When I moved from Chicago to Baltimore I was confronted with a major topographical challenge: hills. I spent the first 18 months of my cycling career doing laps along the flat path that parallels Lake Michigan. I only needed two gears, one for the headwind and one for the tailwind. Baltimore, on the other hand, offered terrain which required every gear on my bike. Rides ranged from slightly hilly to very hilly with steep, quad busting grades. The hills were generally short; it was the sheer number on every ride that presented the challenge. I was grossly unprepared for this type of riding, but I ardently chased my new friends up the hills hoping that one day I could ride the hills as fast as they did. It took me many years and a Power Tap to realize that the Kamikaze style of climbing, while ego boosting, is not the most efficient method to approach hills, especially when there is a run off the bike.
If you are running on hilly terrain, would you say to yourself at the bottom of a hill, “Gee, I think I will run up that hill as hard as I possibly can and then walk down the other side until I feel recovered. In fact, I will do that every time I encounter a hill on this run.” Sounds ridiculous, right? That is how most people approach hills on the bike. They ride up hard and then coast down the other side until the muscle spasms subside. Getting to the top of the hill first is requisite if you are competing for the polka dot jersey. Most of us are competing in triathlon, though, where there are no interim points and passing lots of people on the hills is nice for bragging rights but means nothing if you cannot run.
This issue has come to light for two reasons. First, since the weather has warmed here in Boulder, rides up the canyons to the “high country” have begun. These climbs can last for an hour or more and if you are a real masochist, you can endure more pain by riding the hills on the Peak to Peak highway or trek back on the rolling 36 from Lyons. The early King of Mountains is often the one whimpering the last hour praying for a mechanical that will necessitate a ride home. Second, my sister and I were analyzing the course profile for Ironman St. George when discussing a mutual friend who will attempt this as his first Ironman. The course is brutally hilly on both the bike and run so anything but a smart, controlled ride on the first loop of the bike will spell disaster for the remainder of the race.
A more constructive way to ride hills is to mete out the effort, especially if it is a longer climb. When I started training with power regularly, I realized that I was working much too hard on the hills causing precipitous drops in power later in the ride because my legs were tired from the earlier efforts (not to mention slogging through runs after these rides because my legs were wasted).
The premise is the basically the same for rolling hills as it is for long sustained climbs. If you are using power, decide before you start the ranges that you would like to target. If the goal is just steady climbing, then choose a range that is sustainable for the period of time the climb lasts. If you are doing specific efforts, keep to the prescribed plan and allow for your power to drop during the recovery from the efforts. Rolling courses with steep hills are the most dangerous in terms of producing too much power so be aware of the amount of force you are putting out on the climb and give yourself a power maximum which you will not exceed. If you are averaging 200 watts, a 400 watt cap is not reasonable or manageable! Choose wisely based on previous training and discussions with your coach.
Finally, heart rate is often a poor indicator of effort on the short, steep hills. Your heart rate will generally not have enough time to respond to these short bursts of power, but your legs will surely know that you’ve done it; just think about what 10 or 20 or even more almost max efforts during the course of a ride or race will do to your legs.
Not yet training with power? Here are some guidelines. On the shorter climbs, if you are hammering out of the saddle and your legs are burning at the top, you’ve gone too hard. Many hills will require you stand to make it over the top, but lessen the force that you putting into the pedals. On the longer, sustained climbs, heart rate is a good substitute; as with power, choose a range that you can maintain for the duration of the climb.
The moral: going easier on the climbs will pay dividends with fresher legs meaning an overall better ride and faster run.