Having good and proper technique while riding a mountain bike will always be more energy efficient than just being physically fit and furiously pedalling away. This reality is more obvious when riding uphill, as having poor technique will definitely get you tired much faster than usual. Remember, your weight and the weight of the bike itself are working against you by being pulled down by gravity. While it may be a difficult task to climb a hill with a mountain bike, it is not impossible, and can actually be a fun challenge if you are able to reach the top. It requires effort, determination, and the proper knowledge and technique in order for you to succeed.
Much like any hurdle that people encounter in life, a hill when mountain biking is a task that seemingly is insurmountable. If you do not have the right mental attitude, then prior to starting the climb, you are already defeated. By always staying in a positive, upbeat attitude, despite the hill you are about to climb, you are showing yourself that no challenge is big enough for you to overcome, and the likely result will be you on top of that hill.
This mentality has to be held on to, even during the climb, where the difficulty will sometimes force you to think that doing the climb is not worth it. If you have the positive mentality even during the climb, then it will be easier for you to push along despite the difficulty, and more rewarding when you reach the top of the hill. Your speed will surely decrease as you keep going up, so don’t let that discourage you from pushing on. Here are additional tips that you can do to prepare yourself mentally:
- “I love to climb” – There are bikers who say “I’m not a climber” and at that moment, they are discouraging themselves already. To counter this, try to write down and make a mental note saying “I love to climb” or “I’m a climber.” During each ride, regardless of the difficulty of the hill or even while practicing, keep repeating this line over and over to have it ingrained into your subconscious. Say it out loud and with pure conviction. By doing so, you are actually training your brain to believe yourself. The mind is a very powerful thing, so use it to your own advantage especially in difficult moments.
- Relax – When you are nervous, you do physical things unintentionally that you are unaware of, which tend to tire you out quicker. Some of these things are clenching of the shoulders and arms, holding on to your breath, loss of breathing rhythm. By being tense, the pedalling motion becomes broken – strokes are not smooth and efficient, which makes you more tired and as an added result, the climb is even more difficult. To be relaxed, a tip is to close your eyes and take deep breaths when lying down at night, imagining the climb you will go thru. Try to visualize the smoothness of your pedalling motion, and try to invoke feelings of success in your biking life. Make it a habit each night. You will be surprised as it will then translate into the actual trail, when you are about to do the climb.
- Swallow the pain – You have to admit that the actual climb is a physically demanding task. Physical pain is a reality that will occur, but be prepared to actually face the pain and overcome it, and push on towards your goal. Remember that after the uphill climb is a downhill slope. You can take your rest after reaching the top. Don’t let your mind be focused on the physical pain, but rather on the goal in front of you. By pushing past the pain, reaching the top will be an even more exhilarating experience.
- Don’t look up – Looking up during a climb might discourage you, since the summit always seems far off. Rather, focus your eyesight downwards so that your mind will not think about the remaining distance to cover, but the motion of your pedalling, your breathing technique, and your sitting position. Another benefit of looking down is, it seems that you are riding on a flat pavement due to the perspective, which will help ease your mind.
- Smile – Try to smile during the whole process. The human brain associates a smile with feelings of pleasure or happiness. You can actually move your focus away from the pain by smiling.
- Psych youself up – For longer climbs, try to think of them as numerous splits instead of one long uphill climb. For example, if you have a 12 mile climb, think of it as 3 sections of 4 miles each or 4 sections of 3 miles each. By doing so, you can manage your climb easier.
Physically Preparing for the Climb
Aside from the mental aspect, physical fitness is also very important prior to climbing. It is advised that you train prior to actually climbing, so that the actual uphill climb is easier for you physically. Here are some specific workouts that you can do at the gym, at home, or outdoors, in order to build your leg strength, cardio, and endurance.
- Single-leg pedalling – This workout is done using a stationary bike, and it is for improving pedal efficiency, which is highly important during an uphill climb. By pedalling with only one leg, you will quickly find out how difficult an exercise it is. To do this exercise, remove the other leg in the stationary bike and place it on the side. Pedal with one leg, keeping the pace steady. Keep the resistance low, and make sure your pedalling is relaxed. 60 rpm is a good benchmark. In order to build balanced strength, alternate your legs, making sure that both legs are worked on with the same duration (e.g. 5 minutes for the right leg, 5 minutes also for the left leg). There will be a marked improvement in your pedalling after a few days or weeks of working out with this method.
