What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Climbing Skills 2

As we’ve seen in France during July, time trials and the climbing are the two primary triggers for stage racing success, with Contador signaling the return of explosive climbers to the top steps of the podium. Last month we discussed the first series of training and technical tips on climbing, and today we focus on the mental strategies to “elevate” your cycling…

Unlike other aspects of cycling, climbing success is considered by most to be almost 100% dependant on fitness and natural ability. After teaching a race clinic a few weeks ago it occurred to me that there is actually much more to it. Over the years, I’ve picked up numerous tricks and techniques that have allowed me to occasionally put one over on a stronger competitor. At the grass roots level, it is possible to just out ride your opponents, but as you get into the higher categories and the gap in ability narrows, strategy becomes increasingly important.

In the first article, we focus on the first 7 tips under Training and Technique. We will spend the second article on the Psychology of climbing and also on some bonus tips. If you find one or two that help you out then my job is done!

Mental: Tips 8-10
8. I am a Strong Climber and I Love to Climb!
I couldn’t write an article on climbing without mentioning the mental aspect. For most riders, the climb is won or lost the moment the looming incline comes into view. I cringe when I hear riders declare “I’m not a climber” or even “I’m a sprinter.” Unless you are a world class or professional cyclist, there is just no reason to limit yourself with statements such as these. The rider who thinks to himself that s/he is not a climber will never be a great climber no matter how hard they train. Mentally, they defeat themselves before they even reach the base. These negative self believes are powerful and deeply ingrained into the subconscious, but they can be overcome.

Next time you have one of these thoughts, write it down and then write down a positive thought that directly counteracts the negative one. For instance if you find yourself thinking “I hate to climb and I’m terrible at it,” you may want to write, “I am a strong climber and I love to climb!” Notice that the statement is 100% positive. Using the word love in your statement has also been proven to improve the power of your mantra. Find 20 minutes on each ride to repeat this statement or affirmation to yourself. Say it out loud and with conviction. Think of the brain as having a type of muscle memory that can be re-shaped with training and repetition. If you do this consistently, you will be amazed at the results.

9. Relax
Negative thinking can cause a physical reaction. Riders who get nervous whenever the road ascends tend to tense up. They waste energy by clenching their shoulders and their arms. They lose their breathing rhythm and some (as ridiculous as this might sound) actually unconsciously hold their breath. Another result of this physical tension is a breakdown in efficiency. Their otherwise smooth pedal stroke becomes choppy and broken. As a result of all this, their heart rate rises much faster than a rider with a similar power to weight ratio and they end up going off the back.

Try these two tricks. At night, when you are relaxed and lying in bed, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Imagine yourself on a challenging climb. Visualize yourself feeling relaxed and pedaling smoothly. Conjure up emotions and feelings you’ve had while doing something cycling related where your confidence soars, such as riding in a pace line or sprinting, and translate that into this climbing scenario. See yourself spinning effortlessly and summiting in record time with very little difficulty. Do this every night before you fall asleep. Make your visualization as realistic as possible incorporating sights, sounds, smells and sensations. If possible, imagine a particular climb that you want to conquer. You punish yourself on the bike week after week. Why not add a few minutes of training each day which won’t even require you to break a sweat?

10. Take the Pain
This may seem obvious, but be ready to suffer. I don’t mean normal suffering – I mean be prepared to push yourself past the point of pain. Often an entire ride or race comes down to one moment on the slopes. How you respond at that moment will define you as a rider. Depending on the situation, don’t worry about conserving energy and DON’T look at your power meter or heart rate monitor. The heart rate and power you put out in a competitive situation will be much higher than what you can handle in training. In many situations, if you ease off on the climb, your day is over anyway so what are you saving it for? If you are suffering, chances are so is everyone else. Holding on for that additional 10 seconds could be the difference between heart break and a personal best. Then if you do get dropped at least you’ll know you gave it your all.

Bonus Tips
I went back and forth about this, but I decided to toss in some climbing secrets that I’ve picked up over the years. Use these when you need that extra half a watt to make it over with the group and for heavens sake, don’t tell anyone about them!

11. Don’t Look Up
When you look up to see the top, you get a distorted perspective of the steepness of the climb. Instead, distort your view in the opposite direction. Look straight down at the pavement in front of you. From this angle, it will appear to your brain that you are riding on a flat road and riding on a flat road isn’t so bad is it?

12. Smile
Often I catch myself making an exaggerated pain face as if to express my suffering to the world. Instead, try a smile. The brain associates a smile with pleasure and happiness. Smiling while you are climbing can trick your brain into thinking that you are not in as much pain as you think you are.

Email me with your favorite climbing tips!

About Josh:
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com

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