Using hill training to improve cycling performance

Use hills to your training advantage

Avoid the hills at your peril as they can be the key to performance progression. Triathlete Will Clarke explains how to use hills to your training advantage.


Many triathletes get stuck in a bit of a rut with their training. Many have the same route that they don’t like to deviate too far from and many don’t like to go too far from their comfort zone. It can be hard to persuade people to hit a proper interval session each week, but that is where the major improvements are made and where you’ll really start to move your performance forward. Equally, many cyclists and triathletes don’t like hills, often claiming they’re not built for it or they’re not fit enough to ride in the hills, but hill training can be very beneficial to triathletes. It’s something that should certainly get some attention in your training because more often than not there will be hills in your races!

Climbing is tough, among the usual forces working against you on the bike like rolling resistance, drag, head winds you’re now fighting gravity as well. On a climb accept that it’s going to be tough and you’re going to be moving slowly, don’t focus too much on your speedo and the distance that you’ve ridden as that’s largely irrelevant. Embrace the extra work that you’re putting in compared to your standard easy ride on the flat.

Do a hilly ride at least once a week

At least once a week substitute your flat ride for a hilly loop, and make it almost as challenging as you can. Take in the biggest hills in the area and once you get half way round you’re locked and you have no option other than to complete the loop and get back home! A ride in the hills will add so much more training load then a flat ride.

If you’re often riding in a big group, often you may only get one or two turns on the front so the training load isn’t really high enough. Try to persuade the group to take the ride into the hills where the drafting effect is much reduced so everyone gets to work a similar amount.

Stick to your training zones

Try to stick to your training zones when you ride, every training session during the week should have an end goal. For your average athlete up to 70 per cent of your training should be at level 2 - Endurance pace. Just because you’re riding in the hill doesn’t mean that the workout has to be at 100 per cent capacity, changing the goals of the ride completely. Many people are guilty of this; they end up out at the weekend racing the hills and then end up sacrificing other training that they may have planned during the week because they have burnt so many matches on that ride.

Gear up and take it steady

Remember training is about consistency, you’re not after huge days, you’re after consistent training over a long period of time and that’s where your performance benefit will come. So when you hit the hills, gear up a bit, sit back down and roll up nice and easy. It’s good practice to maintain your speed by powering over the top of the hill and riding down the other side nice and solid rather than falling off your bike at the top in an exhausted mess before freewheeling back down the other side.

The big efforts should be saved for your sessions throughout the week, the flat is perfect for your Time Trialling efforts, but the hills are very useful, especially in the offseason, to develop your fitness and power on the bike.

Hill reps session

I use a hill reps session where you ride up to 3 x 12 minute hill climbs in a hard gear at your 'Sweet Spot' which is around 88-92 per cent of your Functional Threshold Power (the power you can hold for an hour). Rolling back down to the start for your recovery. You should aim to ride in your aero bars or your drops at around 60 rpm and a very strong pace. This session is perfect for training your power and because you’re riding in a big gear you have to really work on your stability to keep yourself moving forward. After six weeks of this you should be feeling really strong on the flat and your position should hopefully be feeling good.

Introduce ‘Rev’ sessions

Another great session you can do in the hills is a ‘Rev’ session. Start on the longest climb you have around your area and aim to average somewhere between Half Ironman effort and Ironman effort. Every 3-5 minutes gradually build your power from solid up to your max effort over 30 seconds so in the last 10 seconds you’re flat out before recovering back. This is a great workout because you’re getting the blocks of work at your Sweet Spot, but you’re also getting in that maximum power and you’re also forcing yourself to go all out, but then recovery off the back of it training all your Thresholds. I’d advise somewhere between 30-45 minutes of this type of riding.

I hope you find this useful and you’re flying by the time your season starts. These workouts are perfect for the offseason as you put in your preparation for the season ahead.

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