Despite achieving the greatest successes in my cycling career on the track, I absolutely love climbing.
A track specialist saying they love riding uphill might come as a surprise. Unless you somehow manage to ride directly up the track’s banking (in which case something has already gone very wrong) there aren’t many climbs in a velodrome!
Despite this, we would often train on the climbs of the Mallorcan Tramuntana, where we were based. Every form of competitive cycling demands an endurance and anaerobic base, so climbs are essential for different efforts in training or just as part of our endurance rides.
Whether you’re a casual social rider or a serious racer, I want to share my experience and guidance as an ex-professional cyclist to help you understand the factors that affect how fast you climb hills on a bike – and outline how you can improve them to boost your climbing performance.
The Basics: Bike Selection and Setup for Hill Climbing
When climbing uphill on a bike, weight is key.
Assuming you’re climbing on paved roads, a lightweight road bike will be the fastest choice. High-end road bike frames are made of carbon fiber for the greatest possible weight saving, but aluminum frames can also be lightweight and tend to be more affordable.
Switching to a road bike from a heavy hybrid or city bike will make a huge difference to the speed at which you climb.
For mountain biking, it’s vital to remember that different MTB styles place differing importance on climbing performance.
Enduro bikes are relatively lightweight for riding over varied terrain, for example, but downhill bikes aren’t intended for climbing at all, so are extremely heavy.
Reduce Bike Weight
If investing in a new bike isn’t an option, look for ways you can reduce the weight of your current bike.
Removing mudguards, pannier racks, kickstands, or any other accessories you don’t need for climbing will significantly trim your bike’s weight.
If you already have a decent bike and want to start upgrading components, I’d suggest starting with the wheels. Factory wheels that come with new bikes tend to be relatively poor, so they’re one of the most cost-effective areas to upgrade to boost climbing performance.
Gear Ratios for Biking Uphill
Suitable gearing options are essential to climb uphill on a bike effectively.
Without suitably low gears, you’ll find yourself grinding up steep climbs rather than maintaining a proper cadence (more on that later), which is an inefficient use of your muscles.
Check out our Ultimate Guide To Bike Gear Ratios for detailed advice on choosing gearing for climbing.
The Importance of Body Position While Climbing
Your posture and pedaling style can greatly affect your efficiency on a bike.
You can have the biggest lungs and the strongest legs, but if you do not incorporate the correct cycling form (as explained below) you will waste your energy and be inefficient.
The most ideal hand position for climbing is to place your hands on the tops of the handlebars.
This allows you to open your chest and makes breathing easier. Use a light hand grip, as you don’t want all your weight on the bars. This is helped by engaging your core, which in addition provides stability.
It’s a less aerodynamic position than riding with your hands in the drops – but at low speeds, aero considerations become less important than optimizing your breathing.
Keep your upper body and shoulders relaxed. Your legs are doing the work – your upper body just needs to remain stable.
Look at a set point up the road, not at your legs. Looking at them won’t make them move any faster, it’s dangerous and you’re more likely to swerve on the road.
Shifting Your Position in the Saddle
You can also change your position on the saddle during long ascents to place greater emphasis on different muscles.
By moving backward, you will be engaging the larger gluteus muscles. Sliding forward puts more emphasis on the quadriceps, allowing your gluteus muscles a chance to recover.
Shifting your position on the saddle occasionally will also improve comfort on the saddle as it moves the pressure points.
Should You Stand Out The Saddle While Biking Uphill?
The answer depends on several factors, including the gradient and length of the climb. Additionally, there will be an element of your preferred riding style.
For a shallow gradient of less than 10%, a seated position is generally considered more effective.
Firstly, a seated position is more aerodynamic. On a shallow gradient, you’re potentially riding fast enough that aerodynamics will play a role. A seated position also allows you to place your hands on the tops of the bars and opens your chest.
A 2008 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences showed hill climbing while seated requires up to 10% lower oxygen uptake and is therefore less physically demanding than climbing while standing out of the saddle.
However, this advice is mainly relevant for climbs of longer duration, performed in Zone 2/3.
