Incorporate hill climbing into your training and you'll not only gain strength and power, you'll improve pedaling efficiency. Credit: Marco Garcia/Getty Images
Hills. Love 'em or hate 'em, they're always there and can be a factor on race day. Sometimes they're massive and intimidating, like the Beast at St. Croix. Other times they're small and more gradual, like the rollers at Ironman Wisconsin. Or, occasionally, they're invisible and get lost in the wind gusts, as in the lava fields of Kona.
But regardless, with specific emphasis in your training program you can learn how to tackle hills and turn what may be a weakness into a strength.
Hills are most often used to increase specific power and strength, but they also help improve pedaling technique and efficiency and challenge our mental focus and confidence. When integrated properly into a training program, hill training can be the key to stepping up to a new level, but it's not as easy as finding a steep climb and trying to invoke the spirit of Lance.
Here are a few key training sessions to help you break through and get you climbing like a mountain goat.
Adaptation and endurance phase
Early/mid-season or three-plus months prior to an A-priority race
In order to prevent injury and prepare for the big days to come, it's useful to schedule three to four sessions (one per week) of adaptive hill training. One of the best ways to do this is to ride hill-cruise intervals.
Hill-cruise intervals strengthen muscle and connective tissue in preparation for higher-resistance sessions. Find a fairly gradual hill that's five to 30 minutes in length. You'll ride this hill comfortably hard, staying seated and spinning at 80 to 90 rpm. This effort should be just below your lactate threshold -- you should be able to talk, but would prefer not to.
Your first workout is short, only 20 to 30 total minutes of climbing divided into several work intervals of five to 10 minutes apiece, each followed by five minutes of easy-spin recovery. Add to the total work-interval time by about 25 percent for each of your subsequent two hill sessions, either by increasing the number or duration of intervals. Be sure to include 30 minutes of warm-up and cool-down to this workout.
This workout is also effective later in the season to develop muscular endurance and strength. The basic execution is the same; however, you'll be fitter and able to handle a bit more work.
Therefore, a later-season version of this workout will incorporate hill-climbing efforts of 15 to 30 minutes in length, each followed by a 10-minute recovery. The focus of this workout will be a sustained lactate-threshold effort. As in the early season, perform this workout over three consecutive weeks, beginning approximately 12 weeks out from an A-priority race.
Late early season, approximately two months before a key race
After you've laid your foundation through hill-cruise intervals, you're ready to focus on specific strength development through muscle-tension intervals. Specific strength will boost your cycling power but will also benefit your running through injury prevention and improved joint stability.
Muscle-tension intervals are performed by climbing in a much higher gear than you would normally select and at a cadence much lower than you would want to (or should) use in any situation other than this specific workout. This is a very hard effort and should only be done once a week at most, but preferably every other week. Always remember to include a 30- to 60-minute warm-up and cool-down before and after muscle-tension intervals.
After a warm-up, find a moderately steep hill (10-percent grade; something you would normally ride in the small ring). You will ride three to eight efforts of five minutes each with a five- to 10-minute easy-spin recovery after each work interval. Each hard effort is done using the big ring and a middle cog. You should only be able to spin at 50 to 60 rpm (don't let your cadence drop below 40 rpm).
This will be a very slow turnover, and you should stay seated. This should feel almost frustrating. You'll want to stand and shift to a lower gear, and you'll probably wonder if you read this workout correctly. But trust me, this stuff really works. Don't underestimate this workout; start conservatively and build by only one or two intervals per session.
Mid to late season
As the season progresses and your fitness develops, you'll want to add a bit of sharpness. Again, hills are excellent for this. This time, find a fairly steep, short hill (10-plus percent) and perform a series of 10 one-minute intervals. Spin into the climb, slowly building your pace over the first 30 seconds.
Then, for the last 30 seconds of each one-minute work interval, shift up two to three gears and push as hard as you can while trying to maintain a 90-plus rpm. Try to stay seated, but stand if you really have to. Stay smooth, keep spinning circles and keep your upper body quiet.
This workout is excellent when done as 10 x 1-minute intervals with two to three minutes rest. The session will help you to stay smooth as you transition from the flats into the hills and helps you handle the inevitable pace changes on race day.
Hills will likely be a factor in at least a few of your key races this season, but with these workouts -- and a little respect -- you'll find them to be a weapon rather than a weakness.