Here’s why cycling uphill is much more tiring than riding on flat ground.
When cycling on flat ground, there are two prominent forces working against you. These forces are air resistance and rolling resistance. Air resistance increases with your frontal surface area, the strength of the wind, and air pressure. Rolling resistance comes from the friction between your tires and the ground, impacted primarily by road conditions and the quality of your tires.
Riding uphill is particularly hard because it adds a third force that acts against you: gravity.
As soon as you start riding your bike uphill, you begin fighting against gravity. The force of gravity against your body slows you down and makes it much harder to keep that bike moving. Even the pros walk their bikes sometimes.
However, gravity is not the only reason it is harder to ride a bike uphill. Riding your bike on an incline changes the amount of power needed to turn over the pedals and the angle of your hips relative to the pedals. This change of angle and force means that some muscle groups you are using are different, especially the smaller stabilizing muscles.
Essentially, it is harder to ride uphill because your muscles are unfamiliar with the effort.
It’s not all bad news when it comes to going uphill. Because it is so much harder, riding uphill is an excellent way to train your body. If your goal is to get stronger, faster, or healthier, then fighting against gravity helps you do just that!
How to Bike Uphill Without Getting Tired
If your goal is to get to the top of the climb without feeling exhausted, then here are a handful of tips and tricks that will help you instantly feel stronger while riding uphill without any extra training!
1. Shift into an easier gear
Shifting into an easier gear will help reduce the force it takes to push the pedals. This change makes riding uphill much less tiring and reduces that extra bite and burn we all know so well. It also helps you maintain a more natural and comfortable cadence.
Riding uphill in a difficult gear can feel like each pedal stroke is a challenge. Shifting into easier gear will make it so you can ride smoothly and consistently up the hill.
Pro tip: Avoid shifting while pushing hard on the pedals. Shifting gears under load can cause your gears to grind and skip, and in the worst-case, it can even cause your chain to fall off. You can avoid this nasty crunch by backing off the pressure on the pedals ever so slightly when shifting.
2. Pedal with a higher cadence
We alluded to this in the last section. A sure-fire way to make climbing easier is to increase your cadence.
Cadence is the speed you turn the pedals over while riding.
Depending on the gear you select, it is possible to ride just as fast with a slow cadence as it is with a fast one. The slow cadence might be more powerful in the short term, but it creates far more strain on your muscles and will tire you out quickly.
A fast cadence will feel much more efficient and reduce the force needed for each pedal stroke.
Try to shift into lower gear until you can pedal with the same cadence as riding on a flat road. If you run out of gear, use a larger cassette on the back or a smaller chainring on the front.
3. Reduce weight
The more weight you carry with you, the more tiring it will be when riding uphill. Every gram counts, including your body weight, bike weight, and the weight of any other items you are carrying.
If your body is on the heavier side, the most effective way to ride uphill easier is to lose some weight. However, this is not instant and can only be achieved with time and consistent training.
Reducing the weight of your bike can offer substantial rewards, but is often the most expensive solution. It’s not always worth it to spend thousands of dollars just to shave 2-3 kg from your bike.
Removing weight from the items you carry with you is the easiest and cheapest way to get less tired (or get faster) while climbing. Whether from the second inner tube, a bike lock, or a backpack full of books, removing or reducing the weight of a few of these extra items will reward you instantly.
4. Pace your effort
“Professionals attack at the top, amateurs attack at the bottom”, is an old saying amongst cyclists that holds an important piece of advice.
Going as hard as you can at the beginning of a climb is a sure-fire way to tire yourself out quickly and suffer for the rest of the way up. Easing into a hill and riding with a more consistent effort will make it far less difficult in the long run than if you attacked the climb from the very beginning.
Keep some energy in reserve and make sure you are still fresh towards the top.
5. Avoid the apex
While going through an uphill corner, the gradient of the climb usually changes. It is often steeper on the inside of the corner.
If you hug the apex, the sharpest point, of the corner, you will push much harder than if you take the wider outside line. Even though the distance traveled is further, the outside line – despite longer – can be faster and easier than the inside line if it gets too steep.
Pro tip: Just because a corner or hill gets steeper does not mean you have to push harder. It is vital to even out the effort and pace yourself. Going over your limit on a challenging part of the hill and then realizing you have further to go is never a fun feeling.
What if I want to go faster, not just easier?
As crazy as it may seem, some people enjoy riding uphill, and many of us desire to ride uphill as fast as we possibly can.
If you want to ride uphill faster, the above advice will still apply to you. You will undoubtedly ride uphill faster if you follow the tips and tricks above while keeping the same effort level.
However, if your goal is to ride uphill faster, we have a handful of extra tips that will take your climbing ability to new heights.
Train “hill repeats”
The sure-fire way to ride uphill faster is to make your body stronger. The best way to make your body better at riding uphill is to practice riding uphill.
