Hillclimbers’ Training

Having participated in numerous hill climb cycling events over the past seven years, I felt compelled to capture some philosophical perspective on the subject. In this seven-year period, I estimate hill climb participation has quadrupled in the northeastern part of the country. Not too long ago, Mt. Washington would not reach the 600 rider limit.

In 2006, a second race was added when the August event sold out in three hours. Also in this seven-year period, annual events have begun at Ascutney, Whiteface, and Equinox with pre-registered riders numbering in the hundreds. Many riders are doing their first climb each year. Other riders are looking to improve their previous best times. I hope this guide will help these riders to attain their goals.

One of the best places to obtain additional information on any northeast hill climb is the Mt. Washington Hillclimb Racers Forum. Although this forum exists to support Mt Washington racers, anybody may post on this open forum. It has become the gathering place of northeast hillclimbers in cyberspace. Questions on gearing, tires, weight, training, weather and many other topics are eagerly answered here.

Ten topics were selected for discussion below. They are not necessarily in order of importance. Some of the topics such as Training or Diet could never be covered in adequate detail here, so references are given to authorities on these topics. If you have any questions on this material, feel free to contact me.


Hillclimbing can be a torturous experience for the untrained cyclist. However, even a modest training regimen can improve one’s experience conquering big climbs. What’s in a training plan? Generally, most coaches these days recommend periodizing your training plan over the course of a year. Personally, I have never fully subscribed to the periodization method, not because I don’t believe in it, but more because I just like maintaining constant fitness throughout the year.

I may forfeit some potential by not periodizing, but it’s a trade I continue to make each year. Periodization basically means you break a training year up into periods, starting with prep, which gets you ready to train, possibly involving cross-training in the offseason, then base, which is light aerobic work and lots of volume, then build, which begins adding intensity to aerobic workouts, then peak, where volume is reduced and highest intensity workouts are added. The peak period culminates in race readiness. Joe Friel’s “The Cyclist’s Training Bible” is the reference standard for competitive cycling training. It is still widely available.

Say you’re not a licensed competitive cyclist and you’d like some basic ideas on how to prepare for a rewarding hill climb. I can share what works for me, which might not be for everyone. Begin by staying in shape over winter. Avoid putting on excess weight. A few pounds won’t hurt, but 20 pounds or more will be tough to take back off. You don’t have to cycle to stay fit, but a little spinning on the trainer or in spin class helps. The last few years, I’ve focused more on cross country skiing to maintain cardio fitness. It’s a great change of pace, and skiing can stress your cardio system even more rigorously than cycling. As winter fades, you will want to increase hours on the bicycle or trainer.

How many hours depends on your goals. For me, I try to maintain 8 hrs of cardio work per week in the winter, ramping this up to 12 hrs, mostly cycling, by spring. Mt Washington can be conquered with much less training than this. To be competitive in my age class, I need to put in this many hours.  Avoid too much intensity early in the season. Long bouts of moderate breathing build your aerobic base. Try to get one or two workouts in per week that exceed a couple of hours at a comfortable pace. By mid-spring, pick the pace up. If you do group rides, challenge your riding buddies up that hill or for the town line.

By late spring, you should be adding some interval training to your routine. I tend to do some of this year-round, as I don’t like my fitness to drop much in the winter. Interval training for hill climbs varies from several 5-minute high-intensity bursts to two or three 20 minute efforts to a single 1 to 2-hour effort. Maybe do a 5-minute work one day in a week, recover a couple of days, then do a 1 or 2-hour effort later in the week.

The Key is to start the intervals at a pace you can barely hold for the duration of the interval. Thus a 1-hour interval would be started at a significantly easier pace than a 5-minute interval. 5-minute intervals push your body deep into the anaerobic realm, making you nauseated, possibly feeling on the verge of puking. These build your tolerance to lactic acid and train your body to process the lactic acid.

These intervals don’t have to be boring, precisely timed bursts on some flat piece of road. Keep it interesting. Find a hilly loop that has a bunch of hills that are about 5 minutes in duration. Three minutes or 10 minutes work fine too. There’s nothing magical about 5 minutes. Do recover between the intervals though, so you begin each one somewhat fresh. Warm-up before turning on the intensity too. I tend to avoid the really short intervals in my training, as I’ve never been able to sprint and I avoid races that require sprinting, like most crits.

These would be the 10 or 30-second type intervals. There’s probably still some value in doing them, particularly if you do other racing. It’s just not part of my regular training routine. One of my favorite interval sessions is to go out to Pack Monadnock, an 800ft rise park road.  It takes me around 10 minutes to climb it. After the fourth time, I’m cooked. When you find you can’t maintain a heart rate or pace after several intervals, it’s time to quit for the day. Don’t overdo it. It’ll just take that much longer to recover.

Longer intervals like 20 minutes, or particularly an hour or more, build both muscular and cardio endurance. Mt Washington takes an hour and half for most people. There’s no recovery on the way up. It is all steep. It is hard to ride an hour or more at a steady, hard pace on regular roads. Traffic, intersections, hills, and wind can all perturb a well-intentioned steady effort. Maybe the trainer is the way to go for some people, but not me. Try to find back roads or a loop that has minimal interference, then go out at the same pace you hope to barely finish it at.

This may take practice. Everything requires practice, also when you need, for example, to earn your GED to get ahead in life. For this practice, a heart rate monitor may help. If you go out too hard, you’ll have trouble holding the HR towards the end of the 60 or 90-minute effort. Go out a little easier next time. This will help you determine how to pace yourself on a climb like Mt Washington too. I have a loop I do on my lunch breaks. It’s 30 miles, has long stretches with no traffic interference, but is somewhat hilly. My HR will not be very constant on this loop, but I try to finish it as hard as I started it. I’ll average close to 23 mph on this loop with an average heart rate approaching 90% maximum, which is about my lactic threshold.