The Myths and Truths of Improving Your Climbing

There are lots of popular tips about training for this or that problem area in all sports that isn’t true. Just because your buddy, cycling magazine or bike shop owner tells you it is doesn’t make it right. So am I saying that I am an expert and have all the knowledge? Absolutely not! I am a coach that reads and listens to experts in many fields. I also test concepts and protocols on the occasional guinea pig and myself before I put new ideas into practice with athletes I coach.

So I thought I would share some myths, what aspects of the myth are worth and what the more appropriate options are for improving your climbing.

The big myths that will not make you climb longer, faster or more efficiently.

Ride all rides with heavier training wheels
This myth is all about making you work harder because you are riding with heavier rotating mass. The average training wheel set including tubes, tires and quick releases will often weigh in a 3000 grams or greater. To put this in perspective 3000 grams is 6.61 lbs. The average racing wheel set weighs in somewhere around 1400 grams and in some cases less that 1000 grams not including tubes, tires or quick release. So in reality lightweight/race wheels once you have race tires/tubulars and add lightweight quick releases you are riding a wheel set that weighs close to 2000 grams or 4.40 lbs., which is a 2 lbs. loss compared to your typical bomb prrof training wheel set. So the truth in this myth is that by saving weight or lighting up rotating mass you can climb faster but you would be better served to do some weight training and loose a couple of pounds and not run a heavy wheel set all the time.

Wear a heavy hydration pack and or wear ankle weights
Like the previous myth the idea is that having heavier equipment will make you work harder and hence make you stronger. Seems like a fare assertion. Wrong. The problem with loading up the human body with weighted vests, back packs and ankle weights will do nothing but change your center of gravity, give you sketchy handling, make for a very sore back, numb hands and a numb back side! I am not saying you should not carry a hydration pack. By all means if you are a Mountain Biker it maybe your only option and if you are a roadie putting in big unsupported miles you will likely need a hydration pack.

Running hill sprints
Running is not cycling so why would you use running to improve cycling? Seriously, I am not being funny here. I do know that running hill sprints are often prescribed as part of plyometric training programs for all kinds of sports but it is not appropriate for cycling. I do fully believe that plyometrics can help with explosive power and I often will prescribe them to my athletes working on sprinting power in the 1-30 second range of the critical power curve. Look at the human body while running and cycling. Neither activity mimics the other. Sports specificity is the name of the game when training for sport.

Purchasing a lighter bike
Actually this isn’t really a myth as much as it is a lure to get you to purchase a bike you may not need. Will a lighter bike get you up a hill faster than the bike you have now? Maybe yes maybe no. What will help is a bike that fits you and has been designed for the kinds of riding that you excel at. Notice how I said that you excel at not like? Testing may determine that your true strength has nothing to do with what you like doing. I love climbing and I have set all kinds of PRs on climbs but physically I am more gifted when it comes to time trialing.

Only doing a particular strength training exercise
This is my favorite! I’ll get athletes that ask me if X exercise will make them a better climber and I tell them no and then they will tell me that X magazine cover told them it would. I don’t have subscriptions to magazines. I read sports medicine journals and strength and conditioning journals. I can say with out a doubt that a single exercise is not likely to do a bit of good improving your climbing. However add that singular workout in with others, schedule them into a periodized plan with recovery and a good dose of training stress then it may do some good!

Getting a lighter piece of cockpit gear
Really this myth should be more about customizing a bike to make it lighter. As I stated before having a lighter components will make for a lighter bike. Lighter rotating mass is better than lighting up the static mass of a bike. Cockpit components such as stems, handlebars, saddles, seat posts and various bolts can all be purchased at much lighter weights than what most factory OEM bikes ship with. Do you need to buy them at all? Sure, especially if they help improve your comfort, position and bike fit by all means go get them! It is however likely that light bars, stem an
The big truths that will make you climb longer, faster or more efficiently.

