How to Climb Faster on your Bike

Photo: Jeff Cricco/TandemStock

Hill Training 101: How To Climb Faster on Your Bike

Hills are inevitable, no matter where you’re riding. Even the flattest rides along the coast inevitably mix in a short climb. Other everyday rides can seem like the entire time is spent either climbing or descending hills. Love ’em or hate ’em, everyone needs to ride uphill at some point. Learning proper hill workouts is a key to cycling, whether you’re looking to make up some ground during a race, or are simply trying to reduce the suffering in between flat stretches.

Breaking the Lactate Barrier

The whole point of hill reps is spending time at your body's lactate threshold. That’s the line you cross during a workout when your body needs to switch from aerobic energy production to anaerobic energy production, because your cells and muscles can’t get enough oxygen to keep up. For the uninitiated, it’s when the exertion goes from feeling like something you could keep up for a while (like an easy jog) to something you couldn’t (like a sprint). There’s a rapid spike in lactic acid (lactate) in your body at this point, which causes a deep burning in your muscles. Your time at this output level is limited and the clock is officially ticking before you need to slow down or stop.

Let’s say you’re cruising along on your bike, rolling through mile after mostly flat mile. You’re working, but you could keep going for hours. But then comes a hill. To get up it, you’re pushing harder, breathing heavier, and your heart rate is through the roof. Your legs and lungs are on fire: Welcome to the lactate threshold. Without some crazy gearing wizardry, it’s hard to climb almost any steep hill without “going anaerobic.” That means if you can train more at this high output level, you might be able to train your body to go faster at an aerobic level, raising your lactate threshold and allowing you to move faster without feeling like you want to cry and starting your anaerobic clock.

For this reason, hill workouts on a bike aren’t only useful for cyclists. Anyone who gets close to their lactate threshold—runners, alpinists, cross-country skiers, and more—will benefit from hill reps that force them to push that line a little further. 

Hill Reps for Beginners

Hill reps are one of the simplest and most effective ways to get faster on hills. Simply speaking, they hurt. But the benefits you’ll see later will hopefully make them worthwhile. They also demand less time than other workouts, which means you can crank them out even when you can’t get a long ride in. A basic one lasts about 1 hour. 

Start with an easy 20-minute warm-up, cruising on as flat ground as possible, just below your lactate threshold. You should be sweating and feeling like you’re working hard, but at a near-conversational pace and right about at the limit of something you could keep up for an hour or two. 

Now the work begins. Find a hill that you can climb for somewhere between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. Beginners should stick to the lower end of that spectrum, while more advanced riders can push for longer. You’ll be climbing this 10 times. For each climb, try to push as hard as possible, both with your legs and with tempo. Find a balance between the two that keeps you moving up as quickly as possible. Either stay in the saddle or get up off it, depending mainly on how steep the hill is. Head back down the hill with 2-3 minutes of recovery, but keep your legs moving, rather than just coasting downhill. 

Once you’re through your 10 reps, finish off with another 20-minute cooldown. 

Hill Training for the Hill-Less

Hills aren’t necessarily a requirement for lactate-threshold training, nor are they the only place where that training can benefit you. Flat parts of the country, conveniently, are also some of the windiest. Try a similar workout biking into a strong wind rather than climbing a hill to get similar resistance. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.