Think strong legs and big lungs are all you need for great climbing skills? Actually, some smarts are needed as well, particularly in the line of approach, pacing and technique, and some positive thinking can also go a long way to hauling you up the hill with as little effort as possible.
Here are five ways you can quickly and easily improve your climbing ability.
You’ll need some energy to get up that climb and since taking your hands off the bars to get food in is significantly harder on a gradient, it’s much more practical and efficient to make sure you have the fuel you need before the ascent. Schedule a food stop and toilet break on the flat or use the few km’s leading towards the climb to unpeel a banana or take in a gel. That way you can hit the climb with some ready power in your system.
Core strength is the key to balance and forward motion when you get to those almost standstill gradients. Off the bike do your core strengthening exercises regularly to keep strong so you can activate these muscles easily in times of need. On a savage climb, you can help engage your core by hugging your body closer to the handle bars, pulling your elbows to your ribs and holding them tight at your sides. With each downstroke pull back on both handlebars slightly, you’ll get a slight rocking motion and immediately feel the difference to the tightness of your middle and the extra assistance to your legs.
The top of the climb is the battleground, not the start. Many riders will lash out at the beginning of the climb and give it all they have, hoping that the pure momentum will help them roll over the top. Unfortunately gravity doesn’t work that way and their energy fades right when things are getting difficult. In order to beat the climb you need to apply the majority of power at the top, when the odds are most against your wheel spin.
Start out with a steady slow rhythm and gradually extend your power as you elevate. You want to start out feeling like it’s easier than you’d like, that way you have energy to spare and your muscles aren’t flooded with toxins when you reach the top third. Save the biggest attack for the actual summit, not just to reach it but to exceed it, you then have the descent to rest and get your breath back.
There is a natural meditative state induced when you cycle which can really come in handy when you are suffering on a climb. Mind over matter is the thinking with these positive mindset techniques.
To get into that meditative state, relax every part of your body, especially your jaw which is most likely clenched in anticipation of the pain to come. Mentally go over every part of your body from top to toe on the early part of the climb and relax piece by piece. Make sure your shoulders are down and your fingers are loose on the bars and focus your attention on the rhythmic motion of your legs moving up and down.
As you cycle take deep deliberate breaths and be aware of the sound and feeling of breathing. A little chant of “I think I can” can work wonders although if you prefer visual aids then picturing light and floating items in your mind, like bubbles, clouds or drifting helium balloons will switch your thoughts to ones that are uplifting and motivating.
Having a picture of a loved one taped to your top tube is a popular choice, especially for charity rides when you are riding for a cause. Other riders use motivating quotes, words of inspiration from idols, a photo of the finish line. Whatever your goals might look like, use something that has positive emotional meaning for you and takes place beyond the current climb (and the next one and the next one).
All your power and movement needs to be directed into the pedals. For the most effective energy output your shoulders need to be still, just as they would be when you are rising on the flat. Even when it comes time to stand up on the pedals, square your shoulders and keep them strong and quiet. Dropping your shoulders in a rocking motion with each stroke won’t improve your momentum and will waste energy upper body motion and additional balance.
Keeping those shoulders forward facing and open, will also help your breathing as it will open your chest and help increase airflow to your lungs. Getting your breath slow and deep may take some practice before it comes without effort so keep correcting it every time you notice you go back to shallow panting.
When you are ready to stand up on the pedals to complete your climb make sure you do it in an energy efficient sequence. Start by shifting to the next largest gear, wait until your foot comes to the highest point of the pedal stroke and then stand so the full weight of your body connects with the downward stroke from start to finish.
Centre your weight so the bike is balanced. An easy mistake here is to lean forward, which can significantly unbalance your rear wheel. Instead, centre yourself over the bottom bracket with your bottom over the saddle.
It’s perfectly fine for your bike to rock side to side lightly but not so the movement is excessive. The feeling you’re looking for when you stand is to be lightly running up the hill.
Now your body and mind are prepped to take you to your goal, no matter what lies between your start and finish line.
Riding up the climbs a little easier? That’s freedom!
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