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As a beginner cyclist, hills can seem harsh and even overwhelming. But there’s no need to avoid rides that include a few climbs just because you may be a beginner. With practice, a little skill, and the right knowledge, you might even begin to enjoy the challenge of cycling uphill.
If you want to get better at riding up hills on your bicycle, you need to employ the right strategies for cadence, momentum, posture, breathing, gearing, and fueling your ride. Knowing the best tips on how to get up hills will help you gain the confidence and ability you need to make it to the top.
Hill climbing takes more than just brute strength. It’s also part skill that you can learn and practice! If you want to get better at climbing, check out these tips for cycling uphill for beginners.
1. Plan Ahead
It helps to know what kind of a hill you’re about to climb, so if you can, plan ahead. Different hills require different strategies.
You might ride up a short, steep hill slightly differently from you would ride up a long, gradual climb. Rollers, or small rolling hills, require yet another strategy. So if you know what kind of hill is coming up, you can plan out how you’ll attack it.
Some bike computers, like Garmin, can tell you what category of hill is coming up, so you can know if you need to take it long and slow or hard and punchy. If you look at your courses on Strava, it will tell you the grade of the hills on your route, so you can plan and strategize before you even leave the house.
If you look at segments on Strava for where you will ride, you can see a visual representation of what the terrain looks like and how steep the hill is. While the data isn’t perfect, it will give you a good idea of what to expect, and you’ll be able to see how fast or slow other rides in your area have taken the hill.
The more hills you ride, the more you’ll know your abilities and the more confidence you’ll feel when you ride a new climb. If you can’t plan ahead and find yourself on an unfamiliar climb, take it easy if the hill is a lot longer and harder than you expect. It’s better to get to the top with extra energy and momentum than have to get off and walk halfway up.
2. Start Easy
A common hill-climbing mistake is to hit the hill too hard too early. If you start too strong, you’ll tire yourself out before you reach the top. Your legs and lungs will burn, leaving you gasping for air as your body tries to keep up with the effort.
Pace yourself instead! Start easy, and then you’ll have some gas left in the tank to push harder when near the apex.
Don’t worry if you see fellow riders surging ahead at the bottom. If they’re inexperienced hill climbers, they might be starting too hot. If that’s the case, you’ll probably pass them halfway up as they get tired.
But it is ok if your pals are faster than you – everyone rides at their own speed. Either way, if you’re on a no-drop group ride, faster riders will probably just wait for everyone else at the top so you can all regroup and enjoy the descent together.
By starting easy, you can get yourself in a good groove. Aim for a comfortable cadence or pedaling speed. If you find yourself spinning the pedals too fast, then you can switch to a harder gear for a little more oomph.
Pace yourself well on the climbs, and you should have plenty of energy for the rest of your ride.
3. Use Your Momentum
If possible, and safe to do so, build up some speed before you get to the hill. Building up a little speed before the climb will give you some momentum to get you started up the ascent, and it will help save your legs!
If you’ve got a flat area of the road before your hill begins, start pedaling faster so you can get that momentum going. Then shift to an easier gear just as you start up the mountain. This method will help carry your speed and acceleration further up the hill. If you shift into too easy of a gear, though, you’ll lose that momentum too early.
Of course, don’t wear yourself out by riding too hard before the hill. Save some of that energy for the actual climb.
This technique works great if you’re riding small rolling hills, too. Use the descent of one hill to pick up some speed and momentum to help you fly over the next.
Shift into a harder gear if possible so you can pedal on the descent. Then shift to an easier gear to get yourself up and over the hill. Rollers can be a lot of fun once you get the hang of it!
4. Use Your Gears
The hardest part of hill climbing is knowing which gears to use and when to use them. While there is no ‘perfect’ gear to use, you’ll soon figure out what works for you if you keep practicing.
Err on the side of using a gear that’s too easy and spin your way to the top. It may make you go a little slower, but it won’t be as hard to get up that hill. The goal is to keep a comfortable cadence, so you don’t tire your leg muscles too quickly.
On the other hand, if you accidentally use a gear that’s too hard, you’ll burn out your legs before you get to the top. You might even fall if the gear you chose is too hard to turn over on your way up the ascent.
If you’re struggling to get up hills, you might need different gearing on your bike altogether. Mountain bikes tend to have a wider variety of gears to choose from, and they usually come with one very easy gear to help you spin your way up any steep hill. If you’re always running out of gears on your road bike, you may need to make a trip to your local bike shop to see if you can swap out the gears for something that gives you an easier time of getting up those challenging hills.
5. Shift Early
Newer bikes can shift under more tension than older bikes can, but you still want to shift early.
Move to an easier gear before you start climbing for a smoother shift and an easier time getting up.
If you plan to stand up to climb, shift down one to two times into a harder gear just before you hit the hill. Then stand up smoothly as you begin the ascent.
Sometimes, if you wait too long to shift, you might not be able to get your bike into the gear you want. If there’s too much tension on the chain, your bike won’t shift, or you might even drop your chain. If you drop your chain, you’ll have to stop and fix it.
Once you’ve stopped, you might have trouble getting started again if you’re on a steep climb. If the road is safe and you have plenty of room, you can try riding across the road instead of up. Riding across or diagonally up the road might give you a little flat space to help you start pedaling again. But don’t do this if there is traffic!
You might have to walk your bike until you can find a flat enough spot to get started again. Or simply turn around and ride down the hill until you can turn around and start back up again.
