The science and physiology to become a better climber
The essence of cycling lies in the climbs, the place where the races are decided and where the best cyclists bring out their strengths while giving us the best possible show. Although it is necessary to have certain innate qualities to be a climber, specific training can help us to defend ourselves better on this terrain.
How to get your full potential on the climbs
If cycling is a demanding sport in itself, when we go into mountain terrain this demand becomes a filter that separates the strong from the weak in an unappealable process of natural selection.
Being a good climber has a big innate variable. It's clear that those skinny, slim riders have a lot to gain over the average rider when the road goes up. The first parameter that is always referred to when it comes to tackling climbs is the famous power-to-weight ratio, i.e. how many watts our legs are capable of generating on a sustained basis and how much weight needs to be transferred from the valley to the top of the mountain.
In this ratio, although power is fundamental, the parameter that ends up being the most important is weight. You can't be a good climber without being light, as the amount of power you are forced to move becomes insane. With a few exceptions such as Wout Van Aert, it is very difficult to find cyclists who can perform at the highest level on climbs and who are not light.
In addition to an adequate weight/power ratio, it is also important to know how long we can maintain a certain power. This time must be enough to be able to complete the entire climb. This is where the lactate threshold comes into play, or the FTP if we are talking about power. Having as high a threshold as possible will allow us to maintain a higher cruising pace throughout the entire uphill.
Another aspect, which is difficult to quantify, is mental strength. Climbing a mountain pass requires suffering and being able to maintain the intensity when we are tortured and our heads are asking us to lift our feet. It is a subtle parameter but of such importance that it can mean the difference between enduring or failing.
Beyond physical capacities, we have other parameters that we can influence and that can help us to be better climbers. Of course, the first of these is to try to reduce our weight as much as possible, always in a healthy way and trying to ensure that this reduction is at the expense of fatty tissue and not muscle tissue, which would cause us to lose strength.
When climbing, a good position on the bike is important. A relaxed position can save us a lot of wasted energy when pedalling. The next step is to maintain a happy cadence that prevents the fast muscle fibres from having to work and flooding us with lactic acid, thus compromising our capacity for effort.
Improving your performance going uphill
If you want to improve on climbs, you will of course have to train specifically on this terrain. In any case, the starting point should be to be in good physical condition so that we can train efficiently when the slope becomes positive.
The specific training sessions we can do to improve when climbing will be focused, first, on raising our lactate threshold and, second, on improving our tolerance to lactate, which is useful when we have to face changes of pace or those ramps that force us to push ourselves to the limit and after which we have to recover our cruising pace to continue our ascent.
For the first of these, the long Sweet Spot intervals are ideal, in other words, that zone below the threshold that will define a pace very close to the cruising speed that we can maintain in a pass. This type of training will be done by performing several intervals in this zone lasting between 15 and 30 minutes.
In terms of lactate tolerance, we would work with shorter intervals, under a minute in duration and power above the threshold, which will give us that spark to resist when the demand, whether marked by the climb or by our companions, increases.
Of course, we must not forget the complementary strength work, which will provide us with a solid base on which to develop our climbing qualities by improving the connectivity of the muscular tissues and the response of the muscles to the demanding efforts demanded by the ascents.
Another good way to work on the climbs is precisely by climbing. A very common training method is to use a climb that we have as a reference in our area and repeat it as a series a certain number of times. The problem arises for those who live on flat terrain and cannot count on a sufficiently long ascent, around 10 minutes, to do a usable workout.
In this case, we can try to emulate the type of effort that the body would be subjected to, by doing intervals on the flat with a harder pace than usual or against the wind.
We must not forget the best training, which is simply to put ourselves in a real situation. Make the most of the start with our group and try to do our best on those climbs that are difficult for us, trying to keep up with the strongest riders. This work will also help us to improve our capacity for suffering and mental strength, as well as reinforcing our self-confidence in our real abilities when the terrain turns upwards.
Training sessions that will make us enjoy the terrain in which cycling is at its best and, why not, expand the limits of the routes that we are capable of facing riding our machines.