Monday, August 26, 2013

5 Tips for Uphill Cycling

The first time I went up to a serious hill was after a year of nearly everyday cycling. The hill was 5.6 kilometers climb with a 302 meters of total climb. That works out to an average incline grade of 5.4%. And it was an epic fail.
In retrospect, that first climb I did almost everything wrong. I pushed hard, overtook several other riders who were actually having a nice chat while cycling up the same hill while I was puffing and panting, and after passing two-thirds of the climb I gave up when I realized that my goal is still not in sight. After that fail, I  successfully took on the hill the following weekend, and a lot more weekends after that.

Taiwan Gorge Cycling By Fred Hsu (Wikipedia:User:Fred Hsu on en.wikipedia)

Here is a set of tips which help me go uphill:

  1. Be prepared, mentally more than physically - On a flat road, the main sources of resistance are tire friction and air resistance. If you reduce your speed, air resistance decreases considerably, thus enabling you to rest by drafting and accelerate later. When cycling uphill you are fighting a whole different adversary: gravity. Gravity is a constant force, and it's drag component affects the cyclist as long as there is an incline. This means that you can't rest by drafting or reducing speed. This lengthy introduction has only one point: cycling uphill is much more difficult. Before starting your climb you need to accept that you'll need to put more effort into cycling, and that for a lengthy period of time there will be no rest for the weary. Of course physical preparedness matters, but you must adopt a mindset of accepting the difficult climb, that there will be pain in your muscles and that you'll need to overcome the desire to stop and just give up. One of the tricks used in lot of different sports is not to think about how far the peak is, think about something else entirely. Another common trick is to partition your climb into visible goals, eg. to the next corner, to that tree with yellow leaves etc... 
  2. Be patient - unless you are well conditioned cyclist, going uphill will not be a quick thing. At if you are, you are not reading this blog :). At a certain point in your climb you will drop to the very low gears, and progress will come down to a crawl compared to flat road cycling. The first reaction will be to increase your effort and accelerate in order to 'get it over with' quickly. This is a monumental mistake, because you'll deplete your energy levels and reach the pain barrier much faster, without achieving much in terms of distance or climb. Again, accept that you are going slow, portion and conserve your energy whenever possible. Going slow actually helps with your mental game of 'not thinking about it': By going slow you have a lot of time to observe your surroundings in detail, taking your mind off the actual climb. 
  3. Breathe - proper breathing is crucial for a successful climb. The key is to maintain a good supply of oxygen to your body. As the climb progresses, your body will become more tired and you'll tend towards quick and shallow breaths. Shallow breathing will deliver much less oxygen to your body, and make the climb much more difficult. Focus on steady deep breathing, it will invigorate you and give you an extra ounce of 'oomph' when you need it.  
  4. Do not push when road levels off - there are very few hills with a constant incline grade. You will notice that some parts of the road are flatter, and cycling becomes much easier on those part. This is your chance to rest! Unless you are in a competition, resist the urge to accelerate! Instead, maintain a low gear and let your body rest and recover for the next effort. 
  5. Do not give up - it is quite possible that your first climb will not be fully successful. The key is to accept it and try again. Think about re-partitioning your efforts on the climb, do some longer flat road routes or rolling terrain inclines to build stamina, and go up again, preferably within 1 week. It is very probable that your second attempt will be fully successful.

After reaching the top of the climb, congratulate yourself! But this is just the beginning. After your first climb, you know that you are ready for much more. There are excellent exercises for increasing your uphill cycling abilities.

Talkback and comments are most welcome

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