Improving on Hills

It is quite common for me to hear cyclists talking about not liking hills or not being as good as they would like to be “on hills”.  Some cyclists really do go out of their way to avoid their least favourite hills…North Hill anyone?  It’s rare to get a positive response to that suggestion!

In this article I would like to discuss how to improve your ability to go up hills.  It is a more complex discussion that you would think at first thought.

To get started, we must first discuss…

What kind of Hill are we talking about?

Hills, as I’m sure you are aware, come in many shapes and sizes.  We have long draggy ones of fairly constant gradient, that can take an hour or more to ascend, like you might find in the Alps.  Contrast that with a short steep lump like we see on our 25 and 50-mile TT course, near Mayland, Highlands Hill, that takes around 30-40 seconds to get over.  Alternatively, the love of many Maldon Cyclist, North Hill.  This takes from around 4-10 minutes to ascend, depending on ability.

So, we know that Hills vary in a number of ways;

  • Gradient – that can vary over the distance of the hill, of course
  • Distance/Duration
  • Terrain

Terrain can become an issue in some circumstances, for example on the 20% Cobbled Hills in Belgium, it is almost impossible to get out of the saddle to get enough power through the pedals, due to the back wheel slipping on the surface and there is also the possibility of falling over the top of the handlebars due to the steepness of the gradient!  It is therefore important that you develop the leg strength to push very hard whilst seated to get over this sort of hill, to keep weight over the rear wheel to maintain traction.

Why are some Cyclists better than others at Certain Hills?

You may have noticed, when riding with your friends, that one of you goes better up one type of hill better than everybody else, and somebody else might be better at other types.

Each type of hill will make different demands on our body and requires different abilities to get over them efficiently.

In some ways genetics and age will determine which hills suit us personally.  Number of years and variety of riding on the bike, as well as your training in the relevant areas to a particular climb, will likely be the biggest factor though.

Training to Improve

So, by now it should be apparent that to “get better at hills”, you need to figure out what type of hills you want to get better at, and tailor your training appropriately. 

The simplest advice I can give is this: If there is a certain Hill you are struggling with, then I would suggest that you get on your bike and ride that specific hill as often and as much as you can, or if that is not possible, to emulate it as closely as possible.  This could even mean getting an activity file from an actual ride of the hill and run it on your smart trainer.

As an illustration of this, let me tell you a personal story.  I used to struggle riding up Mayland Hill (there is a tour of the Dengie Hills happening in this article!) at a speed to keep up with the group I ride with.  It takes around 2 minutes to ascend.  During the COVID pandemic, I started working from home, and started to ride a few times per week at lunch time.  To get home, I almost always had to climb this hill.  Now, after ascending it countless times over the last couple of years (I still WFH), I think I can now tackle this hill better than most in my group and can even get out of the saddle and sprint the last 20 metres where the gradient kicks up and it levels out.  However, this does not mean I can do the same on North Hill, which requires different abilities to climb at speed.

Our bodies respond in a very specific way to training, so to improve at a particular type of hill, it is necessary to ride the gradient, duration and intensity in your training for your body to adapt to become very good at doing that specific duration, etc.  For example, it’s no use going and smashing out 15 second sprint intervals and expecting that to be the best help in riding up Mount Ventoux!  It might help if you need to sprint for 15 seconds at the end of the climb to beat your buddy though…but of course you will need to be able to arrive at the point at the same time as they do in order to benefit.

When acting as a coach, I would analyse the requirements for an event or target in terms of what systems of the body will be required, compare them against the athlete’s current abilities, and then develop a training plan to address this.  Getting constant feedback and adjusting to the rate of progress the cyclist is making against their goals.

Athlete Abilities

In order to climb a hill, the following factors come in to play and may or may not be a limiting factor on any particular climb. 

  • Aerobic ability, at “threshold” and Vo2 max
  • Anaerobic abilities/training
  • Muscular Endurance
  • Leg Strength
  • Core Strength
  • Weight
  • Genetics: Such as muscle fibre preference – slow vs fast-twitch muscles
  • Ability to ride seated or out of the saddle on a climb
  • Bike fit, balance on the bike, etc

Let’s take the main items in turn;

Aerobic Ability

Almost all forms of cycling are primarily an aerobic exercise.  This means that your body will produce the energy it needs to turn the cranks by primarily using fat as an energy source with oxygen within your muscle fibres (mostly within slow-twitch or type-I fibres.)

