How to Climb Better on Your Bike
If you’ve done any road cycling at all, you’ve probably felt the pain of a long, hard climb. One of those hills that never seems to end — you just keep pushing and pedaling, wondering if the crest will ever come.
In those moments, it’s easy just to pedal yourself into the ground and leave nothing in the tank for the rest of your ride. By the time you get to the top, you’re already behind with no hope of catching up with the group.
Fortunately, there’s a better way to take those long hills. With the right technique, you can climb uphill better while cycling and keep your legs spinning longer.
To show you how to climb better on your bike, we’re going to send you on a ride with Coach Darryl MacKenzie. He’s coached many a cyclist through this experience, so you’re in good hands. Imagine you’re riding handlebar to handlebar with Coach, coming out of the flats onto a long, towering hill (think a mile or even a mile and a half, as that’s what you really need to train through all of these steps).
Expand Your Oxygen Intake
As you start your climb, your heart rate begins to rise quickly — probably 20 to 30 bpm. This is a sign you’re working your muscles harder, and you’re going to start draining energy fast.
Up to this point, you and Darryl have been having a nice chat about the lovely weather in San Diego. But, not far into your climb, all thought of small talk goes out the window, your focus shifting solely to the task at hand.
Soon, Darryl notices that your breathing is getting heavier, and he chimes in.
“Let’s slow your breathing down. You need to push more air out so you can get more fresh air in,” he says. “Open your mouth a little more and try to force 20% more air out of your lungs with each breath.”
Following Coach’s lead, you exhale more deeply, which makes every inhalation that much deeper, too. With every breath, you’re pushing out more stale carbon dioxide and exchanging it for rich, oxygen-saturated air. You can feel your breathing slow down as your lungs fill with oxygen, giving your muscles exactly what they’re craving. With this subtle adjustment to your breathing, you can climb better on your bike with fresh strength to pedal on.
Change Your Position
Your attention and breathing focused, you and Darryl continue your climb. A little farther on — about halfway up the hill — your legs really begin to burn. Maybe it’s time for a break, you think.
Seeing that you’re struggling, Darryl speaks up again.
“Slide your butt about half to three-quarters of an inch back on the saddle,” he says. “Don’t change how hard you’re pedaling, just slide back a bit.”
As you shift your position, you feel a surge of strength in your legs and begin to pull ahead of Darryl.
“Look, you’re going faster, see?” he calls out. “It’s only going to last 20 seconds or so, though. When I say ‘Go,’ shift back to your original position.”
You pedal on, but soon you feel yourself slowing again. “Go!” Darryl shouts. So you shift forward again, and you feel your legs revive as you pull ahead once more. You keep this pattern going as the climb continues, subtly engaging different muscle groups to keep any one set from wearing out.
Maximize Your Muscles
Before too long, though, all this repositioning isn’t quite doing the trick. You can feel your legs going dull. Try as you might, it feels like you’re just pushing a lot of dead weight.
Noticing that you need another push, Coach offers another tip.
“For the next five or six pedal strokes, concentrate on pulling back through the back lower quadrant of your pedal strokes,” he says. “Don’t focus so much on pushing down on the front side; focus on your follow-through. If you think of your pedals as a clock, try to pull back from the seven o’clock to five o’clock positions with each leg.”
You give it a try, once again feeling different muscles take over in your legs. You surge on a little farther still. (If you want to learn more about what’s happening in your legs, this diagram is helpful.)
Pull Yourself Over the Top
Now you can see the crest of the hill. You know there’s only 20 or 30 seconds left, but you’re not sure you have any more strength to get you there.
Once it’s clear you’re really straining, Darryl throws out one last piece of advice to help you climb better on your bike through the final stretch.
“Bring your hands together, toward the center of the handlebars,” he says. “Your thumbs should only be 3 or 4 inches apart. Then, as you push down with each foot, pull up with the same hand. So, if you push on the right pedal, pull up with the right hand.”
This sounds a little odd, but you’re desperate at this point, so you give it a shot. Surprisingly, you find just enough power to push you the rest of the way. You crest the hill, look down on the beautiful downhill stretch below, and let out a final sigh of relief.
What are you waiting for? Coast on down. You’ve earned it. Just remember the first law of bicycle physics. As Darryl puts it: “What goes down, must come up.”
Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.