How do I focus my training plan to become a better climber?

How do I focus my training plan to become a better climber?

Do you get frustrated on climbs when you can’t keep up with your friends?  Do you continually get dropped in races as soon as the road goes uphill?  Climbing isn’t just for the super skinny.  Anyone can get better at climbing.  As with all training, specificity is key.  To get better at climbing you’re going to have to spend some time doing workouts that are specific to climbing.  And the reality is to be a good all-around rider or racer you’re going to have to be a decent climber.                                                           

To become a better climber there is really only one thing you have to worry about; improving your maximum sustainable power output or your power at threshold.[1]  Actually there are a lot of things you have to worry about, but power at threshold is the biggest determiner of success on the hills. 

So how do you improve your maximum sustainable power output?  There are two good types of intervals that will accomplish just this.  First are maximal steady state or maximum sustainable power intervals.[2]  What the heck is this? Maximal steady state is the highest workload a person can maintain while his or her lactate levels remain consistent, or in a steady state.[3]  On the bike this might be the highest power you could sustain for an hour-long race-pace effort.  It isn’t the absolute highest amount of power you can generate at once, but the highest amount of power you can produce over an extended period of time without blowing up.   Why is this important?  When climbing you are riding at an intensity that is extremely uncomfortable for long periods of time.  There is very little drafting and obviously no coasting.  Being able to maintain this painfully high workload is crucial.  This means your legs AND your brain have to learn how to ride at a high intensity for a long time. 

There are many good workouts that will improve your power at threshold or your MSPO.  Remember that specificity is what we’re focusing on.  If you want to get better at the long gradual 4-6% climbs, then that’s the kind of climb you need to do your intervals on.  If you want to get better at all types of climbs, then do your intervals on a variety of climbs from the super mellow to the 15% “I think I’m gonna die” type climbs. 

The first type of interval is your basic lactate threshold climbing interval.  This interval should be a minimum of 10 minutes in length and can be as long as 30 minutes.   The intensity level is considered Zone 4 or your power/heart rate at threshold.  The recovery will be the same length as the interval.  Maintain a cadence similar to what you would use in a race.  When doing these intervals you have to remember that they are long and the intensity is quite high.  I find climbing intervals to be the hardest intervals we do in training.  They create the most fatigue, the most stress on the body, and they make you feel slow on the bike.  A big block of MSPO intervals are best done before the racing season begins. 

Here are some sample lactate threshold interval workouts:

Workout 1:

Week 1:  3x10 min on 10 min off at your lactate threshold power/HR

Week 2:  3x15 min on 15 min off

Week 3:  4x15 min on 15 min off 

Workout 2:

Week 1:  4x10 min on 10 min off

Week 2:  5x10 min on 10 min off

Week 3:  6x10 min on 10 min off 

Workout 3:

Week 1:  2x20 min on 20 min off

Week 2:  3x20 min on 20 min off

Week 3:  2x30 min on 30 min off 

In the winter I would do these intervals at or slightly below your lactate threshold.  As you get fitter and stronger you can do the intervals at or slightly above your LT.  These intervals can be 2-3 times a week for 4-6 weeks.  Be sure to give yourself ample recovery after these workouts.  They are long and hard and take a lot out of you. 

The second type of interval workout you can do to improve your climbing is called Sweet Spot.  Sweet spot training is slightly below your lactate threshold and a little harder than tempo.   Technically, the sweet spot is located between high zone 3 and low zone 4: between 83-85% to 97-100% of your functional threshold power, maximal steady state, or just plain power at threshold. For the non-power meter user I would call it "medium hard" - below your 40k time trial race pace, but harder than a traditional tempo workout.    Sweet spot elicits more adaptations than tempo but less than threshold work.  So why do them?  We can ride longer at sweet spot and do it more often than lactate threshold work.  The quality of the interval is better and the fatigue is less.  The end result is better training, and ultimately a higher power at threshold.[4]

Sweet spot intervals look just like LT intervals only with a slightly shorter recovery.  For example you could do 3x15 min on 8 min off at your sweet spot.   And for those of you that hate structured intervals, sweet spot training can also be done “free form”.  Choose a hilly ride of a couple hours and decide how much time you want to spend in your sweet spot.  On every climb ride in your sweet spot zone, keeping track of how long each climb takes.  Once you hit your target time you’re done with your “intervals” and can finish out the ride at whatever pace you’d like.  Same amount of intensity but in a much more stimulating and fun format.

The third type of interval you’ll need to do to improve your climbing is called a supermaximum sustainable power interval, or more simply a Vo2/Zone 5 interval.[5]  These are short and very intense and are the kind of intervals that make your arms go numb and your stomach feel like it might throw-up.  The goal of these intervals is to improve your ability to ride at nonsustainable work rates or at a power level you normally couldn’t tolerate for very long.[6]  Why is this important for climbing?  When going uphill, especially in a race, there are usually surges or attacks.  Following an attack or making one of your own takes you from that painful maximal steady state effort to an incredibly painful Vo2 effort.  Most attacks or surges are short.  If you haven’t trained your legs to withstand this short bout of intense suffering you’ll blow up when it happens and get dropped.  Vo2 training gives you the ability to go with the surges and attacks on a climb and then settle back into your MSPO or lactate threshold.   

Vo2 efforts are 3-6 minutes in length with the same amount of recovery.  The intensity level is as hard as you can go.  It’s a super hard race pace effort.  If your lactate threshold heart rate was 173 you would do these efforts between a HR of 179-184.  If your lactate threshold power was 225 watts for example, your Zone 5/Vo2 efforts would be done between 250-350 watts.  The Vo2 or intervals are considered “super hard I think I’m going to puke” efforts or on a scale of 1-10, they would be a 10.  Do a bunch of these during each workout and do the Vo2 workout maybe 2-3 times a week. 

How do these fit into a training plan?  You will need to have a good solid aerobic base before starting these intervals.  Spend a few months doing long endurance rides with some intensity thrown in on the weekends when you ride with friends or do the local group ride.  When you have a decent level of fitness, do the Sweet Spot training first for 4-6 weeks.  After a good recovery week you can do the lactate threshold/Zone 4 training next 4-6 weeks.  Another rest week and then a block of Vo2 intervals. 

As your training progresses, you will want to increase the difficulty of these two types of intervals.  To do that you can make each effort longer, shorten the recovery in between, or increase the HR or power you do each effort at.  The only way you get stronger is to force your body to make adaptations to a given stress.  If the stress never changes, your body will never get stronger.  Push yourself to make the intervals slightly harder each week you do them.  With plenty of recovery in between workouts your body will make the needed changes and come back stronger and faster than when you started. 

The ultimate goal of all of this is to improve your ability to ride hard on the hills.  Doing these three types of intervals will increase your power output making you stronger and faster on the bike.  It is a painful investment but the reward is well worth it!

Have fun!


Alison Dunlap is a certified Level I USAC Coach and has been working with athletes for eight years.  She runs a coaching business called Alison Dunlap Coaching, and has MTB Skills Clinics in Colorado Springs, CO  through the Alison Dunlap Adventure Camps.  Alison is also a two-time Olympian, MTB World Champion, and 13-time National Champion.  For more information please visit

[1] Dave Morris, Performance Cycling; Training for Power, Endurance, and Speed (Maine:  Ragged Mountain Press, 2003) Morris 33

[2] Morris 33

[3] Morris 33

[4] Frank Overton-owner of FasCat Coaching 2008

[5] Morris 62

[6] Morris 62