A woman rides her bike uphill

How To Improve Your Uphill Cycling

Photo: Onewithahalf

Any way you look at it, riding up hills takes a lot of work—not to mention the right skills and a can-do attitude.

Turn a corner and meet a long climb ahead: There’s always an intimidation factor, whether it’s on a rising road or trail; if you’ve been in the saddle for years, or are new to the sport. Even if the sight of a demanding ascent doesn’t trigger a cold sweat, you know there’s an incredibly hot one in store. Any way you look at it, riding up hills takes a lot of work—not to mention the right skills and a can-do attitude. With a little preparation and some key advice, you can improve your riding, get stronger, and learn to enjoy the grind.

Do: Know your gears

Familiarity with your bike will make riding up hills far easier. You don’t want to be fumbling with your gears, wondering which shifter does what, as the hill steepens and your ride gets harder. Know your gears, and use them. Shift early and often to match your abilities, the capabilities of your bike, and the demands of the climb.

Don’t: Be a big-ring hero

Sometimes your ego tries to convince you that you don’t need to downshift, that we should save gears for later in the climb. Your bike has gears for a reason: Use them. Don’t be afraid to shift down, reducing the pedal resistance and increasing your cadence. A higher cadence with an easier pedal stroke will keep you going longer to help you up steep hills—and help prevent you from tweaking or twisting your knee with strain.

Do: Go easy on your drivetrain while shifting

There are few things worse than hearing your chain pop, snap, and crack over your chainring and cassette. This happens when you try to shift while you are pedaling hard, with your chain under load. Instead, ease off the pressure on your pedal stroke when you shift (as if you’re letting off the gas to press the clutch on a manual car transmission), so that the chain can move without all of your weight and power pulling it taut. You’ll need some momentum to make this smooth shift happen, which can be a challenge on super-steep hill sections—again, shift early.

Don’t: Fall over

Sometimes, we push the bike and walk beside it. If a section is too steep and you feel yourself coming to a near stop, losing the balance of your bike, put a foot down and walk your bike. No shame; bruised pride is better than a bruised side. Keep going back to that hill and eventually you won’t need to put that foot down.

A man rides his bike uphill Photo: Mongkol

Do: Get up and out of the saddle when you need to

Getting out of your saddle and standing up on the pedals will provide a boost of power, but don’t overuse it. Staying seated keeps you more aerodynamic and helps you maintain a consistent cadence. Use standing for when you need that extra push, want to rearrange on your saddle, or run out of easier gears. Shift into a harder gear before you stand, so that you don’t waste your first pedal stroke pushing a gear that will be instantly too easy.

Don’t: Start too hard

When you approach a hill, it can be tempting to start pushing hard and get it all over with. Don't think about the start of the hill; think about the top, because that is where you are heading. Pick a cadence, pace, and heart rate that you will be able to maintain throughout the entire climb.

Do: Breathe

Try to relax your face and avoid clenching your teeth, just grimacing and hoping it ends. Your body needs air to keep moving. Try to breathe consistently with a rhythm: something that will help you maintain the cadence of your legs as well, your whole body working as one.

Don’t: Assume it will just get easier

You won’t get better at riding hills by avoiding them. Instead, train for them. A longer, gentler hill will give your body the work and practice it needs. Also, consider hill repeats. Climb the hill, working hard, and use the descent as a recovery before you start to climb all over again. Start with small, gradual ascents before adding in repeats on longer and steeper climbs.

Do: Know how hard you’re working

Adding metrics like heart rate and cadence to your training with devices like a heart rate monitor and cadence monitor will give you valuable information about just how hard you’re working, how fast you’re pedaling, and how you’re improving over time. Seeing your heart rate rise too high, too early in a long climb can be a great sign to ease up on pedal strokes so you make it up the entire ride.

Don’t: Lean too far forward or backward

As you sit and stand on your bike, be aware of your center of balance. If you lean too far forward, especially when standing up, you can pick your rear tire off the road and have it land where you don't expect it. This could lead to a nasty fall. Keeping your weight back will help give you balance and traction, especially on steep or wet climbs. Be careful though, on steep climbs in particular, where leaning back too far could bring that front wheel up and off the road.

Do: Make changes when necessary 

If you’re still having trouble, consider your full kit. Taking unnecessary items off your bike, like that third water bottle, two spare tubes, and Bluetooth speaker, can make a big difference with less weight to pedal up the hill. It’s also possible to change your bike to reduce the pedaling exertion. Swapping a smaller chainring in the front, or a cassette with a larger climbing gear in the back, will change your gear ratio to make high-cadence pedaling easier. 

Don’t: Get down on yourself

The only force that can pull you down more than gravity is your attitude. Try to keep a positive headspace and remind yourself why you are doing this—whether it’s enjoying the present moment, the physical sensations that come with exercise, or the sense of accomplishment. Find a way to be your own biggest cheerleader, even if you do have those occasional dark moments at those steepest sections.

Do: Get out there

Through consistent work, proper technique, and putting in the miles, you’ll grin, not sweat, the next time you see that big hill ahead.

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.