Standing out of the saddle while climbing is most effective when you need a short burst of power, whether it’s for a short, steep section of a climb, for punching over the summit, or to initiate or respond to an attack during a race.
By leveraging your arms, using your body weight, and opening up your hip angle, climbing out of the saddle enables you to exert greater force per pedal stroke.
However, climbing while standing for extended periods causes greater stress on the body, with increased heart rate and perceived effort.
Therefore, a seated position is better for longer and lower-gradient climbs, whilst standing is reserved for steeper, shorter sections of a climb or tactical bursts of power.
That said, there’s also a lot of personal preference involved. In his heyday, Chris Froome famously attacked and defended almost exclusively with a seated, ultra-high cadence style, while Alberto Contador was legendary for his out-the-saddle climbing attacks, generating huge torque while in his biggest chainring.
Why Cadence Matters While Climbing
When inexperienced cyclists arrive at a big climb, their cadence often drops and they start grinding up the climb at 60 rpm or less.
It is normal for cadence to drop a little while biking uphill, but if it drops below your regular cadence on flat terrain by 10 rpm or more, you should shift to a lower gear and fire the cadence back up.
For my in-depth explanation of the importance of maintaining a proper cadence while cycling, check out What Is A Good Cadence For Cycling – And Why Is Cycling Cadence So Important? here!
The Magic Number: Your Power-to-Weight Ratio
When cycling uphill, there are three main forces to overcome: rolling resistance, air resistance, and gravity.
The gradient affects the relationship between the three. The steeper the gradient, the greater the effect of gravity, while the importance of rolling resistance and air resistance reduces as your speed drops.
This means there are two main factors determining the speed at which you climb: the power you put through the pedals, versus the mass being pulled down by gravity.
The relationship between the two is known as the power-to-weight ratio, measured in W/kg. It’s the single most important metric in a cyclist’s climbing ability.
To climb uphill faster you need to either increase your average power output through training or decrease the weight of the rider (and the bike).
In simple numbers, if two cyclists are both producing 240 Watts up a hill, the cyclist who weighs 60 kg (4 W/kg) will get up the hill faster than the cyclist who weighs 80 kg (3 W/kg).
For reference, Jonas Vingegaard sustained a superhuman 7.6 W/kg for 13 minutes during the legendary Stage 16 time trial at the 2023 Tour de France.
At their FTP (functional threshold power), which we’ll go into below, a decent amateur might produce around 3 W/kg, while anything above 6 W/kg would be extremely surprising outside the professional peloton.
However, it’s important to remember that unless you are a professional cyclist, becoming too fixated on your bodyweight can be physically and mentally detrimental.
It’s better to focus primarily on your fitness (the “power” side of the ratio). As you get fitter and eat a healthy cycling diet, you’ll likely approach a healthy weight for your body type anyway, without that necessarily being the main objective.
How To Use Functional Threshold Power (FTP) To Climb Faster
If you want to train and climb like a pro, then understanding your FTP and corresponding Training Zones is essential.
With the power-to-weight ratio in mind, optimizing your power output across an entire climb is central to biking uphill faster.
The two major factors in achieving this are improving your fitness and proper pacing throughout a climb. Determining and utilizing your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is the key to addressing both of these components.
Your FTP is the highest average power output you can sustain for a one-hour effort.
It is a key metric of a cyclist’s fitness, and this value can be used to determine the effort ranges you should ride at – your “Training Zones” – within a training plan or while pacing yourself up a climb.
How To Estimate FTP or FThr
You can estimate your FTP using a power meter by performing a 20-minute all-out effort. Take your average power for the 20 minutes and subtract 5% to estimate your one-hour FTP.
If you don’t have a power meter, you can also determine your Training Zones using a heart rate monitor.
To determine your Functional Threshold heart rate (FThr), perform a 20-minute all-out effort. Your average heart rate for the final 10 minutes of that effort is your FTHR.