6. Relax and Breathe
We don’t always realize what our bodies are doing when we are focused on something hard. We tend to tense up and hold our breath, but that wastes energy and makes it harder to get up the hill. Instead, try to relax as much as possible.
Keep your arms slightly bent and your shoulders down, without tension. It’s normal for your heart rate to rise as you climb hard. Take long, deep breaths to help keep your heart rate under control and to supply plenty of oxygen to your hard-working leg muscles.
If you find that your breathing and heart rate shoot up too quickly, you may be using too hard of a gear. Try an easier gear and breathe slowly and deeply.
7. Stand Up
Climbing out of the saddle can give you a power advantage when you need it most. By standing up, you put more of your weight onto the pedals so you can push down even harder. (Source)
However, on a steep climb, this can make your back wheel slip. If this is the case, try to shift your weight towards the back wheel to give it more traction.
Another reason to stand while climbing is to give your back and legs a break. If you find your legs aching or your low back hurts, climb out of the saddle for a minute just to give yourself a chance to stretch. You’ll feel better when you sit back in the saddle.
If the road is wet and slippery, you may not be able to get enough traction when you’re standing on the pedals. In this case, don’t stand up. Just put it in an easier gear and keep spinning in the saddle.
8. Fuel First
Nothing depletes your glycogen stores like climbing hard! (Source)
Glycogen is a fuel that your body stores in its muscles, and climbing uses it up fast. Give yourself an advantage by topping off before you hit the climb.
You probably need to eat about every half an hour on the bike. But if you’re doing a lot of climbing, you might need some extra energy. So eat up before you hit the climb, so you have enough energy to finish it.
Try a few bites of a Larabar, a gel, some sports drink, or whatever gives your body a boost.
9. Spin It to Win It
You might feel like you need to grind your way up the hill, but you’re more likely to tire yourself out this way. You’ll burn out your legs, burn up your fuel, and end up feeling like you dropped a lung somewhere along the road.
You’re better off choosing an easier gear and spinning up the hill with a higher cadence. It’s less taxing on your muscles.
Low cadence can induce fatigue, and the more hills you climb, the harder it will be to recover from that shaky, weak feeling. The more you can spin easy on the hills, the more hills you’ll be able to tackle in a single ride.
10. Lighten Up
If your bike is weighed down with too much stuff, you’ll have a more challenging time huffing it up that hill. Lose the load, when possible, to make your hill climbs easier.
Thanks to gravity, lighter riders can climb easier and faster, especially if they have more lightweight bikes and fewer items.
Leave the unnecessary weight at home, especially if you know you are climbing a lot of hills. Choose a lighter bike when possible. Some bikes are designed more for hills, so choose wisely when bike shopping! More lightweight components mean a lighter, faster bike.
Don’t overpack – only bring the gear that you need. If you’re guilty of packing everything, including the kitchen sink, you might want to rethink what goes in your saddlebag and forget the rest.
If mastering hills is a long-term goal, you may want to consider shedding excess weight from your body as well as your bike. Of course, always check with your doctor to make sure it is safe and appropriate to do so.
We’ve all been there. Sometimes, we breeze up the hill, and other times, the hill beats us. Don’t despair if you have to get off your bike and push. Just remember how far you got up the climb and try to make it a little farther the next time. Keep at it, and eventually, you’ll be able to climb the entire hill.
Pushing your bike uphill is still a workout, and you’ll still get to the top, even if it takes a little bit longer. Push for as long as you need to, then get back on and try again.
12. Pedal Through the Crest
Don’t stop pedaling until you’re going down the other side! Just keep pedaling up, over, and through the crest of the hill to make sure you make it to the descent. Otherwise, you’ll lose momentum as you slow near the top of the hill.
13. Practice Hill Repeats
Practice makes perfect, and the same goes for hills. If you find a nice, safe hill to ride, do it over and over. Climb the hill as many times as you can in a single session. Next time, try to add on a rep or two. If the hill is too easy, find a harder one. If hill repeats scare you, try them inside first, with a platform such as Zwift.
You’ll gain confidence and strength as you practice on familiar hills, which will help you even when you’re in unfamiliar territory.
Adjust your posture and engage your core.
It’s pretty hard to climb with your hands on the drop bars if you have them. But climbing with your hands on the hoods or the flat part of your handlebars will give you a more neutral position for your hands and torso.
Putting your hands on the flat part of the bars will open up your chest and make it easier to breathe and engage your glutes. But if you want to stand up to climb, you’ll probably need to put your hands back on the hoods.
When the going gets extra rough, you might need to engage extra muscle power to make your way up. Sit back in your seat, tuck your elbows in, and lean forward. Pull up on the handlebars with every pedal stroke to push the power from your upper body to your feet.
14. Think Uplifting Thoughts
It’s all too easy to think, “I just can’t do this,” when the uphill is hard. But you can probably dig a lot deeper than you realize, and your negative thoughts will just hold you back.
Instead, think of yourself as light and strong, floating your way to the top. Some people like to think of butterflies, helium balloons, or birds soaring overhead. Others like to think of loved ones that have inspired them.
Maybe you are motivated by riding up faster than your hill-climbing pals, or perhaps you just want to hurry up and get the pain and suffering overdone and over with! No matter your motivation, avoid the negative self-talk that will hamper your confidence and ability to get up the hill.
If you still aren’t convinced that you can make it up those hard climbs, check out this video by GCN:
With a little practice, perseverance, and some a little knowledge, you’ll learn what works for you. It helps to remember all of the times you have climbed a hill successfully! And how much fun it will be when you get to fly down the other side.