Training For Epic Climbs

Ultra climbing events not only take a specialized fitness, it requires some unique performance “habits”. Here are few tips to help you survive and thrive in an ultra climbing event.

Lets face it, climbing is hard! What is harder than climbing? Epic Climbing! This July 9, Toolbox Editor, Dr. Stephen Cheung, will be participating in the “Taiwan KOM Challenge”, a 100 kilometer ride from sea level to over 3275 meters (nearly 11,000 feet). In and of itself the climb is challenge enough for most, but it is the final 8 kilometers averaging nearly 11%, and topping out above 27% for a short period that can crush hopes.


Find your Gear
With over 11,000 feet of climbing and some significant grade on hand, the first bit of advice is to get some lower gears. The ability to sit and spin is key to reducing muscular fatigue and energy for climbing stronger, later in the event.

Spinning will but more strain on the aerobic system so expect your heart rate to be a tad higher but will put less stress on your muscular system helping to deal with your fatigue better. That being said, I would recommend not “over-spinning” (using a gear so easy to pedal you hit very high cadences) as a way of dealing with the elevation gain. In today’s world we have a wide array of gearing options to choose from that can result in some amazingly lower gear ratios but there is a point that you go too low. At the end of the day, this is a timed event and doing well means going faster, not just spinning faster.

My advice to clients doing timed ultra climb events is to test gears well in advance and find a gear that allows a high cadence target (range 70-80 rpm) at a tempo climbing pace; I call this our “tempo gear”. Once this gear is established, we set up the bike with 1 or 2 easier to pedal gears to allow for cadence of 75-90 rpm on similar climbs; I call this our “spinning gear”. We start all our early climbing in our spinning gear to help reduce the load on the muscles early but at some point, to enhance time, you do need to use the tempo gear and push more power.


Find your Rhythm 
Ultra climbing has a lot to do with your ability to find your “climbing rhythm”. We frequently hear this term but rarely ever see it defined. I define climbing rhythm as the ability to synchronize your power output, cadence and breathing into a coordinated pace or rhythm. Most people seem to only think about the cadence. Here is how you do it:

Power – if you have a power meter you can put a number to the effort but in this case I simply mean “how hard” you are climbing. The rhythm might be different during longer climbs to deal with changes in grade so the effort required drives the target.

Cadence – Cadence gets matched to power / effort. For ultra events I tell all my clients to put cadence on their device screen in big, bold numbers. Once you are going at the right power, match a cadence that you tested in your gearing tests and stay there as best you can.

Breathing – this is the often ignored part of the equation. As you climb and fall into your rhythm you need to make sure your breathing does the same. Deep breaths ensuring that you are taking in the maximal amount of oxygen possible and deep exhales, emptying the lungs. I recommend nose inhaling when possible and teach my clients this old trick: “smell the roses, blow out the candle.” This means a forceful nose inhale opening up the lungs / diaphragm and a more “explosive” exhale to produce a good emptying of the lungs. You will find that actually thinking about this in training rides will help you develop a habit of deep breathing BEFORE you have to deep breathe, keep more oxygen flowing in your system. This takes some mental focus but can really help.

Find your Stance
Do I stand or sit more? I get this question a lot. At the surface level a simple rule of thumb is the larger you are, the more you should sit and spin vs. stand. The more weight you need to support in standing, the higher the stress on the aerobic and cardiovascular system. That being said, standing does not necessarily create a decrease in efficiency, just some different demands.

I believe it is very important to stand at times regardless of size, engaging different muscles, changing some blood flow and allowing the sit bones a little break. For my clients I recommend a varied approach towards seating and standing but I like it to be part of the climbing rhythm. This means we typically develop a pattern of seating and standing. For example, we might sit for two minutes, stand and climb for twenty to thirty seconds, then sit again for two minutes. Developing a “practiced rhythm” of sit / stand helps you get the most from each.

A note, when standing, always shift into one harder gear (assuming the same grade), the standing effort will always increase aerobic stress / heart rate so pushing using the weight to push a slightly bigger gear to get a tad more speed can help justify the cost.

Find your “I won’t quit voice”
In the end of the day, the battle of ultra climbing in won in the mind. It is the ability to control (or at least not listen) to that little voice in our head that eventually starts whispering “this hurts, go slower, please stop, we are done, ouch…. As an endurance athlete, you tend to spend a lot of time hearing this voice but the difference is do you listen to it.

There is a great video rolling around the interest about a Navy study on this inner voice. The “study” demonstrated that when the typical person’s mind says “you are done” the body is truly only 40% done. I don’t typically quote internet video studies that often are made to be more motivational than actual science but this message resonates with me.

As a long time coach I have seen the mentally tougher athlete win out time and time again; I have seen athletes, once they believe in themselves, go way beyond what they thought they were capable of.

I recommend that you fight the negative whispers with a strong positive message. I teach clients to find a message that inspires them and keep it in their mind. This can be a short “mantra” message that features your goal for the event, something that inspires you to overcome or simply that which motivates you but you need to use it each time your body says “I am ready to quit now”. Counter the inner negative whispers with a positive message and desire to achieve; you are only 40% done!

At the end of the day, the ability to achieve ultra climbing challenges comes down to training and desire. A well prepared athlete equipped with the right equipment, tools and mindset can thrive and have a very rewarding experience.