- Power building – For improving pedal pushing power of the bike without the need for weight training, you can opt to do this exercise on a stationary bike. This is how to do this exercise:
- Warm up by pedalling at an easy pace for about 20 to 30 minutes.
- Complete three repetitions of 30 seconds on, then take 30 seconds rest. Try to produce average power for each cycle. After the third cycle, pedal easily for about four minutes, then proceed to the next step.
- Complete three cycles of 20 seconds of full sprinting, followed by 20 seconds of easy pedalling. Complete four minutes of easy pedalling before moving to the next step.
- This last set consists of three repetitions of 10 seconds all-out sprinting, followed by 10 seconds rest. Try to produce maximum power for each repetition. After the three cycles, pedal easily for around 4 minutes.
- Climbing exercise – Do this exercise in order to improve your climbing endurance and power while going up hills. The warm up consists of 15 minutes of light pedalling. Next, climb a smooth, paved road at a steady cadence. If you’re doing this exercise on a stationary bike, try to elevate the front wheel in order to simulate the actual climb. Try to do this without shifting gears to build strength. To cool down, pedal lightly for 10 minutes in a lower gear.
- Using a bigger gear while biking on flat surfaces – You can simulate going up a hill by choosing deliberately to use a bigger gear while trying to maintain the same speed you have. What this will do is slow your pedalling cadence and requires you to put additional effort into pedalling, much like what you need to do when faced with an uphill climb.
- Ride into a headwind – For bikers that experience windy conditions, try to deliberately ride into a headwind, since you will need to generate more power into a headwind in order to maintain the same speed, much like what will happen if riding uphill.
- Deadlift – If any biker were to choose only one weight-training workout among the many available, it should be the deadlift, as this is perhaps the most productive exercise for bikers. This is because the deadlift uses many different muscles with each movement – forearms, core muscles, quadriceps, hamstrings, and back muscles. Here is how to properly execute a deadlift:
- Step up to the barbell. Push back your hips while keeping your chest high.
- Lower yourself to the barbell by bending your knees. Grip the barbell so that your forearms are against the sides of your thighs. Your arms should be straight and your weight on your heels.
- Lift the weight by taking a deep breath, while extending your hips and knees. Both hips and knees should simultaneously extend.
- The lift is finished when you stand tall and your shoulders are set back.
- Lower the weight again by pushing out your buttocks.
- Bend your knees once the weight is past them to place it back on the floor.
- Do around 1 to 8 repetitions per set of this exercise, and no more than that.
- Group rides – Go out regularly for bike rides with a group, in order to improve your overall riding techniques (which includes uphill climbs). It not only helps keep your fitness up, but is also a fun exercise since you’re going out with people that have the same passion as you. Try to challenge yourself by having competitive mini-games during the run, such as sprinting with another cyclist, making sure you are in the front 10 percent of the field, or climbing a certain section within a certain amount of time.
- Plank exercises – These are exercises that are aimed at strengthening your core in order to improve your overall fitness. These exercises can be done at the comfort of your own home if you wish.
- Single arm plank – Copy the push up position, as if you were doing a push up. Instead of pushing up from the floor, maintain your position with the arm extended. Extend one arm into the air in front of you while keeping the other one on the ground, holding your body rigid. Try to do 2 to 4 sets per arm, for about 5 to 30 seconds for each side.
- Side plank knee raises – While facing the side, put your hand on the ground, making sure it is above the shoulder. Place your outer foot on top of the other, then slowly raise your knee towards your chest. Do 2 to 4 sets of 4 to 10 repetitions.
- Plank climbers – While in the push up position (same as the single arm plank), bring your knee up towards your elbow (same side; e.g. right knee towards right elbow), and repeat on the other side. Be sure not to rush. 3 to 6 sets while holding the position for about 10 to 30 seconds per side is recommended.
- Lateral twist plank – Assume the same position as the side plank knee raise. With your other hand, reach toward your other elbow (the one with the hand on the ground), while making sure your upper body is twisting. Return to the original position and repeat. Do the exercise on the other side as well. Try to do 2 to 5 sets, 4 to 15 repetitions per set.
- Weighted body saw plank – Assume the standard forearm plank position, which is similar to a push up position, but on the forearms instead of the hands, and elbows moved back slightly. Have someone place a weight on your back while holding your body stiff. Try to slowly roll your body back and forth in order to work your ab muscles.
- Plank plate drag – This is an exercise that needs a carpet. Assume the push up position but place your feet on a weight plate (on top of the carpet) instead of on the floor. While keeping your arms and hands still, push your knees towards your elbows, dragging the weight plate with your legs. Try to do 2 to 4 sets of 4 to 10 repetitions.
