Toolbox: Epic Climbing Training!
Summer is the time for big rides, and that often means big climbs. If you have one planned this year or on your bucket list, it’s not just a matter of fitness. Let’s look at some specific training that should go into preparing for a climbing festival.
The Giro d’Italia has over 42,000 meters (138,000+ feet) of climbing this year. California’s legendary “Death Ride” has 15,000 feet of climbing, over five passes, in its 129 miles. These are big rides, and I’m willing to bet you have something similar on your list of “must do” experiences.
Climbing truly is the heart of cycling. From Alpe d’Huez to the Mortirolo, L’Angliru to Ventoux, it’s the climbs that carry much of the history and prestige in our collective culture. They are long and steep, difficult, even notorious, these climbs we covet. Yet more and more riders are seeking even grander challenges than those set upon by the pro peloton. Instead we seek longer, higher and harder climbs in a personal quest to push our bodies ever farther and harder.
This drive has led to the rise of events that cater to our craziness. The “Death Ride” is one of the oldest, celebrating 36 years this July, while the Taiwan KOM is still relatively young having started in 2012. Newer still – and perhaps more nefarious than all the others – is what is called “Everesting.” Simply put, it is climbing the equivalent elevation as the height of Mt. Everest (29,029 feet) in a single ride on a single climb, but more on that in a bit. First, let’s cover some fundamentals for an event like the Taiwan KOM.
The Taiwan KOM
Last fall I had the unique opportunity to climb one of the rising “icons” of ultra climbing by taking part in the Taiwan KOM Challenge, a 100 kilometer ride from sea level to over 3275 meters (nearly 11,000 feet). In and of itself the climb is challenge enough for most, but it is the final 8 kilometers averaging nearly 11%, and topping out above 27% for a short period that makes it a sure-fire “must do” ride for the masochistic. The ride organizers impose a 6-hour time limit for the ride and last year the winner finished in just over 3.5 hours. Here is the course profile:
This year Toolbox Editor Stephen Cheung is set to tackle the slightly less perverse “Road to Taiwan KOM” ride on July 9. Same distance, same goal, but a slightly more sane 9 h time limit, albeit with the twist of the added heat and humidity of summertime in Asia.
A Weekly Training Plan
Let’s look at the last six weeks into an event like this as a template. For me, the key is consistency more than volume. One doesn’t need to train four and five hundred miles a week in order to be successful. Instead focus on the quality of training in tempo and sub-threshold zones and add the critical element of consistency. I’d rather have five days of structured riding each week than one really huge ride with multiple days off. A typical week might look like this:
Monday: easy recovery ride in the 45-90 minute range. Your body needs the rest, so be sure to take it.
Tuesday: Climbing Day! You are doing a climbing ride right? On your favorite climb of at least 10-30 minutes aim for a total of 60-90 minutes of uphill effort. When you first start just try to accumulate as many laps of the course as you can before fatigue takes over. As the 6 weeks progress, aim to do each ascent just a little bit harder (5-10 W or 3-5 bpm). You should see a consistent improvement in your time to fatigue and overall effort level to do repeated ascents totaling an hour or more of hard climbing at progressively harder effort levels. It should be at least 15 minutes long in order to help you find a consistent rhythm.
Wednesday: Aim for alternating your ride focus on Wednesdays. I’ll either have my riders do a second day of climbing, normally a bit lower intensity and longer, or they can do a shorter local “fast” ride that acts to tap all of the energy systems. The key to which style of ride to choose rests on the Thursday ride.
Thursday: If my training week included a second day of sustained climbing, I’ll use this ride as a recovery day and aim for 60-90 minutes of easy small ring riding. If my Wednesday ride was higher intensity, then I’ll have my riders do a similar format to the Tuesday ride – extended intervals on a favorite climb targeting 60-90 minutes of climbing time.
Friday: Again, this day is dependent on the day before. If you rode the climbing repeats then this is a tempo endurance day. Flat to rolling terrain with my heart rate targeting mid to upper zone 3 for blocks of 20-30 minutes with a total goal of 90 – 120 minutes of tempo riding. Rest periods between tempo efforts should be short, under five minutes. If Thursday was a recovery day I’ll use Friday to pre-fatigue the weekend a bit by doing intervals at Threshold, or slightly above, for 20 – 30 minutes.
Saturday: Climbing Day! As your focus in the ability to climb for long periods of time target a minimum of 3,000 – 5,000 feet of climbing in 3 – 4 hours. There are no restrictions on heart rate or effort today…ride hard and have fun with friends.
Sunday: The big one. Target a ride duration of between 3.5 – 5 hours, perhaps a bit more. I think there is a point of diminishing returns on rides over 5 hours for most people, as fatigue often limits how hard those rides can be and you are not getting much fitness gain on a super long ride with your heart rate unable to rise above 130 beats per minute. You are better served to keep the ride shorter and try to approximate roughly 60-80% of your anticipated calories or kilojoules (a really great reason to train with power). Post ride focus on recovery straight away.
Of course this is a somewhat idealized training week for those with 10-12 hours of ride time. Your schedule may fall together differently, but the key elements of developing muscle endurance via climbing and a bit of high end fitness via increasing effort on repeats and some high intensity work will leave you in good standing for the demands of a long climbing ride. Tons of VO2max intervals and anaerobic capacity work is not an essential element of most endurance climbing rides so don’t fool yourself into thinking you are getting a race preparation shortcut by doing them. It is a short road from modest gains to overload.
Next week, we will cover some ideas on equipment modifications along with nutrition and hydration strategies. We will also tackle the madness of Everesting. In the meantime, find thee some hills.
About Matt McNamara: Matt is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. Matt is the founder and president of Sterling Sports Group. Learn more by visiting him online at www.sterlingwins.com.