Cycling Uphill Tips

When I first got my bike, the idea of cycling uphill was far less preferable to going downhill. However, over time my opinion changed massively, especially after tackling – and conquering – some of the more challenging and famous climbs that cycling has to offer.

cycling uphill tips

In this post we will cover off plenty of tips to help you cycle uphill, and hopefully help you discover just how rewarding climbing hills on your bike can be.

1. Gear Selection

Gearing is crucial for climbing. First, select the right gears for your ride, especially if facing multiple short, steep ascents. Three common setups are: standard (53×39 teeth), compact (50×34), and semi-compact (52×36).

Unless you’re a pro, a compact or semi-compact is likely more suitable.

Tailor your bike to both the terrain and your ability. Having an extra gear is never regretted, so don’t feel weak for choosing a compact chainset or larger rear cassette.

example of entry level compact gearing

Efficient gear usage is also key. Prepare for a climb by shifting down before you start ascending. Time this change to maintain as much speed and momentum as possible. Shifting gears mid-climb is less efficient and strains your bike.

Yes, in cycling, a lower gear is indeed considered an easier gear. When you shift to a lower gear, the pedalling becomes easier, allowing you to maintain a higher cadence with less resistance. This is particularly useful when climbing hills or when starting off, as it requires less force to turn the pedals. In contrast, a higher gear is harder to pedal but allows for greater speed on flat or downhill sections. The choice of gear depends on the terrain, your fitness level, and the type of cycling you’re doing.

In cycling, is a lower gear an easier gear?
  • Use Lower Gears And A Steady Cadence: Starting with a lower gear helps maintain a steady cadence, which is crucial for efficient climbing. Cadence refers to the rate at which you pedal, measured in revolutions per minute (RPM). A consistent, moderate cadence minimises fatigue.
  • Gear Shifting: Being aware of the terrain ahead and anticipating when to shift gears is a skill that develops with experience. It involves gauging the gradient of the hill and understanding how your body and bike respond to different inclines.
  • Shifting Gears While Standing: When changing the front chainring during a climb, it’s recommended to stand on the pedals, slow down the cadence, then shift and sit in a continuous motion.
  • Timing is Key: It’s important to shift gears before the hill becomes too steep. If you wait until the hill is very steep, shifting can be harder and less smooth.
  • Chain Strain: Shifting under less tension reduces strain on the chain and the risk of mechanical issues, like chain slipping or derailleur stress.
  • Maintaining Momentum: Smooth gear shifting helps maintain momentum. Abrupt changes in resistance can disrupt your rhythm and make climbing more challenging.
  • Don’t Over Complicate It: Avoid getting too focused on gear selection. Choose what feels natural and comfortable.
a brutal mountain pass

2. Pacing

Pacing is a critical skill in cycling, especially when tackling challenging climbs. It’s all about finding the sweet spot between maintaining speed and conserving energy. Proper pacing ensures that you maximise your efficiency and endurance, allowing you to ride longer and stronger.

  • Find Your Rhythm: Maintain a steady, sustainable pace. Start climbs slowly, allowing time to get into a rhythm before slightly increasing the pace. This approach reduces discomfort and can lead to faster climbing.
  • Breathe Deeply: Focus on deep, rhythmic breathing to ensure a steady supply of oxygen to your muscles. If your breathing becomes short and shallow, you are almost certainly going at an unsustainable pace.
  • Know Your Numbers: Having access to your FTP figure, a power meter, heart rate monitor, and cycling computer to display your metrics in real time will vastly aid in properly pacing a prolonged climb.
  • Short Climbs: On short climbs, it’s possible to power up them but remember that it will impact your ability to repeat this performance later in the ride. Therefore, pacing is essential even on shorter climbs.
an outdoor gradual cycling climb uphill

3. Body Position

There’s a lot of advice on climbing in the saddle versus standing up, but ultimately, it’s a personal choice.

The most common method is to climb while seated, standing only to relieve pressure, stretch legs, or overcome steeper sections.

Whether you prefer climbing in or out of the saddle, weight distribution is critical on steep climbs. Standing can cause loss of traction, especially on wet roads, while sitting too far back can lift the front wheel. Practice and find the technique that works best for you, though remaining in the saddle usually avoids issues.

