Benefits of Cycling on Hills
The hill climb is the arch-nemesis of cyclists everywhere. There's a reason they give a jersey for climbing on the Tour de France; hill climbing is the ultimate test of fitness, endurance and mental perseverance. If you're looking for some motivation to get out and tackle your local hills, understanding the benefits to your fitness and speed provided by high-intensity workouts like hill climbing may be the kick you need to start going up in the world.
Don't Fear the Low Gear
Your shifting technique is the first skill that will likely benefit from more frequent hill climbs. Shifting quietly and preemptively is a key skill in racing, since being in a gear that is too high when you reach the bottom of a hill can spell disaster for your pace. As you approach the bottom of an especially tough hill, shift to your smallest chainring and a larger rear cog before you get to the actual incline. This way, you'll be ready to pedal at a high cadence when you get into the start of the climb.
Hills are a serious physical challenge for your muscles. As you undergo a high-intensity workout, you're expanding the strength and definition of your leg muscles in two ways. Hypertrophy, the enlargement of individual muscle cells, results in an immediate gain in physical power and is stimulated by high-intensity exercises like hill climbing. In addition, strenuous exercise like climbing tears the individual fibers or myofibrils in your muscles, which stimulates the release of repair cells called satellite cells. As the satellite cells repair damaged fibers, the diameter of the fibers increases, building muscle over time and increasing your speed.
Braining Your Way to the Top
Hill climbing is part physical and part mental. It's extraordinarily difficult to endure punished leg muscles and gasping lungs when the opportunity to turn around and coast to the bottom is there for you the entire time. However, pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone is the essence of a good physical challenge, and you might find that conquering a climb is just the confidence boost you need to perform better on race day. There are few activities more affirming for a cyclist than hill climbing.
Mastering Your Steed
Hill climbing is a good opportunity to master good technique that you can carry with you to racing and commuting as well. A good hill climb lets you practice pacing yourself, steadying your breathing into a sustainable rhythm and maintaining a constant speed. You can also practice your positioning; stand on the pedals for more power or sit with your back straight and your chest open, keeping your weight over the bottom bracket to keep the bike from rolling backward. With your arms spaced wider than your hips, you're in a good position to conquer the toughest climb.
Max Roman Dilthey is a science, health and culture writer currently pursuing a master's of sustainability science. Based in Massachusetts, he blogs about cycling at MaxTheCyclist.com.