The table below shows the seven Training Zones in which you can train for different physiological adaptations.
|% of FTP
|% of FThr
|Zone 1 (Active Recovery)
|Zone 2 (Endurance)
|Zone 3 (Tempo)
|Zone 4 (Anaerobic Threshold)
|Zone 5 (VO2 Max)
|Zone 6 (Anaerobic Capacity)
|Zone 7 (Neuromuscular)
For more information on how to use Training Zones to optimize your training, check out our Cycling Training Zones Guide here!
Using FTP or FThr To Pace Yourself Up Climbs
Once you know your FTP or FThr, you can use this information to properly pace your climbing effort. Pacing is a strategy to effectively manage your energy to optimize your performance for a given time or distance.
Watch any professional cycling race, and you’ll see that the riders are constantly glancing at their bike computers to see their power output.
They’ll know exactly how long they can sustain a given power zone, and will use this information to manage their pace up the climb. Without this information, they’d be flying blind, reliant purely on instinct and how tired their legs feel.
On a shorter climb, (up to 10 minutes or so), you can push yourself and aim for Z4 or higher. Apply power consistently throughout the climb, keep an eye on your cadence, and don´t start too hard. Pacing is still key, and you should still work within a suitable power range.
For longer climbs, such as the major climbs the Tour de France tackles in the Alps and Pyrenees, targeting Zones 2-4 is usually the best approach. If this is a competitive environment, a hill repeat effort, or you are a more experienced cyclist, you should target Zones 3 or 4.
If you’re climbing during a sportive or a social ride with multiple long climbs, the objective is different, and Zone 2 might be more appropriate. It’s an aerobic zone so should be sustainable for long periods.
If a particular climb is a major target for you, either to set a PB or because it features in an upcoming race, follow the approach of the professionals by studying the elevation profile beforehand to plan your approach.
Are there dips in the road where you can get some recovery, or is there a good spot with a steep ramp to attack on? All these factors should determine your pacing strategy.
Proper Fueling for Climbing
For optimum climbing performance or training benefit, rides must be fueled correctly: before, during, and after.
Aim to fuel at least 15 minutes before you tackle the climb. Use easy-to-digest foods like a banana, energy gel, or energy bars. Aim for 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of activity.
Hydration is also vital. While carrying water adds weight, studies have shown that dehydration of as little as 2% of a rider’s weight is detrimental to athletic performance. With dehydration losses greater than 5%, capacity for effort can decrease by 30%.
In short, make sure you have enough water for your ride; don’t be tempted to ditch that second bottle to save weight if there’s a chance you might need it!
Be A Mentality Monster
Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned as a professional athlete was the power of your mindset.
Your mind can be your greatest friend or your worst enemy depending upon how you choose to work with it.
Having a positive mindset will not make you climb like Vingegaard, but it can make the experience more enjoyable and successful.
Change the dialogue in your head. Rather than telling yourself, “You are not a climber” or “This is painful”, focus on the controllable: your cadence, nutrition, posture, controlled breathing, and pacing.
3 Training Exercises To Boost Your Climbing Speed
Low Cadence Workouts
For this exercise, find a hill that allows for 5 minutes of riding at a cadence between 55-60 rpm.
Remain seated and focus on body posture and pedal stroke, as opposed to power.
VO2 Max Training
Use this exercise to train for short climbs and target anaerobic fitness.
Complete hill repeats of 3-5 minutes, working in your VO2 max range (Zone 5). Start with 3 repetitions in your first session, increasing as your fitness builds.
Ensure at least 10 minutes of easy pedaling between each effort.
This exercise increases your body’s ability to tolerate and clear the lactate byproducts produced when riding above your FTP.
Ride for two minutes in the upper end of Zone 3, then ride for 2 minutes in upper Zone 4. Start with 3 repetitions of 12 minutes in your first session, increasing duration and/or repetitions as your fitness improves.
Climbing Workouts Without Hills
If you live in an area without hills to practice on, it’s possible to do both the Over/Under and VO2 Max exercises described above.
Indoor smart trainers can also simulate gradients, making them a great option to practice climbing without hills or when poor weather gets in the way.