  • Seated Climbing: Stay seated for longer climbs to conserve energy. This position is more energy-efficient.
  • Sitting Up Straighter: When climbing and spinning on the saddle, sitting up straighter and using the top flat part of the handlebar can help in getting more oxygen and maintaining rhythm.
  • Standing Climbing: Stand on the pedals for short, steep sections for more power. It’s less efficient but provides a brief respite for your seating muscles.
  • Leaning Forward Off the Saddle: Putting more upper body weight towards the front axle while off the saddle can help distribute stress away from the legs and use body weight to aid pedalling uphill.
  • Beware Of Muscle Cramps: Changing positions when cycling engages different muscles. It is possible to get awful calf cramp from standing if you spend most of your time seated. This is something I learned the hard way.

Seated Cycling:

  • Primarily uses the quadriceps, which are the front thigh muscles.
  • The hamstrings (back of the thigh) and gluteal muscles (buttocks) are also engaged to a lesser extent.
  • The calf muscles, particularly the gastrocnemius, assist in the downstroke.
  • Core muscles (abdominals and lower back) provide stability.

Standing Cycling:

  • Engages the same muscle groups as seated cycling but to a different extent.
  • The gluteal muscles become more actively involved.
  • There’s increased activation of the hamstrings.
  • The calf muscles are used more intensively.
  • Core muscles play a larger role in maintaining balance and stability.
  • Upper body muscles, including the arms and shoulders, are engaged more to support your weight and provide leverage.

When standing, there’s generally a shift towards using more muscular strength, which can provide a power boost but is also more taxing in terms of energy consumption. Therefore, cyclists often stand for short bursts, such as during a climb, to leverage this power while seated cycling is more efficient for longer, sustained efforts.

cyclist in the mountains

4. Technique Improvement

By enhancing your climbing technique, you can climb more efficiently, conserve energy, and improve your overall cycling performance.

This section focuses on various aspects of technique improvement, tailored specifically for tackling those challenging ascents.

  • Alternating Seated and Standing Efforts: This involves shifting between seated and standing positions while compensating with gear changes. It works different muscle groups and helps mentally break down the climb into manageable sections. Using road markers like mailboxes as short-term goals can also be beneficial.
  • Cadence: Aim for a cadence of around 70-90 revolutions per minute. This helps maintain muscle efficiency.
  • Pedalling Technique: Try to pedal in a smooth, circular motion to maximise power and efficiency.
  • Road Position: On routes with sharp turns or switchbacks, the inside line might be steeper, which, while quicker on a flat road, is more challenging on a climb. Choosing a path slightly outside, without veering into oncoming traffic, offers a less steep gradient, helping maintain momentum and speed for a quicker ascent.
  • Pulling on Pedals: Engaging in pulling motions on the pedals while climbing can effectively change the gear dynamics and provide some muscle rest.

What if I need to stop? If you need to unclip on a steep climb, it’s not the end. To restart, face your bike slightly against the gradient, gain some momentum, and then attempt to clip in. Don’t worry about clipping in immediately; focus on maintaining momentum.

The Zig And Zag Method

zig and zag

Zigzagging, or traversing, can aid in cycling up a steep hill, particularly for cyclists who might find a direct ascent too challenging. This technique involves cycling in a diagonal path across the slope rather than heading straight up. Here are some benefits and considerations:

  1. Reduced Gradient: By zigzagging, you effectively reduce the gradient you’re climbing. This can make pedalling easier, especially on very steep inclines.
  2. Muscle Engagement: It allows for varied muscle engagement, which can reduce fatigue in the muscles that would be primarily used in a straight climb.
  3. Momentum Management: Zigzagging can help in managing momentum and conserving energy, as it provides brief periods of less intense effort.
  1. Increased Distance: The trade-off is that you cover a greater horizontal distance to reach the same vertical height.
  2. Space Requirements: This technique requires more space on the road or trail, which might not be feasible in traffic or on narrow paths.
  3. Technique: It requires skill to execute effectively, especially in maintaining balance and control while changing directions on a slope.