By religiously doing each of these exercises, you will be in peak physical shape in just a short amount of time, and any uphill climbs will be much easier for you to handle.
Improving Your Pedal Stroke
According to performance specialist Greg Moore, biking requires full body strength, power, core stability, and flexibility, which is why the section above showed exercises aimed at doing that. Aside from those, there are also some exercises you can do at the comfort of your own home, this time aimed more at improving your pedal stroke.
- Dumbbell T – This exercise requires at least two dumbbells, preferably each around 10 pounds in weight. Stand with your feet around shoulder width apart, and arms down. Grab the dumbbells and lower into a squat. Your knees should be behind your toes. Raise both dumbbells until you form a letter “T” with your shoulders and torso. This exercise is beneficial for almost all muscle groups, but particularly for your gluteus muscles and upper back.
- Double leg curl – This exercise works on your core muscles, glutes, and hamstrings. You would need a stability ball, which is an inflatable exercise ball that is available in most sporting goods stores. Lie down on the floor and place your heels on top of the ball, then extend your arms to your sides perpendicularly. Lift your hips while keeping your heels on the ball, then bend your knees and pull the ball towards you using your heels. Push back the ball and lower your hips to go back to starting position.
- Step up – Stand facing a sturdy box or step. Place one foot on the box, then lift your other knee to around hip level. Step down with that same leg, then repeat the exercise using the other leg. Keep repeating until you complete the desired number of repetitions and sets. An alternative to this exercise is to do it on stairs.
- Sliding lunges – To do this exercise, you would need sliding discs. Stand with your feet apart, with one foot on top of a sliding disc. Bend your other leg at the knee and push back your hips while sliding out your left leg to the side. Complete all the desired repetitions and then transfer to the other leg in order to complete one set. Try to do 2 to 4 sets. This will work most of your leg muscles which will greatly help in your pedalling, and in turn, climbing.
- Hamstring stretch – Use a resistance band for this exercise, easily available at a sporting goods store, with different resistance levels. Loop the band around your preferred foot, while lying down on your back, making sure both hands are holding the separate ends of the band. Bring your leg up to the ceiling at an almost 90 degree angle and hold it there. Slowly pull your leg towards you. Like the previous exercise, complete all repetitions first before doing the same with the other leg. This exercise can also be done after a pedalling exercise or a bike ride, in order to stretch your legs, particularly your hamstrings.
These exercises may seem simple, but they are very effective and easier to do, since they actually don’t require your bike or have you go to the gym. All it takes is one trip to the sporting goods store, and you can strengthen yourself while staying at home.
Steps to Take During the Climb
The physical part of the climb is as important as the mental, if not more important. There are tips and techniques that you can take in order to make the whole ordeal easier for you.
In order to conquer a hill, it is best to use a steady pace rather than being aggressive. This is applicable to both beginners and advanced mountain bike riders. Here are the different steps in more detail:
- As you approach the hill or the climb, make sure to keep an even pace. Once you feel that you are slowing down or starting the actual climb, shift the front gear into the smallest one (front gear switch is located on the left hand side). You would probably be at around 50 yards into the climb at this point.
- Make sure that you also switch gears at the back. To do that, push the gear switch located on the right hand side of your handlebars. Make sure the chain is located somewhere at the center of the cranks (middle gears).
- When you pedal, pedal at a steady and efficient pace. There is no need to be overly aggressive when going up a hill. Make sure that the pace you are pedalling with is the same as when you approached the hill. A tell-tale sign that you are being overly aggressive is when you are gasping or taking in huge breaths of air. As the hill gets steeper and climbing gets more difficult, you can switch to a lower gear at the rear. Maintain that steady pace all throughout the duration of the climb, changing gears along the way depending on how steep the hill is.
- Don’ be afraid to go down to the lowest gear at the rear, especially if the angle of the climb is sharper. The chain will be at the largest sprocket at the back and smallest one in front if that is the case. You could be changing gears multiple times in one climb, especially if it is steep.
- If you are at the lowest gears for both front and back, you can slide forward a little bit in order to put less of your weight at the back. However, do not stand up just yet, as you will quickly run out of breath if you do.
- When pedalling, make sure to do it slowly and deliberately, making sure that you are not mashing the pedals. You can lean from side to side for every stroke, especially as the climb gets to the more difficult parts. Do not attempt to speed up during the climb. If you have a speedometer, the mark you want is 4 MPH or greater, as this is the speed that your bike will stay upright and you remain in control. If the speed is below 4 MPH, you will have difficulty controlling the bike and maintaining stability.