The better trained that your aerobic system is, the faster you will be able to ride before needing to burn up your glycogen stores and get the dreaded “bonk”.  This ability is the key to going fast or faster on the bike!

Anaerobic Ability

When you start to push harder and ride faster than your “aerobic threshold” – the speed, HR and power you can maintain for around an hour – think 25-mile TT speed and HR, your aerobic energy system will no longer be able to provide sufficient energy for the speed you want your leg muscles to produce.  At this point, your body will “call in the reserves”.  This means that it will start to metabolise the sugar, glucose, stored in your body as glycogen to produce the additional power you have demanded.  At a certain intensity, this can be metabolised with oxygen, but push a little harder and this process will then happen in a different way, without oxygen, i.e. anaerobically.  Also known as “going into the red.”  This process will start to produce lactic acid and we all know what a burning sensation that can produce in your legs when it starts to build up.

You can only maintain the pace until the well runs dry, and you deplete your glucose.  You will need to eat or drink something sugary to keep topped up.  The faster you go, the quicker you will use up that glucose (stored in muscles as glycogen).  This can be as short as a few minutes, depending on how hard you are riding.

Muscular Endurance

Muscular endurance is how long you can maintain the level of riding intensity for.  Our muscles are made from 1000s of individual fibres.  The longer we ride, these fibres tire and stop working and your brain starts to bring other, fresher fibres into action…after a time all your fibres will be tired, and you will struggle to keep going.  Your HR will also start to drift upwards for the same effort/speed.  We train this by gradually building up the time ridden at the intensity, until we can comfortably cover the duration required for our event.

Leg Strength

This is the ability to physically turn the cranks at a low rpm on a very steep hill.  You can train this by riding at a low cadence on a gradient, or in the gym with weights.  I strongly advise over 40s to perform strength exercises on a regular basis.  As well as helping to get over very steep hills, it provides health benefits, such as reducing the natural muscle wastage that happens as we age, and also helps to reduce osteoporosis, the reduction in bone density that comes with age and is common amongst long-term regular cyclists.

Core Strength

With a strong core, our efforts to push hard on the pedals will transmit more directly to the pedals and produce more power.  A weak core results in wanting to move your body around on the bike whilst making a hard effort.  This wastes energy and reduces the power going to the pedals.  I highly recommend every cyclist that doesn’t have a good deal of physical labour in their daily lives, performs core exercises and stretches regularly.


The steeper the hill, and the longer it goes on, the more you are fighting gravity.  The less mass you have to carry up the hill, the faster you will go for the given power you have.  This is the law of physics!  There are also additional advantages to being lighter as the Vo2 max per kg will be higher, meaning that you will be able to deliver more oxygenated blood to your muscles.

Requirements for Different Types of Hill

Below is a table that illustrates types of hill, with an example of such a hill together with the cycling abilities that are required to ascend at speed.  These are also the areas you would need to train in order to improve.

DurationGradientExampleRequired AbilitiesNotes
4-10mins4-8%North HillAerobic Threshold Muscular Endurance Vo2 Max Core StrengthPacing is important
10mins+ Typically 40-60 mins4-8%Mountain climbAerobic Threshold Muscular Endurance Core StrengthPacing is very important
2-3 mins4-12%Mayland HillVo2 Max Aerobic Threshold Core Strength 
1-3 mins1-15%Hagg  HillVo2 Max Anaerobic ability Leg Strength Aerobic Threshold Core Strength 
1-3 mins15%+Belgian Classics – e.g. KoppenbergVo2 Max Leg Strength Anaerobic ability Aerobic Threshold Core Strength 
30s-1min10%+Highlands HillAnaerobic ability Leg Strength Neuro-muscular/sprint ability Vo2 Max Core StrengthLeg strength and Fast twitch muscle fibres really come in to play here

Training Examples

After determining which cycling abilities you need to train to improve on your chosen Hill/Nemesis, you’ll need to determine what kind of training to do to achieve your goal.

A warning about high intensity training

Do not attempt any form of high intensity training if you have any heart condition and seek approval from your GP if you are not sure.

You will need to be well motivated, well rested, well fuelled and well hydrated in order to get the best out of your high-intensity training efforts.