While zigzagging can make a steep climb more manageable by reducing the effective gradient, it’s important to consider the increased distance and the need for adequate space and control. However, this technique can be particularly useful for beginners or those with lower power-to-weight ratios.

cyclist riding outdoors uphill

5. Mental Strategy

Cycling, especially when it involves challenging climbs, is as much a mental endeavour as it is a physical one. The right mental strategy can be the difference between a successful climb and a struggle.

  • Stay Positive: Keep a positive mindset. Break the climb into smaller sections in your mind.
  • Visualisation: Visualise reaching the top and the achievement of conquering the hill.
  • Breathing Techniques: Maintaining deep, controlled breathing can help keep the legs relaxed and improve overall performance.
  • Pre-Ride Climb Research: Use apps like Strava, Komoot, VeloViewer, and even Google Maps to study the details of the climb – its gradient, length, and road surface. This helps in pacing and mental preparation.
  • Set Realistic Goals: Establish achievable goals for climb. These could be distance-based, time-based, or even effort-based. Achieving these smaller goals can boost your confidence and motivation.
  • Accept You’re Not Going To Get The KOM / QOM: It would be nice to take the King / Queen of the Mountain title for your local hill, but for most of us that isn’t going to happen, even with a strong wind and a lottery winner’s luck.
  • Positive Self-talk: Engage in positive self-talk. Remind yourself of your training, your strength, and your ability to overcome challenges. Replace negative thoughts with affirmations like “I can do this” or “I’m getting stronger.”
  • Distraction Techniques: Use distraction techniques to take your mind off the difficulty. This could be thinking about a favourite song, planning a future event, or solving a problem in your head. Personally I like to focus on keeping the cadence figure steady on my Garmin.
  • Ride in Groups: If possible, ride with others. Social interaction and encouragement from fellow cyclists can greatly improve morale and provide a welcome distraction from physical exertion.
  • Embrace the Challenge: View each climb or difficult section as an opportunity to improve. Embracing the challenge can shift your perspective from dread to excitement.
  • Visualise Past Successes: Remember times when you’ve successfully tackled difficult rides. Visualising these past successes can reinforce your belief in your abilities.
  • Manage Expectations: Understand that not every ride will be your best. Accepting this can reduce pressure and allow you to enjoy the experience without undue stress.
  • Ride Regularly: Consistency is key in building both physical and mental strength. Regular riding helps you become more comfortable and confident on the bike.
  • After-Ride Reflection: After each ride, reflect on what went well and what could be improved. This helps in learning from each experience and setting focused goals for future rides.
use a garmin or similar to know what hills are upcoming on your route

6. Training

Developing the physical prowess required for effective climbing in cycling involves specific training techniques, both on and off the bike.

  • Interval Training: Incorporate interval training in your routine to improve your climbing strength and endurance.
  • High-Intensity Training (HIT): Short bursts of high-intensity training improve power and speed, which can be particularly useful for short, steep climbs.
  • Regular Hill Training: Including local hills in your training routine can significantly improve climbing ability.
  • Strength Training Off the Bike: Exercises like squats and deadlifts can enhance neuromuscular engagement in the legs, benefiting both on and off the bike performance.
  • Cross-Training: Engage in activities like running, swimming, or yoga. These can improve cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, and core strength, all of which are beneficial for cycling.
  • Consistent Endurance Rides: Regular long-distance rides at a moderate intensity help build endurance, crucial for long climbs and extensive cycling tours.
  • Flexibility and Core Training: Incorporate stretching and core strengthening exercises into your routine. A strong core improves stability and efficiency on the bike, while flexibility can help prevent injuries.
  • Track Your Progress: Use a cycling computer or app to monitor your performance. Tracking progress can be a huge motivator.
  • Learn from Others: Join a cycling group or club. Riding with more experienced cyclists can provide valuable insights and tips.
  • Tackle Different Terrains: Vary your training routes to include different types of climbs and terrains. This diversification can help you become a more adaptable and skilled cyclist.
  • Specificity Training: Tailor your training to the specific demands of your goal events or races. This might mean replicating the climb’s gradient, length, or even the road surface.

7. Nutrition and Hydration

Nutrition and hydration are critical components of any cyclist’s regime, playing a vital role in performance, endurance, and recovery. In this section, we’ll focus on key strategies for effectively managing your nutritional and hydration needs, particularly when undertaking long rides or intense training sessions.

