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RAGBRAI Training: Training for Hills

  • 11 March, 2024
  • Andrea Parrott

So I sense many of you are worried this year’s RAGBRAI. You hear there are hills, lots of them. Well, never fear, Coach Ertl is here. I will give you a number of ways to prepare yourself for this upcoming hilly RAGBRAI.

Tip #1: Ride hills. Most cyclists tend to avoid hills on their rides. For this upcoming RAGBRAI I’d recommend that you change your mindset. To conquer the hills, you need to train on hills. So instead of avoiding them, you need to seek them out. In order to be prepared, you need to ride hills, a lot of them… If you only have one hill, ride it multiple times, up and down. Don’t care what people think. You are on a mission. If you have a course with multiple hills, do it often. When riding up hills, practice using your gears. Find those that feel most comfortable. Some people are spinners, and like to use an easier gear and spin up hills with a higher cadence. Others tend to be more of a grinder and use a harder gear and lower cadence. Figure out what your are and practice that. As I’ve said before, training on hills is as much mental as it is physical. The more you ride hills, the more confidence you will get.

Tip  #2: Practice Standing. Another thing to practice is standing on hills. Some people stay seated all the time, even when climbing hills. Staying seated is more efficient but sometimes it makes more sense to stand up on the pedals, out of the saddle while climbing. This is particularly true when climbing a steep climb. The advantage of standing on the pedals is that you can use your body weight to turn over the pedals. If you aren’t used to standing, I’d recommend learning how to use this technique. It will come in handy on steeper pitches, and it can also be used on longer hills. Alternating between sitting and standing as you climb can offer you relief. This will use different muscle groups. So go ahead and practice this. Start out with brief periods of standing and try to increase the time standing. See how long you can go. This is a good skill to develop.

Tip #3: I don’t have a hill to train on, what do I do? This is a common question I get. Here are some suggestions:

  • Go to the gym to work on leg strength. Climbing requires muscular strength. You can build strength in the gym by doing various exercises. Doing exercises like squats and leg presses can build climbing strength. Leg presses are safer, but you can also do squats if you know how to do them correctly, or go seek instruction. These are great for building climbing strength. One word of caution – if you begin doing strength training, be sure to start with very light weights, to give your tendons, ligaments, and muscles the chance to adapt to the new load. Gradually increase the resistance.
  • Use gym equipment to simulate hills. If your gym has a stair-climber machine, use that. These can adjust resistance so choose a resistance that makes it fairly hard to climb, and then climb away. Another option is to use a spin bike – those with the big flywheel. You can crank down the resistance on those to give you all the resistance you want that can simulate climbing. Work on pedaling at a high resistance for a couple of minutes at a time and then spin to recover. Repeat a few times.
  • If you don’t have a gym handy, there are some exercises you can do at home to build leg strength. You can do lunges, again just make sure you are using correct technique. You can also do step-ups, up on to a box or step. Do each leg and hold a weight in each hand to add resistance.
  • Use your gears to simulate hills. You have gears on your bike. When climbing, use easier gears to help you get up. But if you are trying to simulate hill climbing on the flat terrain, shift to a harder gear. Grind away at a lower cadence (e.g. 60-70 RPM) for a few minutes as if you are climbing a hill.
  • Ride into the wind. Even if you don’t have hills where you live, I bet you have wind. Use this to your advantage. Typically, all cyclists hate the wind, perhaps even more than hills. But you can use this to your advantage. Wind adds resistance. Just like hills, kinda. When riding into a headwind, pretend it’s a hill and work as if you are climbing. You can add resistance by shifting to a harder gear. Grind away like you are climbing. The thing is, hills eventually end. Wind doesn’t unless you change directions. So don’t grind away for a half hour straight into the wind, change directions to get a break, then head back into the wind for another ‘hill’.
  • Use your stationary trainer. If you don’t have a gym or hills, you can simulate hills on your trainer. If you have a ‘dumb trainer’, such as a fluid or wind trainer, you can shift into a higher gear and get a lot of resistance. My fluid trainer gives me all the resistance I need to simulate hills.  Again, do a few minutes, then shift to an easier gear and spin to recover and repeat.  If you have a ‘smart trainer’, one that connects to a computer app such as Zwift or Rouvy, you can ride on those programs. These have courses with plenty of hills which are very realistic.

So as you can see, there are many options for training for hills. By far the best way is to ride hills. But if that doesn’t work for you, find ways to simulate them. This takes effort but it will be worth it come July.

Ride on, and up.

Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach. He coaches the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team and individual cyclists through the Peaks Coaching Group. He also provides cycling training plans and ebooks at his website: http://www.CyclesportCoaching.com. He can also be contacted by email: cyclecoach@hotmail.com.

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