How To Climb Effectively and Efficiently by Matt Stephens

By Matt Stephens

The ability to climb and descend are two crucial skills you’ll need if you want to get the most from your cycling. They are both very different yet intrinsically linked; you can’t really have one without the other. In this article we’ll focus on the key elements of the going uphill part.

Climbing is basically a fight against gravity. But there are a few simple techniques you can adopt to make this constant battle a little easier.

First up: Gearing

Always ensure that prior to your ride, the gear ratio you have will suit the terrain you’re riding on, which means an awareness beforehand of your route. Are there any climbs? How steep are they?

Fortunately, most modern bikes, be they road, gravel, CX or endurance, have ‘compact’-style gear ratios with a 50 x 34 front-chain ring and 12-32 rear cassette which should see you over most climbs. On the long, strength-sapping climbs it’s a good idea to be under-geared than over-geared, just in case you get into difficulty.

Don’t go too hard

This is often known as ‘going into the red’ and is something to be avoided. The key to climbing well is to pace and ride within yourself, trying not to go into that red zone or oxygen debt. Aim to keep control of your breathing and keep a pace you are confident you can maintain for the duration of the climb. This is a skill that applies to all riders, from the novice to the Tour de France champion. The actual speeds may be different of course but the principal remains the same. If you go too hard and into oxygen debt it is very difficult to recover. Find a rhythm that suits you particularly on longer climbs. It’s still important to ‘pace’ a shorter climb, but since the effort is shorter you can afford to go a little deeper, especially if you can see the top!


Most riders shift in and out of the saddle on a climb, depending on how steep the climb is. However, on a climb it’s generally more efficient to try and stay seated most of the time, pedalling or spinning a lower gear, rather than ‘churning’ a larger gear, whilst holding onto the tops of the handlebars. Doing this will create less stress and load on your muscles, effectively spreading the effort, making it easier to maintain for long periods.

Cyclists climbing
Your mindset can make or break your climb. Every cyclist has a different way to handle the pain and discomfort of pushing hard for extended periods of time. © Profimedia

Keep riding out of the saddle for shorter periods if you can, as far more energy is spent this way and it is generally harder to maintain. Riding this way is great for hauling yourself over particularly steep sections or simply to relieve the back muscles if you have been sat in the same position for a while, as well as making hard accelerations.

If you are new to cycling it may be hard to remain seated and you’ll feel you may want to constantly shift in and out of the saddle and back again. This is quite normal, just be patient and focus on your rhythm and technique whilst keeping the gearing low.

Climbing psychology

Climbing is a very hard discipline which involves pushing your body to its limits. It isn’t easy and never will be, but that’s what makes it so rewarding when you look back at the climbs you’ve conquered. However, on long and/or steep climbs, it is easy to be mentally defeated by the job at hand, especially if you’re having a bad day.

So, to alleviate this a little, rather than think of how horrible the climb is, try and break it down in your mind into easier chunks. Focus on a part of road (a sign, tree or landmark) around 200-300 metres ahead and ride at a controlled pace until you reach that point before looking once more to another point further up again until you reach the top. It really does work!

With power metres and heart-rate monitors, measuring your effort can be a little easier, although it won’t take away the pain! But learning to climb without these tools will only improve your awareness of yourself. It’s called ‘riding on feel’ and is something all cyclists should learn, whatever their aims and ambitions.

Climbing is hard, but it can also be fun. Pick a local hill and give it a go! The more you climb. the better you’ll become!