Steeper climbs, more intervals, or faster pace for century cycling training?
April 19, 2012 12:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm signed up to do a century, a 100-mile bicycle ride, in a little over four weeks. Given the training that I've been doing, what are the best specific things I can do in the next month to get stronger and faster?

The background: I'm a woman in my late 30s who is a few pounds overweight. I ride an old ten-speed bike to and from work, only three miles each way, but enough to give me some base miles and lots of time riding in the rain. For about the past six weeks, I've been cycling progressively longer distances on my (better than my ten-speed) road bike, on long weekend rides.

In early March, I rode (by myself) 40 miles, only 500 feet of elevation gain, with a slow average pace of just over 11 mph. Over the next few weeks, I added distance and elevation and got a bit faster. I did a few rides (usually by myself) in all kinds of weather that were 50-65 miles with a slightly faster pace and more elevation.

I also added in a couple of shorter, steeper rides, and for the past few weeks, I've done intervals twice a week and some strength training. I've now done five or so interval sessions of 15-20 minutes. I usually do something like 30 seconds as fast as I can, 30 seconds recovery; then 60 seconds fast, 60 recovery; sometimes up to 90 seconds or sometimes repeating 60. I have a little bike computer but not a heart rate monitor and definitely not a power meter. I was already doing some incline push-ups and light yoga, but recently added in weighted squats sometimes with curls and presses (with light hand weights), calf raises, more ab strengthening, more push-ups, back rows, etc. I'm doing this at home.

Last weekend I rode about 70 miles (with a friend though not drafting the whole way) with 2800 feet of elevation gain and an average pace of 14-14.5 mph. That was my fastest, hardest, longest ride, and I felt better than I have on many other rides. My legs were fatigued but not too sore the following day.

My weakness is climbing: I'm really slow. I can get in my granny gear and keep going, sometimes crawling at 6.5-7mph, but I'd like to be faster and stronger on those climbs. The century has only two climbs, one Cat 5 and one longer, steeper Cat 4 early in the ride, but nothing too terrible. Being overweight doesn't help, and I am losing weight slowly, but I won't be that much lighter in a month.

I'm not worried about making the distance for the century, and I'm planning a few more long rides, including probably at least one with my friend who is riding the century with me. However, I'd like to be able to go faster on the climbs, and I want to do more than just finish my century. I want to feel pretty good at the end.

The bike is comfortable--I've adjusted the seat, got new drop handlebars with a shorter reach, etc.--and I've got my eating and drinking figured out; I'm not bonking or getting dehydrated.

What should I do to get faster on the climbs? I can probably get in a short, steep ride once a week in addition to a longer weekend ride. I won't be joining a gym, but I can do squats with 10 or 15 pounds of weight or other exercises. Or, should I do more intervals? Or do steeper, harder, shorter rides? Or cross-train? I can do all of those things a little bit, but if one would help more (ie intervals harder or more often--details would be great), please let me know.
posted by bluedaisy to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Sprints? I did a quick search for "bicycling intervals" and came up with this article though you can likely find others that are more relevant to you. Basically, you have to build up your ability to work harder. I'm not even close to an expert on this so take it with a grain of salt.... Do you have a heart rate monitor? Put a monitor on your bike and strap on a heart rate monitor (right under the band of your bra, my Polaris is pretty comfortable). Once you have an idea of your max heart rate and your heart rate at different exertion levels, you can start purposefully working in that zone. So, in addition to time and distance you'll be working toward an exertion level. Over time this will help you get comfortable on those hills where you'll need to work harder for longer to get up them. And the only cure for more climbing!

Also, there's no shame in doing the 60-mile route if there is one (usually is) for your first century of the summer. Maybe work toward that goal with "faster" as your personal goal. Or go all out! For me, I'd worry that not reaching a goal because it was too unreachable would be a setback for me. But you know you.
posted by amanda at 1:12 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you've got your training really well figured out. The best way to get faster at climbing is probably to do more climbing.

Another thing—and this may be obvious to you, or maybe it isn't—is don't let up when climbing. Just keep going at a pace you think you can maintain to the crest of the hill. Your legs say they're tired? Tell them to get back to work, they can rest when they get you to the top. As soon as you let up, even for one pedal stroke, you slow way down, and you just can't get that momentum back without a disproportionate struggle.

The other thing that can make a difference is tactics: knowing how much speed you can take into the hill, when to shift, and when to stand. Obviously this works better when you get to repeatedly ride the same hill, since you have a chance to experiment.
posted by adamrice at 1:14 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I did much the same thing last year -- started the year doing short rides, and ended up doing two back-to-back centuries (STP) by the end of the summer.

Surprisingly, during STP, I was stronger on the hills than a lot of people. I credit that to riding up and down the same damn hill, every two or three days. It started out awful -- I'd run out of breath halfway up -- and then I steadily got less winded and a bit faster. It was never really fun, and I certainly wasn't trying hard to beat my best times, or training in any systematic way, I just went out and climbed that hill over and over, and that really paid off later on.