  • Stay Hydrated: Drink water regularly to avoid dehydration, which can significantly impact performance.
  • Electrolyte Balance: Alongside water, ensure you maintain a good balance of electrolytes. Sports drinks or electrolyte supplements can help, especially during longer rides or in hot weather.
  • Regular Snacking: On longer rides, eat small, easily digestible snacks regularly, rather than waiting until you feel hungry or low on energy. This helps maintain a steady energy level.
  • Energy Foods: Consider energy gels or bars during long rides to maintain energy levels.
  • Natural Food Options: While energy bars and gels are convenient, don’t overlook natural foods like bananas, dried fruits, or a porridge for energy.
  • Avoid High-Fibre Foods Pre-Ride: Before a ride, avoid high-fibre and fatty foods, as they can cause gastrointestinal discomfort.
  • Post-Ride Nutrition: After a ride, consume a mix of carbohydrates and protein within 30 minutes. This aids in recovery and muscle repair.
  • Your Last Meal: Eat your last meal at least 3 hours before the ride, consisting of refined carbohydrates.
  • Coffee Stop: Use caffeine to enhance performance, unless you are sensitive to it.

8. Bike Setup

The setup of your bike is a fundamental aspect that can significantly impact your cycling performance, especially when it comes to climbing. In this section, we’re going to focus on various adjustments and considerations to optimise your bike for better climbing efficiency. Whether you’re tackling steep inclines or long, gradual ascents, these tips will help you to make the most out of your ride.

  • Optimise Bike Weight: A lighter bike makes climbing easier. Consider your bike’s weight and how you might reduce it.
  • Tyre Pressure: Adjust tyre pressure according to the terrain. Slightly lower pressure can increase grip on steep climbs.
  • Get A Proper Bike Fit: Bikes come from the manufacturers designed for everybody, and that means… nobody. If you’re serious about your cycling, get a proper bike fit. Get your bike setup for you.
  • Wheel Size Consideration: The size of the wheels can also play a role in climbing efficiency.
  • Seat Height Adjustment: Proper seat height is vital for maximising pedal stroke efficiency on climbs.
  • Saddle Position: Along with height, the fore-aft position of the saddle can influence your power output and comfort. Ensuring the saddle is positioned correctly relative to the pedals can improve pedalling efficiency.
  • Regular Maintenance: Keep your bike in top condition. Regular maintenance, including chain lubrication and brake adjustments, ensures that your bike operates efficiently.
big thumbs up to cycling up hill

9. Practice

When it comes to mastering the art of climbing in cycling, there’s no substitute for practice. Regular, focused practice is essential for developing the strength, technique, and confidence needed to tackle various types of climbs effectively.

  • Frequent Climbing: Regularly include hills in your cycling routes to improve your climbing skills and build confidence. It’s not just about fitness but also getting accustomed to the sensation and using your muscles differently.
  • Start Easy: Begin with easier, rolling roads and avoid steep gradients. Use planning apps like Komoot to find suitable climbs with manageable elevation.
  • Practice Indoors: If you don’t live near climbs, using an indoor trainer can effectively mimic climbing. This is especially useful for training for rides in hilly or mountainous areas.
  • Vary Your Climbs: Include a variety of climbs in your training – short and steep, long and gradual, and everything in between. This diversity helps build versatility and adaptability in your climbing skills.
  • Mimic Targeted Climbs: If training for a specific event, try to replicate the climb’s conditions as closely as possible in your practice, including gradient, distance, and expected weather conditions.
  • Interval Training on Climbs: Incorporate interval training on climbs. Alternating between hard efforts and recovery periods can boost your climbing strength and endurance.
  • Ride with Faster Cyclists: Occasionally ride with cyclists who are stronger climbers. This can challenge you to push beyond your usual pace and learn new techniques.
  • Post-Ride Analysis: After each climb, analyse what went well and what could be improved. Reflect on your pacing, gear choices, and how you felt physically and mentally.
  • Recovery Rides: Incorporate recovery rides into your training schedule. These low-intensity rides help your muscles recover and adapt, making you stronger for your next climb.

10. Rest and Recovery

Rest and recovery are as important as training itself in the world of cycling, especially when it involves challenging activities like hill climbing.

