Climbers typically generate the most watts per kilogram of body weight
Professional cyclists vary dramatically in their abilities – typically you have those who excel as climbers, sprinters or time trial specialists. Climbers typically generate the most watts per kilogram of body weight, whereas time-trialists and strong flat-terrain riders are usually the ones who can generate the most absolute wattage or power.
From a training perspective, this is important because as soon as you start going uphill, your absolute wattage is less of a factor and your watts per kilogram become the primary indicator of performance. Watts per kilogram gives a clearer indication of an athlete’s fitness relative to their size. Training on hills is one of the best ways to address, and increase, an athlete’s watts per kilogram.
Perhaps the most obvious outcome, when you combine constant resistance and weight-dependence, is the ability to attain and maintain higher levels of intensity. Hills provide an environment that is favourable for producing more watts, more consistently, for longer periods of time. This translates directly to the ability to ride at a higher intensity for longer. Of course it’s possible to do this on flatter terrain, but hills just make it easier.
One of the most effective ways to get stronger on the bike is to increase muscular recruitment. The goal in endurance sport is not necessarily to create more muscle mass, but to encourage the body to use more of the muscular mass it already has. For example (and in very simplistic terms), if you have 100 muscle fibres in your leg and you are only using 40 of them, it’s better to learn how to use 50 than to make 40 of them bigger. Muscle is heavy and it’s not very efficient to carry around when you are doing an endurance sport. Training sets that include lower cadence with more resistance teach the body to use more of what it already has. Low RPM sets require more torque, and more torque requires more muscular recruitment. Hills provide the perfect environment for this type of stimulus.
One of the best ways to learn proper pedalling mechanics is to use a harder gear and slow the pedal revolution down. Power is generated most effectively in the push phase of the pedal stroke (if you imagine the crank arm is the hand of a clock the push phase would be from about 1 to 5) with smaller amounts of power being generated at other points in the revolution. When you climb, you are forced to generate more power, which usually means you have to work harder during the push phase. The other phases of the pedal stroke are still important, but the push phase becomes exaggerated, particularly on very steep grades, because it is the place where you can generate the most power. Ultimately the goal is to achieve a smooth pedal stroke where you generate power all the way around, but this power need not be created equally during all 360 degrees of the cycle.
It’s important to note that if you only ride on hills you will get better at riding on hills, but will not necessarily be better at riding on flatter terrain. Muscle recruitment and pedalling mechanics are not fixed, but rather change as your cadence changes. Hills, or lower RPM riding, allows you to exaggerate a part of the pedal stroke where you can generate the most amount of power.
Ironman champion Jasper Blake is the head coach of B78 Coaching; visit www.b78.is.