- As the climb gets to the steeper portions, you can lean forward more. Another way to ensure leverage while pedalling is to have bar ends, which are extensions that fit into the ends of the handlebars. If you have this accessory, you can pull back on them while pedalling, for more leverage.
- If you are within a few feet of the top of the hill, that is the time you can stand up on the pedals. The added weight will help you push down with greater force on the pedals, and will aid you in getting to the top.
During the climb, make sure to look at the path you are taking. Avoid rocks as encountering these will make it even more difficult to go up. Soft material on the ground, such as sand, can cause you to spin out, so avoid these as well.
Tips for Better Hill Climbing
Aside from the different physical and mental tips mentioned above, there are a few more that you can take to heart in order to be a better climber, and hopefully, take away any anxiety or fear you may have the next time you attempt to climb a hill.
- Practice climbing as much as you can – Remember the old adage, “practice makes perfect?” The adage is true even in mountain biking skills, especially climbing. The way to become a better climber is to climb. Simple as that. Try to get into the habit of climbing around once a week. Don’t push yourself too hard; instead, try to maintain a moderate pace all throughout the climb. If you can do it, go for the climb multiple times as practice.
- Be at a lighter weight – The lighter you are, the faster you will be able to climb. If you are at a heavier weight, pedalling against the hill and against your weight multiplied by gravity will be more difficult than if you lost excess weight. To lose the excess weight, try to do any of the exercises mentioned above, and also control your diet. However, do not lose too much weight if it makes you weaker. You need to find the ideal weight where you will be as light as you can be, but have more or less the same power.
- Make your bike lighter – Any small part that can reduce your bike’s weight will help when it comes to uphill rides. Do not sacrifice substance for this though; make sure that your bike is still fully functional – meaning all the essentials are there. You can opt to go for lighter tires, pedals, or wheels to reduce weight. However, it is still much better if you, the biker, will lose the excess weight rather than the bike.
- Tire inflation – This can sometimes be overlooked. Make sure that your tires are inflated to their correct psi, as having underinflated tires can make the already difficult climb much more difficult.
- Proper gear equipment – For more difficult uphill routes, you may want to upgrade or change some of your sprockets with larger ones. Having a wide range of different gears will make you more flexible in choosing gears, especially over a difficult climb.
- Never mash the pedals – When climbing, always spin the smaller gears with a high cadence rather than mashing the pedals and tiring yourself out quickly. Mashing the pedals is a common mistake even for some advanced riders. While pedalling at a smaller gear with higher cadence may make you think it will cause you to get fatigued earlier, the opposite is actually true.
- Stay seated – Some riders prefer to stand and certain points during the climb, and this is ok. However, for a longer climb, it is best to stay in your saddle in order for you to have a lower heart rate. Standing up on the pedals increases your heart rate, which can get you fatigued quicker.
- Pacing – It is highly recommended that for a longer climb, take it easier on the first half then exert more effort on the second half of the climb. Doing the opposite will make the second half a much harder climb as opposed to pacing properly.
- Different strategies of attack – Different hills and slopes require different ways of attacking it. In a shorter climb, you can get away with pushing more on the pedals, especially if a long downward slope follows the hill (where you have to opportunity to take a rest). For a longer climb, more endurance is required, so you have to carefully plot out how to attack that, particularly on your cadence and gear selection.
- Don’t ride hard prior to the climb – The climb is the most exhausting part of any trail. Therefore, you would need a lot of energy and muscle strength in order to reach the top. If you ride too hard before the climb, chances are, you will have little to nothing left in the tank for the uphill climb. Ride easy prior to the climb, conserving your energy for when you need it the most.
- Relax all muscles, including your face – If the muscles you are not using to help with the climb are being used, then energy is consumed uselessly. This includes your facial muscles. When you are tense, your face typically is tightened and you are unconsciously burning away energy. Also, tense facial muscles tend to creep down into the arms and hands. In contrast, relaxing your face or making sure to smile will release the tension in your body, meaning you are not wasting energy needlessly.
- Eat – Proper nutrition is required prior to a climb. It is best to eat a good, full breakfast prior to going into the trails to bike. Snack on something around 20 minutes prior to an actual climb. Bananas are a favorite of many athletes, not only bikers. Stay hydrated all throughout, and make sure to have a drink of water or sports drink when you reach the top, so that you can replenish the lost fluids. A note to remember: do not eat too much at one go as this might have the opposite effect. You can be sluggish and actually lose energy if you eat too much.