  • Adequate Rest: Ensure you get enough rest between rides, as recovery is key to improving overall performance.
  • You Are Allowed To Stop: Don’t be ashamed to take a breather. No one has ever asked me if I made it up a climb in one go, without stopping.
  • Active Recovery: Incorporate low-intensity activities, like walking or light cycling, on your rest days. Active recovery helps stimulate blood flow to the muscles without straining them.
  • Quality Sleep: Prioritise getting quality sleep. Adequate sleep is essential for muscle repair and overall recovery. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night and consider naps if needed.
  • Massage and Foam Rolling: Utilise massage or foam rolling to help relax tight muscles and improve circulation, aiding in recovery.
  • Mental Recovery: Don’t overlook the importance of mental rest. Activities like meditation, reading, or engaging in hobbies can help clear your mind and reduce stress.
  • Post-Ride Cool Down: After a ride, take time to cool down with gentle cycling or a walk. This helps in gradual recovery of the heart rate and prevents muscle stiffness.
  • Monitor Your Recovery: Use tools like heart rate variability (HRV) monitoring to gauge your recovery status and adjust your training accordingly.
  • Avoid Overtraining: Be mindful of the signs of overtraining, such as prolonged fatigue, decreased performance, or mood changes. Adjust your training plan if necessary.
  • Post-Ride Nutrition: Consume a recovery meal or drink soon after your ride to replenish glycogen stores and start the muscle repair process.

Advanced Climbing Tips

Climbing in cycling is not just a test of physical endurance, but it’s also an art that can be mastered with the right techniques and strategies.

For seasoned cyclists looking to take their climbing skills to the next level, this section is dedicated to advanced tips and tricks that can make a significant difference in your uphill performance.

Whether you’re preparing for a race or simply aiming to conquer challenging climbs more effectively, these advanced tips are designed to give you an edge.

  1. Reduce Bike Weight:
    • Leave extra items like water bottles and cages at home.
    • Wear light clothing, remove under jersey, gloves, and socks.
    • Consider removing the saddle if you plan to stand while sprinting.
  2. Pre-Ride Body Weight Management:
    • Use the toilet before riding to reduce weight.
    • In the 48 hours before your ride, follow a low-residue diet (low in fibre) to reduce gut fibre content.
  3. Invest in Lightweight and Aero Equipment:
    • If affordable, invest in lightweight and aerodynamic gear like frames, wheels, overshoes, skinsuits, and helmets.
    • Train in an aerodynamic position to minimise drag.
    • Choose gear that is both aero and light, especially for draggy, less steep hills.
  4. Utilise Favourable Wind Conditions:
    • Research and monitor wind patterns, seasonal and daily variations.
    • Look for conditions with tailwinds, low air pressure, and cool, dry weather.
  5. Team Strategy for Climbing:
    • Use lead-out riders and domestiques to set pace on less steep parts of the climb.
    • Ensure the team is well-prepared but not so strong as to drop you.
  6. High-Altitude Training: If possible, train in high-altitude conditions to improve your aerobic capacity and efficiency. This is especially beneficial if your target event includes high-altitude climbs.
  7. Reconnaissance Rides: If the climb is part of a race or event, try to ride it beforehand. Familiarity with the climb can be a significant advantage.

But realistically those tips are for people who are way beyond the average cyclist. Far beyond myself, even.

Enjoy The Climb

Here are my final three biggest tips for enjoying the unusual art of cycling uphill:

Find Beautiful Climbs: Motivate yourself by choosing inspiring routes and climbs. Plan trips to beautiful locations and look for climbs with significant cycling history, scenic views, or heck, a good cafes or restaurant at the top.

Enjoy the Moment: Climbing is a unique experience. Making your way up the hill is a huge part of the enjoyment. Appreciate the achievement of reaching the summit and the views it offers. Embrace the challenge and the rewarding emotions that come with it.

Take A Photo At The Top: This is perhaps my biggest tip. We all carry our phones with us everywhere we go. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I almost always get my camera out and snap a picture at the top.

chris at the top of jeffrey hill in the very wet weather

These are our top tips for conquering steep climbs.

Remember, everyone’s abilities and fitness levels are different. It’s important to listen to your body and progress at a pace that’s right for you.

Share your own strategies in the comments, and happy climbing! 🚴‍♂️🏔️

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