The effort and strain that riding uphill places on the body are unique within cycling, and the best way to improve it is to train your body to adapt to that kind of effort. The best way to train your body to ride uphill faster is to do interval sessions, ideally on the type of hills that you want to get faster on.
If that climb is just 5 minutes long, then intervals of 2 to 3 minutes at a hard pace should suffice.
If you are training for a faster time up a climb that is 20 minutes or longer, then your intervals should also be longer and a bit steadier.
We highly recommend researching what other cyclists do to train or finding an experienced cycling coach to help you get the most out of your training.
Avoid unnecessary and sudden surges
Pacing, pacing, pacing, we cannot say it enough.
Knowing your body and how much effort you can afford to expend is perhaps the most impactful factor for climbing speed. Making a sudden surge or pushing yourself over the limit will make any rider slower over the entirety of the climb.
A challenging but steady effort is almost always fastest when riding uphill.
Riding uphill fast is all about rhythm. Rhythm is essentially the comfortable amount of effort (and cadence) that feels hard, steady, and consistent. Think of it like the beat you ride to while climbing.
Finding your natural rhythm is the key to setting a fast pace uphill. Everyone has a unique natural rhythm, and it changes depending on the length and gradient of a climb, but you will know it when you find it. Breaking your rhythm by making big surges will throw off your pacing strategy, making the climb harder and slower.
Pro tip: Think of a climbing effort as if you are burning up rocket fuel. If you run out too soon, the rocket will come crashing down. When trying to climb as fast as possible, try to burn up your fuel at a steady rate so that it runs out right at the very top. The tank is empty, but you made it to the top without running out of fuel early by making a big surge.
Get out of the saddle
Getting out of the saddle and standing on the pedals occasionally can help you maintain your rhythm, especially when the climb gets steep.
When that extra bit of effort is unavoidable, standing up on the pedals can help you produce more power without breaking your rhythm or pacing strategy. It also changes the angle of your hips, letting you use your muscles differently. This change helps reduce some of that built-up fatigue that comes from pedaling hard for a long time without changing position.
As with any aspect of endurance cycling, proper on-bike nutrition is essential. This nutrition intake is especially vital for long climbs of over 20 minutes.
Make sure to consume a steady number of calories in the form of easy-to-digest carbohydrates and plenty of fluids. It helps to put an electrolyte or carbohydrate mix into your water to stay hydrated and energized.
Try to pace your food intake if you are going for a hard effort or intervals session. It is better to take small bites and drinks frequently than binging calories at the start and finish of the ride. You can even set yourself a timer to remind you to eat and drink regularly, especially on a long climb.
Pro tip: Proper nutrition starts before you even touch the bike. Hydrate in advance and time a large meal for a few hours before your ride. This ritual prepares your body for the effort and gives you time to digest. Preventing an upset stomach and ensuring all that nutrition becomes energy in time for your ride.
Place your hands on the tops of the handlebars
If you ever watch a professional bike race, you may notice that it is common for the pros to ride with their hands on the tops of their handlebars while going uphill.
Placing your hands on the tops helps open up the hip flexors and lungs, making you climb in a much more efficient and powerful way. This position can also feel more comfortable on a longer climb because your body is not bent over the bike as drastically.
Any additional strain on your neck and lower back is just wasted energy while climbing. Riding on the tops will reduce any extra fatigue from these areas.
Anticipate gradient changes
Knowing the hill you are on is the key to any effective pacing strategy. This knowledge includes having a rough idea of how long the climb will take you and where it gets steeper and shallower. Knowing these things will help you gauge your effort, informing you when to push harder, when you can gain speed and when you can ease up a bit.
Aero is everything, but so is weight
Even when riding uphill, you still fight against air resistance. Air resistance means that aerodynamics still play a crucial role in riding uphill fast.
The most common rule of thumb is that aerodynamic savings are more important than weight savings on any gradient below 7%.
This links to the above tip. If you know the gradient becomes shallow, you can get lower on the bars, tuck your head down, and gain back some speed that will help you carry momentum into the next steep section.
The flip side of the 7% rule is that any time the gradient goes above 7% weight reduction is more important than aerodynamics. Reducing the weight of your bike, body, or carried items will undoubtedly save you time.
The truth is that both aerodynamics and weight savings will have a substantial effect on how fast you can bike uphill.
Track your efforts with a heart rate monitor or use a power meter
Using performance trackers like a heart rate monitor or power meter can take your climbing prowess to the next level. These devices add a quantifiable metric to your pacing strategy, allowing you to see precisely how hard you are going.
You can use these performance trackers to even out your effort throughout the hill and spot any unnecessary spikes or dips in your pacing.
More important is the effect these devices can have on your training. Heart rate monitors and power meters are necessary for setting up quantifiable training zones that help you fine-tune your training scientifically. This optimized way of training will take your performance to the next level, and you will be flying up hills in no time.