Are you a hill dodger? Plenty of cyclists go the long way round rather than conquer their fear of hills, but hills are an inevitable part of cycling. At some point you’re going to have to get over them…
Head not legs wins the race
Whether you want to master climbing mountains or just stop fearing the hill on the route to work, you need to work on your head as well as your legs. For a start, stop telling yourself you are no good at hills or that you hate them. Start thinking about riding up hills as a great chance to improve your fitness and see something new.
If the sight of a hill disappearing up into the skyline fills you with dread, the trick is to break it down into bite-sized pieces. You need to engage your brain to successfully tackle a steep challenge. As you approach a hill, look ahead and plan as you will need to change down into an easier gear before the hill becomes steep. Shifting under load puts a lot of strain on your chain.
A little bit at a time
Don’t panic and look down, look up and try to assess how long the hill will last. Can you see the top? Take it easy at the start, if you attack the bottom of a climb your lungs might burn and your legs ‘pop’ before you reach the top. It is better to start the climb at a comfortable, manageable pace, maybe even a little bit easier than you think you are capable of, and only accelerate once the top comes into sight. Break the hill into sections, pick a marker just in front of you and focus on making it to that point, as you reach your first marker look up and choose a new one.
Your leg muscles need oxygen, so make sure you stay in control of your breathing. Short, fast shallow breaths won’t fill your lungs and can make you feel more panicked. Relax your shoulders and breathe slowly and deeply from the bottom of your lungs. Focus on pushing the air out every time you exhale so fresh air rushes in. Counting breaths can help you stay focused.
On a long climb, alternating between sitting and standing climbing can help as you can use your body weight, not just your leg power, to push down on the pedals. Allow your bike to swing from side to side as you push down on each pedal. When a hill gets really steep and you have no more gears left, zigzag across the slope to take the sting out of the gradient.
All the gears
We’ve all had the experience of searching for an easier gear, only to find out we’re already in the lowest gear available. In this situation you have nothing left to do but grind it out. Really think about pushing down and pulling it up. If you feel you can’t keep going then stop. Pause, catch your breath, re-focus and have another crack at it. There is no shame in stopping, make a mental marker of how far you rode and plan to beat that target next time.
But remember, if you do need to stop and put a foot down it can be very hard to get going again. Angle your bike across or slightly down the slope as you set off. Turn in a wide arc to give you time to get both feet settled on the pedals before you turn your bike uphill again.
If you frequently find hills too challenging it might be worth reviewing your bike. You can change the gear ratios on your bike to make climbing easier – ask your local bike shop for some advice.
What goes up
Enjoy the reward of the climb by making the most of the descent. Keep your momentum over the top of the climb instead of easing off as soon as you reach the top. Change into a bigger gear and continue to pedal into the start of the descent to keep your speed up until gravity takes over. That way you will get the most benefit from your climbing effort and be able to freewheel for longer. Or you might just prefer to sit on your top tube and admire the view!
What are your tips for making climbing feel easier?