Uphills or Flats: Which Makes You a Stronger Cyclist?
Chris Carmichael tells us what he knows
There are a lot of cyclists who live for climbs, whether they are short and punchy hills or massively long mountain passes. If it’s uphill, they love it. And there’s no doubt that climbing is hard, but the question is whether spending all your time in the hills is actually hurting your overall cycling performance.
The downsides of too much climbing
Only cyclists who live in hilly or mountainous areas can really overdo it with climbs. Riders who live in flat terrain don’t have this problem (they have other problems, but not this one). There are two main problems with spending too much time focused on riding uphill:
- There’s always a descent coming.
Descents are the reward for all the hard work of climbing, and they are tons of fun. But at some level they can also be disruptive to purposeful training. Unless you live near big mountains, it’s rare to find a climb that lasts more than 30 minutes. And in many “hilly” areas, the climbs range from 4-10 minutes. You can get some serious work done on those climbs, but then there’s a descent where you’re coasting or pedaling at a far lower power output. Yes, it’s recovery, but it also limits the duration of your powerful efforts.
- Power output drops too low.
Climbs place a lot of stress on your muscles, and although you should be able to ride at 200 watts uphill as long as you can ride 200 watts on flat ground, cyclists often have to apply more power on climbs to maintain momentum and keep their legs moving smoothly through the dead spot at the bottom of the pedal stroke. When the big muscles of your quads, hamstrings, and buttocks get fatigued before you reach the top of the hill, riders end up slowly grinding their way uphill at power outputs that are lower than what they could sustain on flat ground. This means climbs take longer, but the reduced power output is not very helpful for adding training stimulus. You’re more in survival mode than training mode.
The training benefits of cycling on flat terrain
Some cyclists who live in hilly and mountainous areas feel pity for the poor bastards who are stuck riding on flat ground and little rolling hills. But those flatlanders often have the last laugh when they do finally hit the hills. Here’s why:
- Long periods of moderate power Tempo riding
Riding at a challenging (about 80% of CTS Field Test power) aerobic pace for very long intervals (30-60 minutes or more) is one of the most effective ways to create deep aerobic fitness. These workouts are easy to execute in flat terrain but because it’s harder to maintain a consistent power output in rolling hills, it can be quite challenging to execute a quality Tempo workout.
- More pedal strokes
One of the reasons an hour on an indoor trainer often feels harder than an out on the road is that you’re always pedaling. Until recently with smart trainers, there weren’t really “downhill” during indoor training. The same is true for riding 2-3 hours on mainly flat roads compared to 2-3 hours in the mountains. You’ll spend more time pedaling during that flat ride.Cyclists from mountainous areas sometimes learn a hard lesson. They’ll come to a flatter area with the belief that all that climbing made them stronger than a rider who has only ridden in the flats. But a few hours later, the climbers are exhausted because they’re not used to pedaling for hours on end without coasting to softpedaling down big hills.
- More consistent cadence and pedal stroke
If I ask the average cyclist from Ohio or Florida to pedal at 90-95rpm at an endurance power output for an hour, and asked the same of a cyclist who lives in the Rocky Mountains or the Blue Ridge Mountains, the flatlanders will almost always be able to maintain a more consistent cadence.
All those months and years of putting down more pedal strokes provides the neuromuscular adaptation, muscle strength, and patience to spin a moderately heavy gear for long time. The riders from the mountains can often create a lot of force at lower cadences, and can spin fast for shorter periods, but over the long haul they struggle to match the flatlanders pedal stroke for pedal stroke.
Getting the Best of Both Worlds
While there are people who live in places where there are virtually no flat roads, and other people who live in places that are pancake flat, those are the extremes. Most people live somewhere in between and have access to a combination of flat ground as well as and lightly rolling hills, short and punchy hills, or longer ascents. For this type of mixed terrain, it is important to maintain a consistent power and cadence throughout the flats and hills. A common mistake that is made is to attack the short climbs and use the descents to recover. Actively shifting through these sections is a good way to maintain proper consistency. If you have choices about what terrain to ride in, here’s how to structure your training routes:
- Training for long climbs:
If you’re training for a big ride in the mountains but you live in a place with moderate hills, try 2 hilly rides per week (intervals and/or endurance) for technique and power specificity, and two rides per week on the flats. Early on, both should be a long tempo or lactate threshold ride to take advantage of the uninterrupted pedaling. Then you can transition one to a high-intensity interval workout with short efforts (3minutes on, 3 minutes off at maximum intensity, for example).
- Bike racers:
With races that are relatively short (1-2 hours), and consequently feature intermittent high-intensity efforts, flat ground training is very important. Flat group rides or motorpacing help build the power and endurance to turn over a big gear at relatively high cadence to maintain momentum at high speed. Train once a week in the hills, particularly to use the uphill grade to push yourself harder for high-intensity intervals.
- Training for hilly/mountainous sportives, bike tours, and gran fondos:
If you’re heading to a major endurance challenge, whether it has a ton of climbing or is mostly flat, you want to be as fit as possible going into it. If you struggle to keep your power and effort level from dropping while training in big hills, spend more time on flat ground so you can apply more consistent workload for longer periods of time. Your 2-3 hour rides will be more productive for increasing your sustainable intensity level, so when you get to those major climbs, you can settle into a steady rhythm you can sustain all the way to the top.
By Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS