Climbing Smart on Race Day

We'd like to share with you our double-top-secret race-day hill climbing technique.

We've learned this method through training and racing with power for years, and having guided thousands of athletes through successful half and full Iron-distance races.

The key is understanding that 90 percent of the field will be working too hard on the hills. These aggressive efforts express themselves on the run as dramatically slowing down in the second half, usually giving up any of the small gains made on these hills.

If you follow our guidance below, you'll find yourself doing the opposite of everyone else in the hills—and running better at the end of your day!

But don't take our word for it. Between now and your next race we strongly encourage you to ride a hilly course using our techniques and perspective with your usual group ride. Pay attention to where they gap you and how it is easy for you to make that difference up simply by making better choices about where to spend your effort.

The Problem

If you ride with a power meter and "just ride" on a hilly course, you will see how anyone naturally tends to ride a hill. We unconciously seek to maintain the same, comfortable cadence at all times while ascending. At the bottom of the climb this creates a sharp, upward power spike. At the crest, the opposite occurs as we dramatically decrease our power.

When you first enter the hill, your natural tendency is to maintain the same cadence you were holding on the flat. If you start to climb but maintain the same gear and cadence, you have dramatically increased your work output. Even as you shift down through the gears, this work output remains high.

If you ride with a power meter, you'll see your watts spike in this first third of the hill. If you are riding with heart rate monitor, you won't initially see this increased effort, as heart rate (HR) lags work output by about ninety seconds.

A Zone 4 effort might take 90 seconds or more to be reflected as a Zone 4 heart rate. Depending on the length of the hill, you may only see Zone 3 and think you've properly paced the hill. In most cases, you would be wrong.

In the second third of the hill, you naturally compensate for this initial spike by backing off the power quite a bit. You will typically hold more watts than you were on the flat, but your power drops off considerably from the spike at the bottom of the hill.

In addition, your heart rate begins to catch up to your effort. Usually, your HR rises to a level higher than you would like, as it finally reflects that initial spike at the bottom of the hill.

This high HR is usually taken as a signal to back off your effort again. Then again, the hill may be too short for heart rate to rise to reflect your true effort. If this is the case, the damage has in fact been done, but your heart hasn't had enough time to let you know it!

When you reach the crest, remember that your body wants to maintain the same, comfortable cadence. As the hill flattens out and you maintain the same gear and cadence, your power output drops dramatically. Even if you shift up through the gears, the tendency is to back off the power and begin to rest on the crest of the hill, usually because you worked too hard on the hill and actually need the rest!

However, by reducing your effort and speed at the crest, you give up the opportunity to accelerate to your top speed as quickly as possible and fly down the hill and across the flat into the next hill.

Summarizing a Typical Hill Climb

  • Entrance to hill: Power spike, as your body seeks to maintain a constant cadence. Very little to no tactical gain achieved.
  • Body of hill: After this initial spike, you drop off the power considerably. Heart rate now begins to catch up to effort until it rises above where you would like to see it. You back off the power again.
  • Crest: Downward power spike, as your body seeks to maintain a constant cadence or senses the opportunity to rest right now after the hard climbing effort. You start to rest at the crest and on the initial portion of the downhill.

3 Tools to Fix Your Race-Day Climbing

We encourage you to use anyone of three methods to figure out a better way to climb. The best tool is a power meter, such as a Powertap or SRM. These devices tell you exactly how hard you are working at any point in time and allow you to smooth out your power application over the hill.

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