So it sounds like you're on the right track. If you've got a good hill to climb, go out and get really familiar with it!
posted by xil at 1:28 PM on April 19, 2012

Climbs are all about sustained power output and maximum efficiency in your form. So you need to:
1. make sure you're producing as much sustained power as you can: it sounds like you're not dieing for leg strength, so focus on your interval training with an eye towards building sustained aerobic capacity; sounds like you have food and hydration down; pay attention to your breathing and form (hunched shoulders == lower breath volume, don't time your breath with your pedal strokes, etc.). This is all about oxygen in, using your calorie stores, and leg muscles.
2. make the most out of what power you can: mostly this means making sure your pedal strokes are as round and smooth as you can get them; pick the right gear for you; keep the bike straight.
posted by introp at 2:19 PM on April 19, 2012

What's your pedal situation? Clips, clipless, platforms? To get a serious boost in climbing power (and overall speed/efficiency), clipless pedals are the way to go. You're not just pushing down, you're pulling up at the same time. With a stiff-soled cycling shoe, you'd really see an improvement over platforms, if that's what you're using.
posted by supercres at 2:46 PM on April 19, 2012

Ultra Endurance Cyclist Here:

You're doing fine - perhaps just do two back to back rides that add up to ~100 miles, before your actual century. Don't worry about going slow up hills, go as slow as you need to. Have fun, don't forget to eat and drink and let yourself rest if you need to. Keep a smile on your face! :)
posted by alex_skazat at 2:51 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Honestly, your ability to get to the end of 100 miles is probably less dependent on your ability to go up hills fast, and more dependent on two factors: 1, your ability to eat properly while you're riding 100miles, and 2, your comfort on the bike.

In order to address those, I'd suggest weekly 5-hour rides for the next four weeks.

Weight lifting won't do much for you right now. It would have three or four months ago. Intervals might help, but if you're doing 30- or 60-second sprint intervals, they'll help you with... 30- or 60-second hard efforts. And I'm guessing that your climbs are longer than 30-60seconds, and also that part of the difficulty is going up hills after, say, 50 miles.

I'd suggest hill repeats. As many as you stomach. Just ride to a hill you like and do it over and over. Do that, oh, once a week, perhaps. And do that weekly 5-hr ride. That could help you get through your 100-miler.

And lastly - I don't really know about the feeling of feeling good at the end of 100mi. I always feel like roughly half a person, deeply fatigued, and only interested in eating eggs and drinking beer.

Have fun!
posted by entropone at 3:34 PM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thanks all, and please keep the suggestions coming. To answer a few questions:

Do you have a heart rate monitor?
Nope, and I haven't been thinking of getting one. Does this make a huge difference in interval training? Other than gauging by effort?

What's your pedal situation? Clips, clipless, platforms?
Clipless with proper cycling shoes.

introp, thanks--I've not before noticed if I'm timing my breathing to pedal strokes.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:44 PM on April 19, 2012

Climbing was my specialty when I raced. I have NO fast twitch muscle, but outsized cardio and lung capacity.
DO NOT worry about speed on climbs. Unless you are racing all you care about is staying at 80 - 85% vMax while climbing. If you go anaerobic on a climb you have no way to rest and will likely have to stop and that will be demoralizing.

Everyone has a different climbing style - some sit, some stand, some mix. Try everything to see what feels good.

Even if you aren't a "stand up" climber, do it every now and then - lets the ligaments stretch and changes posture for a freshen up of every system.

Nthing most comments about "you are on the right track." You are.

Long hours in the saddle exacerbate problems with position on the bike - you've not mentioned it but check in with your knees / spine / neck - any issues? If so - look at cleat tension adjustment (I like them REALLY loose unless actually racing) and seat height. Too low is better than too high but spot on is best.

Consider adding a cheap set of aero bars to the bike - the extra positions they give can really alleviate fatigue.

Heart rate monitors are cheap and worth having. The biggest value is correlating how you feel subjectively with how much your heart is working. Heart rate is a good indicator of overall exertion and ratio between aerobic and anaerobic muscle output. Use one to learn what 70%, 80% 90% of output feels like so you can gauge it on the fly.

Hills are the best interval training because you can't quit. Ride hills. Lots

Keep the RPMs up. Knees do NOT like sub 80 RPM spins. Avoid that if you can.

The human machine is far more efficient at 90 RPM than 70 or 80. Smooth circles avoid injuries.

Good luck! Hope this was helpful. Have fun!
posted by BrooksCooper at 7:28 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're up to 70 miles already, you will be fine for the big ride. Pacing yourself and eating and drinking are the keys to finishing a long ride, almost more than putting in lots of miles.

Heart rate monitors and power meters are nice toys, but will not bring you much added value if you are purely a recreational rider.

If you want to ride faster on hills, you will need to do them more frequently, with a slightly faster riding partner, for a little added motivation.

Please don't add clip-on aero bars to your bike. They will adversely affect the handling, and if you are in the full aero position, you will not have quick access to the brakes. Drop bars provides plenty of hand positions.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:53 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bicycling magazine seems to publish an article about preparing for a century ride about every other month, it seems. Check your local library for a back copy?
posted by Wild_Eep at 6:53 AM on April 21, 2012

You sound like you're on the right track. One thing I didn't see mentioned above but has been helpful for me is to find a long hill -- over a mile -- and work on maintaining a steady pace up it. Me personally, sometimes I like to throw it into a slightly higher gear and leg-press my way up a hill, but only do this if you feel confident in your knees and your form.

Also, not sure what kind of bike computer you have, but if you can get the data off of it, consider uploading to Strava. Basic accounts are free and I really like seeing my progress over time. Allows me to easily my past history and helps with training. If I know I'm going to hit a hill that I've done before, I check my previous times before I head out so I have a pace to shoot for.

Here's more advice about hill climbing you might find interesting.
posted by funkiwan at 2:25 PM on April 21, 2012

Thanks again for all the encouragement and advice. I was able to get in two or three long rides and a few shorter ones after this question, and yesterday I rode my century (104 miles, to be precise) in about 6 hours and 30 minutes. I felt good at the end of the day and I feel great today. I'm quite proud of having set this goal and accomplished it.

I was hoping to run into mathowie at the post-ride party, but alas I was too focused on my food to try to find him.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:56 PM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

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