Climb more
This truth is like the old adage “Practice makes perfect”. I would like to change the word, perfect, with the word improved. I also like the adage “with everything there should be moderation”. So what I ma saying here is that yes more climbing will help you improve your climbing but that a training program focused only on set of training factors will leave you a lopsided athlete. So what I typically recommend is that you work on a weakness 1-3 times a week and the rest of time you will use for recovery, skill and other training factors.

Ride more
This truth is very similar to the one above. However when I say ride more don’t think that if you only ride flat valley floors and river basins it’s going to make you a better climber it is not. Instead what I am talking about is increasing the overall volume of a well-rounded training program. Even if you just added 10-15 minutes a day to your existing rides you will notice in 4-6 weeks on group rides how much stronger you feel on all terrain. I also wan to confirm that it is possible for flat landers to improve climbing performance. Should be a topic for a new article.

Test your strengths and weaknesses and train and ride to them
I ask athletes the question all the time why is that you think you are not a good climber? I am usually told that its because they can’t keep up with friends on climbs, or because they can not beat a STAVA KOM they want or because they just want to go faster in the hills. All of the responses are valid goals to go after but many are surprised to find out after testing they actually posses the power to be good climbers. Athletes that have the physical characteristics of being good climbers often use poor tactics when approaching climbs, have poor bike fits and even negative self-talk when climbing. If you think your bad at anything guess what, you are right! Start using positive talk when the grade turns up and let me know how it goes.

Use specificity when strength training
There is that word again, specificity. What I mean by specificity is that athletes need to train using similar motion patterns, target training factors and muscle groups used in their sport. When talking about climbing we need to focus the following training factors: Leg Speed (For efficiency), Muscle Endurance (To lessen fatigue) and Force (Creating more force on pedals means more power, more power means faster times up hill). Depending on the length of the climbs one of two other factors may need to be introduced. If your climbs are short and steep we need to work on anaerobic power and if your climbs are loooong and not as steep we would be better served to work on aerobic power.

So how does strength training play a role in the mentioned training factors? Well primarily strength training is likely to play a large roll in muscle endurance and not so much on any of the other factors. Strength training however can help a cyclist clean up muscle imbalances that lead to poor cycling posture and poor pedaling efficiencies. Cycling is often called the perfect sport however there is one area of our fitness that can really improve climbing the bike will use but not address and that is the core. Cycling leverages the core but doesn’t benefit it. So this is where developing functional and core strength best benefits a cyclist.

Use specificity when training on your bike
So just like in the weight room we want workouts on the bike that will support the training factor we want to improve. If you are a cyclist and you go to the weight room do you think doing dumbbell curls will help your climbing? They will give you nicely toned biceps and that is about it. So when it comes to the bike if you want to improve leg speed you will need to work on high cadence riding using high-speed pedaling drills. To work on muscle endurance you are going to want to work with bigger gears in the flats and hills at varying lengths of time and intensities. To work on anaerobic endurance you are going to need to work on very short efforts ranging from 1-8 minutes in length. The power values for anaerobic workouts vary from rider to rider and often range from >150%-110% of FTP. In HR terms it often means cyclists will work in Zones 4-5 and sometimes Zones 6. So riding in Zone 3 HR and Power isn’t as likely to improve your climbing any time soon. There is nothing wrong with riding tempo but it won’t do much in the short-term for improving climbing factors.

Power to weight ratio P/W
This is probably the easiest truth in cycling to understand but often the most difficult to obtain. Dropping a rider’s weight and increasing the power they can ride at for any given time or distance is the holly grail of making strong cyclists. P/W is the measuring stick that all climbers use to measure increases in performance. So what we coaches look for is watts per kilogram of body weight. So if athlete A weighs 200lbs and can produce 400 watts in 20 minutes and athlete B weighs 140 lbs. and produces only 300 watts in 20 minutes athlete then B is the strongest. Athlete A is producing 4.4 w/kg and the lighter athlete B is producing 4.7 w/kg.

As always I look forward to questions. Feel free to ask me via the comments section while its open, Facebook and twitter.

Do you need to be a better climber?

We now have an 8 week training plan dedicated to improving your climbing performance. The plan also comes with a virtual clinic!


Until Next Time,

Train Smarter Not Harder,

Coach Rob


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.