Training for Aerobic Abilities

Pretty well all of your cycling will benefit from improving your aerobic capacity.  This is the most important of all abilities and sets a foundation for all other abilities to build upon.  A limited aerobic capacity will limit your ability to benefit from high-intensity training.  The bigger the aerobic base/foundation, the higher the peak can be obtained with high-intensity training built on top of it.

Example training;

  • Assuming you are in full-time work, as many hours per week riding in HR Zone 2 that you can manage!  In general 80% of your time on the bike should be spent riding in HR zone 2.
  • If time pressed, increase intensity to HR Zone 3, and do 20-30 minute intervals in this zone 2-3 times per week
  • Threshold intervals:  5-20 minute intervals 1-2 times per week depending on your ability, riding at or just below your “threshold HR” – an effort level of 7/10 of your maximum speed.  25-mile TT effort.  Your recovery between intervals should be around 25% of the interval duration, e.g. 10 mins interval followed by 2.5 mins of easy pedalling.

Training for Vo2 Max Abilities

Perform intervals between 3 and 5 minutes at the maximum speed you can just hold for that period of time. 

These intervals will get your HR somewhere near maximum and your breathing will be very heavy.  Recover for the same duration as your intervals.  Stop when you feel you may be able to do one more interval so as not to incur too much fatigue.

It is very easy to start off too fast and fade when performing these intervals. With practice you will learn how to pace these just right, so persevere.

These are extremely demanding and you should not do more than twice per week after a good foundation of aerobic training.  The rate of improvement will diminish after 4-6 weeks of training, so stop doing these after that time unless you want to get chronic fatigue/overtraining syndrome.

Training for Anaerobic Abilities

The aerobic system can function at maximum effort for around 1-2 minutes.

Perform intervals at maximum speed/effort you can manage for 30s-2 minutes depending on your ability.  With at least 3-times the interval length as a recovery interval.  Repeat until you feel that you could manage one more (stop before doing it.)

With these there is a small element of pacing, you want to ride very hard and keep pushing after you start to fade to get to the end – the second half of the interval will be very hard and will take a lot of willpower to complete.  For example, on a 1-minute interval, you may start to feel the speed/ability falling away after 30 seconds.  Keep going as hard as possible for the remaining 30 seconds.  These are very, very tough but give great results, fast.

Training Leg Strength

This can be improved over-winter in the gym with body-weight or weights – this is highly recommended for over-40s, see commentary on this above.  Please consult with a qualified person at a gym or a strength and conditioning coach to show you how to lift safely.

On the bike training will involve pedalling in a high-gear at low-cadence, initially on the flat, then build to steeper and steeper hills as you improve.

Training Neuromuscular/Sprint

You will use your neuromuscular system aka CP or Creatine-Phosphate system when performing a maximum acceleration/sprint against resistance for 10-15 seconds.  This is the total duration that this system can sustain before becoming depleted.

To train this ability, do this on a gradient around 6-10%, slow to around 5mph, change into a high gear that offers a fair amount of resistance that takes a few crank revolutions to feel like you are on top of the gear.  Get out of the saddle and accelerate the bike as fast as possible, pushing as hard as you can on the pedals.  Once up to a good speed, drop onto the saddle and continue to accelerate the bike as fast as possible until 15 seconds after starting the whole interval.

Recover for around 3 minutes and repeat until you feel that you can perform one more, and stop there (do not do that last one.)

Training Core Strength

There are many cyclists core strength exercises out there on the internet.  Find one that suits.  This needn’t be an onerous workout.  It should take no more than 10-15 minutes to execute.  Have a good stretch afterwards.  Do this 2-3 times per week over winter and at least once per week during the season.  You’ll be amazed at the benefits this brings after just a couple of weeks!

Final thoughts

Hopefully I have given you some thoughts and ideas on how to improve your cycling up a variety of hill types.

One last thing I would like to say is that I suggest you try to switch your mind-set to seeing the hill in  your life that you love to hate as an opportunity to get better and every time ascend, it is making you stronger.  Try to take every opportunity to do so, and whilst you may not end up loving that hill, you may at least get to feel comfortable riding it without fear.

I am the Maldon club coach, and as a member, you have access to free advice.  If you have any questions, or would like to contact me for general coaching and training advice, you can get in touch with me at

I am a fully qualified and insured Level 3 cycling coach, fully backed up by training from Elite coaches, and continuous professional development (CPD) backed by the latest scientific research.

If you would like a more personalised coaching service, please see my personal coaching web site –

Many thanks

Mark McGee

Club Coach

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