Sunday, 10 June 2012

Climbing - Part 2 - Power to Weight - Back to basics

In part 1 I concluded with the two things that make climbing harder than it could be for most cyclists and the reasons are insufficient power-to-weight ratio and technique, and that both can be improved through training. This post looks at the first of these; training to tackle the power-to-weight ratio.

Clearly there are two issues to tackle here and in order to be most successful there is a need to strike a balance between them. Power can be increased by using specific training but doing so can increase body weight. Various training and dietary techniques can reduce weight but can also reduce power.

So how can you improve your power-to-weight ratio without gaining weight or loosing power?

Unless you are already very fit and trained in cycling the first step is to ride regularly and at a pace that makes you breathe hard and for half an hour or more at a time. Doing this consistently over a couple of months will bring basic "bike fitness" (i.e. being able to cycle for an hour or two fairly easily and able to start some more challenging training).

Assuming you are already bike fit then let's look at power-to-weight specific training. Joining a gym and following a planned programme of resistance training can be effective but as the training can be done on a bike why pay to use the gym.


The basic principle of training (see my previous post "Back to Basics - What is training?") means that repeatedly stressing the body by carrying out a particular activity will cause it to adapt and become more effective at that particular activity. The more a rider climbs the better they will become, but if the climbing is done at slow speed that's where the improvement will come.

To boost the power for climbing will involve work hard on the kinds of climbs where improvement is desired.

Short Steep Climbs

To boost your power on steep climbs find a steep climb which takes at least a couple of minutes to climb, the sort of hill generally climbed standing on the pedals. For those without access to the necessary hills a turbo trainer with fairly high resistance can be used instead. 

Initially you should warm up thoroughly and then start to train on the climb making repeated short efforts with recovery periods between (interval training). You should make efforts of 40 to 60 seconds duration, pushing a fairly hard gear and accelerating as much as you can in the last few seconds of each effort.  You should be trying hard enough that by the end of each effort it is difficult to keep climbing.

In the first stages of training you might be able to manage four efforts with a gap of a few minutes between (e.g. 50 second efforts with 3 minute rests). The rest periods are important and you should pedal easily during them but don't stop pedaling. As you improve you could increase to 6 or 7 efforts in a session. After that you shouldn't need to increase the number of efforts but you can always increase the effort you make each time by riding faster and pushing a higher gear. If you can manage more than 6 or 7 efforts then you are not trying hard enough in each effort. The rest periods should stay the same so that each time you make an effort you have had the proper recovery period.

After your interval training you need to ride some more at a steady pace to let your body warm down properly.

Long Drags

Long drags are climbs which are usually tackled sitting on the saddle and take at least a few minutes to climb.

Interval training can boost the power needed on these climbs but the efforts will each be significantly longer and normally done sitting down. Like for steep hills you should be pushing hard and try to increase your pace at the end of each effort. When starting this type of training you should aim for about four efforts each of 4 to 5 minutes with rest periods of the same length.

Over time the length of the efforts can be increased rest periods should not be lengthened and may even be reduced (e.g. climbing for 15 minutes and only resting for a few minutes whilst cycling back down the hill before climbing again). About 30 minutes total climbing in a session should be plenty even for the fittest climber, remember you can always ride faster if it isn't hard enough.

Technical Climbs

The climbs I define as Technical are those where the gradient changes during the climb and there are often twists and turns which tend to interrupt the climber's rhythm.

The single climb is likely to go on for some distance but the changes in gradient and rhythm mean that it is a mixture of the long drag and the steep climb, sometimes sitting down and sometimes standing on the pedals. Effective training for the two types of hills, as above, will generally enable you to handle this type of climb quite effectively. If necessary you can train on this type of hill or undertake sessions combining interval type efforts on both types of hill. Making extra effort at the points where the gradient and direction occur will boost your ability to handle such changes in future riding.


To have a high power-to-weight ratio the rider should aim not to carry excess body weight.

In general training on the bike is good for controlling body weight. Training as described above for climbing steep hills may cause a minor increase in body weight but the weight will be more than offset by the increase in power. Training with weights in a gym can cause significant increases in power but these can be accompanied by increases in body weight which are too great to be offset by the additional power when climbing.

If the rider needs to reduce body weight significantly to help with climbing then simply increasing exercise whilst not increasing calorie intake is the only reliable system. To lose the weight too quickly can risk causing a loss of power and lack of energy making recovery more difficult. It is therefore important to continue to eat healthily whilst increasing training.

Significant weight loss should be always be gradual and at a rate which doesn't create an ongoing feeling of fatigue.


In my next post on climbing I'll look at how technique can be improved to climb more effectively.

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