- Ride at your own pace – If you are riding with a group, don’t let the other bikers affect you in how you conquer the hill climb. Some of them may be more experience, while others that are slower than you might be novices. Climb at your own pace so that you can stay relaxed and not get too fatigued quickly.
Tackling Different Types of Uphill Climbs
When climbing, you will encounter different types of slopes, hills, and terrains. There is a different strategy of attacking each type of hill. Here are three types of terrain and the strategy in tackling them.
- Long steady grades – On longer climbs, the more effective way is to keep a steady pace all throughout.
- Stay seated – for prolonged periods, slide back in the saddle a little bit to extend your legs and get additional leverage. Relax your upper body and open your chest. Sometimes, hunching over will hinder your breathing. You can stand from time to time to give your muscles a break.
- Cadence – the pedalling cadence should be high (around 90 rpm). As stated numerous times, never mash the pedals. For steeper slopes, pedal at a higher cadence, then if the slope gets to an easier angle, pedal back at a lower intensity.
- Measure your pace – the pace you start with should be the pace all throughout, more or less. It should be a pace that you can sustain, only slowing down a little at steeper grades.
- Rolling terrain – Maintain your gearing and cadence and you will go very fast.
- Stay in gear – choose the gear to start climbing in, and stay in that gear for as long as possible. Only shift down in order to maintain a steady cadence.
- Cadence – try to maintain a cadence of 70 to 90 rpm for the whole duration. If you drop below 70, you will get bogged down while if you go higher than 90, you will lose momentum.
- Attacking the bottom – attack with the same intensity as you do on flat surfaces, while increasing your effort while climbing. Conserve energy during the descents while making sure the speed is maintained.
- Short and steep – This type of hill or climb is best attacked aggressively.
- Start with the same gear – begin with the same gear as on the flats but be ready to shift constantly in order to maintain your pedalling motion.
- Lower cadence – in this type of climb, 60 to 70 rpm is ideal, as spinning will cost you much needed momentum. It is in this type of climb that you want to mash the pedals.
- Go hard – since this type is short and steep, try to get over it as quickly as you can.
- Attack position – it is only in this type of uphill climb that standing on the pedals in the attack position is recommended. Stand on the pedals, and bring your chest lower over the handlebars.
- Climb length – you can alternate standing up or sitting down, depending on how short the climb is. If the climb is short enough that you can conquer it standing up, then do so.
- Ease off – remember that when shifting gears (while pedalling hard), you have to slightly ease off the pedals in order for the chain to properly fall in its place. There are cases that the chain can get stuck if you are pedalling furiously while switching gears.
Conquering an uphill climb on the mountain bike is often the most difficult part, but it can also be the most rewarding. Try to conquer first your mental hurdle. While doing so, also prepare yourself physically, since the climb can be taxing on the body. Do various exercises to strengthen your core muscles, legs, and arms. Go on the stationary bike to simulate climbs and get your heart rate up. You can also opt to ride with a group, for the thrill and the physical benefits.
Always maintain good physical conditioning and a healthy diet in order for you to be fully prepared for a climb. Excess weight will only serve to make things more difficult, so it’s best to lose the excess weight and maintain it, even during the days or weeks that you are not biking. Try to vary the different exercises stated above, and adapt them to your own liking.
Finally, never forget that practice makes perfect, so it’s best to actually climb hills to conquer your fear of climbing bigger hills. Start small and work on your weaknesses. For example, your weakness is short, steep hills. The best way to overcome that weakness is to look for a short, steep hill, and start practicing on it. You may also bring along a biking buddy or companion so that you can help motivate each other.
Mountain biking is an enjoyable experience and a fun passion. Sometimes, beginner bikers are happy and thrilled when riding on flats and downhill, but are hesitant when an uphill climb comes up. Uphill climbs are part of mountain biking, so to make the experience a full one, do not be hesitant when faced with a hill. Just follow all these tips, and before you know it, you will be the one up on that hill.
So keep in touch and get out on the trails.
About The Author
Rod Bucton, mountain bike fanatic from Mid North Coast, New South Wales Australia…discover the shortcuts to mountain biking for beginners and while you’re at it follow Rod on Facebook or Instagram.
Like any sport, bicycling involves risk of injury and damage. By choosing to ride a bicycle, you assume the responsibility for that risk, so you need to know — and to practice — the rules of safe and responsible riding and of proper use and maintenance. Proper use and maintenance of your bicycle reduces risk of injury.