Being a Faster Climber

July 13, 2009 6:38 am

In a prior post I reflected how I thought I was climbing much slower than last year.  But then my son pointed out that my time on Saturday up Mt. Diablo would have put me in 3rd place for men 60+ in the Mt. Diablo Challenge race last fall.

I did some additional research on the subject of how to be a faster climber.  There are three keys including 1) mental attitude, 2) light body weight and 3) smart tactics.   While some cyclists will want to avoid some tough climbs, I seek them out.  My weight is also down, although not as low as it was last fall when I was getting ready for the Everest Challenge.  So what is left is tactics.  Here are a few that I am thinking about:

Use the right gearing

I do almost all my cycling with a double crank.  Although I have put on a 12-27 cassette, it does not seem quite enough on some of the real steep hills.  Sure I am able to make it up every hill, but when the grade gets too steep, my cadence really dips.  If a pro cyclists goes up in a 39/21, with their speed of travel, they may have a cadence of over 80 rpm.  It has been shown that while climbing, a cadence of 80-90 will result in a faster climb time.  The slower you climb, the lower the gearing you need to keep that type of cadence.  It is time I move to a compact crank. With the ability to use a lower gear that will give me the option to remain seated more.  I know when I stand my heart rate climbs.  Although I find standing frequently a help with my legs, too much standing would not lead to the best time.

Avoid Going too Hard too Early

Last Wednesday I did a climb up Henry Coe with some cycling buddies.  Fairly early in the climb I was taking the pace up to see who was going to be able to hang with me.  My pulse rate was now over 170, well above my lactate threshold.  Since one other rider kept up, I had no choice but to keep the pace to see who would last the longest.  He finally dropped off the back but I had to keep driving long enough to form a gap.  But by then I was too expended and my overall time suffered.  I was surprised at the end of the climb that he was only a minute behind me.  You can see this on the attached series of charts, the top one being last week and the other two from an actual race on the same climb during the last two years.  Click on the chart to view enlarged.


Of course I would never expect my time on a ride with some friends to ever be as fast as an actual race where I make sure I have fresh legs and I give it all I have for just that one climb.  However I feel that if I had kept my heart rate down a bit earlier in the climb and then took it up late in the climb I would have finished faster.

Doing Speedwork

One thing I have done in the past is doing some speed work, both intervals on the flats and hill repeats.  That is significantly improved my performance on a long climb.  Although you get some benefit of just climbing certain hills at a hard pace, one should not ignore the benefit of repeats, with short recovery periods in between.  See my article on speedwork.

Cross Training

When I was training for marathons, it not only kept my weight down, but I believe it made me a faster climber.  I started to get out of running for the most part over the last year, due to some issues with my knees.  But I met a guy on our 10 day bicyle tour who also ran the Boston Marathon and he gave me some information one what was causing my problem so I started some exercises to stretch my IT band.  The issue seems to be solved so I have been increasing my running again.  Yesterday I did a 4.5 mile run, with 3 miles at a tempo pace.  On those three miles I was averaging an 8 minute pace.  Not very fast considering I use to run a marathon at a 8:20 pace.  However it was fast for my conditioning because I woke up this morning with sore legs!  Although I don’t plan to run a marathon again anytime soon, I do plan to take my running back up to at least 25 miles a week and add in some interval training.  All cycling and no running makes Franz a dull boy.

One Response to “Being a Faster Climber”

Alison Chaiken wrote a comment on July 13, 2009

Franz, your tips are helpful in thinking about my own preparation for the Mt. Washington Auto Road Hill Climb on 8/15. I’m also doing some cross-training in the form of CrossFit classes that I just started. I also do some hiking on weekends, if only to avoid cycling burn-out.

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