost your climbing power. “Remember, climbing is as much a mental game as a physical one, and knowing how to sustain an even power in the wind is a sure way to learn how to climb better,” says Clinton.
You can also try 5 x 2-minute intervals in Zone 4 (91-105% FTP) straight into the head wind. “Doing some intervals into the wind will build up your fatigue resistance and help when you’re climbing,” explains Clinton.
High cadence efforts
On a long mountain climb the best way to preserve your energy is to keep a high cadence. It will stop your burning up your glucose reserves and keep you feeling fresh. To condition your legs to ride at a faster cadence in the mountains, do some high-cadence drills on flat roads at around 100rpm for 20 mins. Many pro riders aim for 80-90rpm on big climbs, so it is helpful to train a bit higher than that in preparation.
“On a long climb you want to be able to spin,” says Clinton. “You don’t want to get bogged down in a big gear for the whole climb or it will tire you out. Just learning to pedal with a high cadence for a long duration will really help with your endurance on climbs.”
However hard you train, there will inevitably be times on a big mountain climb when you are pushing your body over its limits. So you need to prepare for those moments in advance. One of the best ways to do this is with a power session which forces you to train above your usual intensity. “A short VO2 max session, such as 3 minutes at 120% FTP, will bring your power up,” explains Clinton. Repeat this effort 5 times, with a 2-minute rest in between each effort. “This will really help when you’re nudging over threshold on a climb,” says Clinton.