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Climbing Hills for Triathlons

For an endurance sport such as triathlon, you’re looking to produce as evenly paced an effort as possible over the whole event, whether Sprint, Olympic, or Ironman distance. Hills on a course act to disrupt your even-paced effort, so the trick here is to try and keep such disruption to a minimum.

You do this by staying seated as much as possible and changing down a gear on climbs to allow you to keep your power output constant. This technique should be your initial response to an approaching climb and is easy to adopt on shallow gradients (<5%) or where you get a ‘run into’ the hill. Steeper climbs and/or a ‘turn’ into a climb, however, can mean you lose too much momentum to stay seated on the first part of the hill. In this case, carry as much seated speed as you can into the hill before standing up, allowing you to keep your optimum pedaling speed (cadence), before re-positioning yourself back in the saddle and changing down a gear.

So staying seated is the general rule, but stand up for little bursts: a) in order to increase any flagging momentum, as the gradient gets steeper, or b) to ease your back/shoulders (especially in longer events).

When climbing seated, keep the power output that you were producing on the flat (but in a smaller gear), and aim to sit further back in the saddle, relax your arms, drop your heels through the pedaling circle, look ahead and steady your breathing. Good ‘standing’ technique requires you to lay the weight of your upper body onto the handlebars through relaxed arms and a slight lean forward. Keep shoulders relaxed and swing the bike from side-to-side a little in order to add some valuable body weight through each pedal downstroke. Thinking about cutting your weight, Every gram on your body and bike will slow you down. Eating a healthy and balanced diet that fuels your training and maintaining a healthy body weight will help in all aspects of triathlon, but weight is especially important as the gradient increases.

Some quick tips in preparation for your next hill:

Look up and anticipate
Make sure you keep an eye on the road ahead, so you spot the approaching hill in plenty of time.

On the approach
Dropdown a few gears as you approach the hill. You want to drop to a gear that means your cadence (how fast you are pedaling) increases but where you are still putting some power through pedals and generating forward momentum. Dropping down a few gears at this point also means you will have fewer gears drop through when the climb starts.

On the incline
With the momentum you are carrying from your approach, drop down the through the gears quickly and smoothly. Try to drop through the gears one at a time, as dropping several at once can sometimes cause the chain to drop off the gears completely.

Stand or sit?
Generally speaking, unless the hill is short and sharp or you want a workout, it’s better to drop to an easy gear and stay seated on your way up. You should be able to put minimal force through the pedals but generate enough forward momentum to keep you moving up. This means you don’t expend too much energy in one go, so you’ll have plenty of steam to get to the top. If you are new to cycling, drop to your easiest gear. It’s much simpler to then go up a few gears if you feel you can put more force through the pedals than to find you are in too high a gear and rapidly running out of energy.

Is there a ‘right’ gear?
In short, no. With experience, you’ll find out what gears work for you when climbing, and you’ll be able to judge which one to drop into for the hill you are facing. Everyone is different, and which gear you find best for climbing will depend on lots of factors like the steepness and length of the climb, the bike you are riding, even how much you are carrying or how you are feeling that day.

Climb it in your head
Sometimes climbing a hill is as much a mental battle as a physical one. Hills can look pretty intimidating, and it’s often tempting to just get off and not try the climb. However, if you drop to your easiest gear and give it a go, you’ll probably surprise yourself how far you get. And there’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment when you get to the top under your own pedal power.

If at first, you don’t succeed
Everyone gets defeated by hills at some point, and climbing hills is hard work. Sometimes it’s just too long or too steep, sometimes you drop into the wrong gear and can’t keep up enough momentum. Don’t worry about it, there’s nothing wrong with walking up. Keep trying, and before you know it that hill that’s your nemesis on your training ride will become something you spin up with no bother at all.

Stuart has competed in triathlons from Sprint to Ironman distance. As a qualified Triathlon Australia, Australian Athletics Run Coach, and a certified Ironman coach, he is aware of the importance of balancing training with lifestyle, thus complementing other important aspects of an athlete’s life (family, work, study commitments, etc.).

Contact Stuart at



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