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Training for Hills on Flat Terrain

ESR weeklong riders on the road

This is one of the most common questions I get asked. In this blog, I’ll break down the demands of climbing and the solution for training in flat terrain to meet those demands.

The demands of climbing can be broken down into three basic requirements. Good oxygen delivery to the working muscles, good pedaling efficiency and the right mindset and strategy to tackle the elevation gain. Let’s look at these a bit closer.

VO2Max

Oxygen delivery is expressed as VO2Max. This is your maximum ability to take oxygen from the atmosphere and deliver it to the working muscles. This is a very trainable system that does not require hills to accomplish. In the ESR Training plans your V02 is improved with the long Endurance Miles (EM) and the short high intensity Power Intervals (PI).

In the case of Endurance Miles it’s actually better to do this training on flattish terrain so you can keep the intensity consistently low. You may have heard this described as Zone 2 training. And here’s the kicker, the Power Intervals are best done in a very controlled environment and I often encourage my athletes to do these on an indoor trainer. You can do them outdoors as well but flat terrain is the best for these intervals as you need very high cadence to execute these well.

Pedaling Efficiency

It takes more energy to accelerate a bicycle that it does to keep it at a steady speed. So if you have big dead spots in your pedaling cycle you are essentially accelerating during every revolution of the pedal stroke. A dead spot is where pedaling power (torque) is lost when sub-optimally shifting from one movement pattern to another. Unpacking this further, if you have a dead spots in your pedal stroke you will struggle when the road goes up or when there is a significant headwind. Improving your pedaling efficiency will make the hills and headwinds a whole lot easier.

 

The good news is that this is very trainable in flat terrain. Use headwinds to improve your pedaling mechanics. Personally I like headwinds because it gives me an opportunity to work on my pedaling mechanics. And if you want to take it to the next level, go ride in a sandy trail. That will teach you how to maintain torque on the pedals.

To mimic the muscular endurance demands of climbing, ride into a headwind during your Endurance Miles with a bigger gear than you normally would choose. Don’t worry about speed, keep the intensity low and focus on maintaining effective force on the pedals from 12-7 around the crank.

Mindset and Strategy

If you dread the hills you’re missing out on one of the most enjoyable aspects of cycling. I recently moved to Florida from CO and before I chose where to live here I did a recon to find the hilliest area in the state. So first we have to change our mindset and see hills as an opportunity to practice our pedaling and learn how to ride them with skill. Every hill provides a prize at the end, the fun descent!

First rule of climbing is start easy! Biggest mistake is to start too fast, blow up halfway up and rest at the top. When I do a climbing camp with cyclists the first thing I do is to challenge them to go up a hill as slow as I do. Invariably, as we ride side by side, as soon as we hit the hill they accelerate and within a few seconds are a bike length ahead of me. The right way to approach a hill is to keep your intensity at the same level as you were on the flats and allow the hill to slow you down. Shift to a lighter gear then if at some point you think you can go a little harder do it in small increments, one gear at a time, at a pace that you can sustain over the top and for the first 10 feet of the downhill on the other side.

You can practice this on flat terrain with a headwind. Pick a 5-10min stretch of road, start slow and gradually increase your speed until you find the right pace for you. Keep your Rate of Perceived Exertion at 6-7 and practice eliminating the dead spots in your pedal stroke.

The bottom line is that if you follow one of the three ESR training plans and incorporate the pedaling efficiency training you will have trained as well as you can for hills in flat terrain.

See you all soon!

Coach Charlie

 

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