Ask the Experts: How to Train for the Hills

Words by Taylor Thomas at Thomas Endurance Coaching

Climbing can be a daunting task for many athletes. The aerobic and muscular requirements to tackle climbs with confidence can be challenging for some to master. Becoming a better climber, much like other components of training, takes a specific and individualized approach. The proper foundation must be built and then based on individual goals, strengths, and weaknesses climbing preparation should be integrating into a well thought out and periodized training approach. Climbing doesn’t have to remain a weakness if it’s approached with the critical and thoughtful attention it requires.

How to Make the Biggest Gains

Before tackling any specific workouts start by identifying how you can make the biggest improvement to your climbing strength. Where is it you feel you need to improve? Are you fading at the end of long sustained climbs? Are short climbs requiring top-end efforts holding you back, or is overall power through different length climbs an issue? There are three primary ways to approach climbing specific gains. These three approaches are designed to increase watts per kilogram, which is a critical metric when focusing on climbing.

  • Increase your power output while keeping your weight constant.
  • Keep your power output constant while decreasing your weight.
  • Increase your power output while also decreasing your weight.

Many athletes are already managing their weight properly. However, if you can safely lose weight, it’s often the best and most effective way to increase W/Kg. It’s the only way to see nearly immediate gains in your climbing ability while maintaining a steady threshold. One pound of excess body weight takes two watts to get up a hill, or three kilograms of fat takes an extra three seconds per kilometer on a climb. Meaning that if you have ten pounds to lose you could climb 7-10% faster. Those gains would take much longer if your focus was strictly on increasing your power output.

Identify Specificity

Not all climbs are created equal. Some require long sustained efforts below threshold, while others require VO2Max efforts out of the saddle for a few minutes. Knowing where it is you need to focus starts by highlighting the demands of the goal events on your calendar. Next, calculate your W/Kg at different durations along the Power Duration Curve. The four standard durations are 5 second, 1-minute, 5-minute, and FTP (Functional Threshold Power). These four durations not only correspond to different systems in the body but also let you work on event-specific efforts to make sure you’re building strength in the appropriate areas. Track your improvements in W/Kg over time for these specific durations to ensure that training is specific to your event(s).

Begin working on climbing-specific strength early. Being a good climber starts long before any hill repeats or workouts are performed. A periodized approach to strength training should be integrated that focuses on critical power as well as muscular stamina. This foundational strength will complement higher intensity workouts during event-specific training. Ensure your body is ready and able to handle the demands of climbing specific training and/or a climbing-focused event. Building an appropriate aerobic and muscular foundation is key early in the season. Climbing preparation must be treated with the same weight as any other skill set.

Climbing Training Plan

Once you’ve identified specific areas based on the demands of your individual events, built a proper foundation, and periodized strength work in the build-up to event preparation, you’re ready to start performing climbing specific workouts. The following is an example of a week of climbing specific preparation that could be included in the final 8-12 weeks leading up to a climbing-focused endurance event.

Monday: Off day or active recovery. If your weekends have included longer rides with more intensity this is a good option for a full rest day. It can also be a good chance to perform yoga, foam rolling and active stretching. Listen to your body and remember that rest days are when fitness is gained.

Tuesday: This session is a good way to tune-up your body for the week ahead. These steady state lactate threshold efforts will help build muscular stamina, increase threshold, and aerobic efficiency.

  1. Warm Up: 20 min @ 50-60 % of FTP
  2. Main Effort: Repeat 4 times
    1. Hard: 8 min @ 89-92 % of FTP
    2. Easy: 3 min @ 50-60 % of FTP 
  3. Cool Down: 11 min @ 55-65 % of FTP

Wednesday: Typically climbing events aren’t comprised of one type of climbing, and no effort is purely aerobic or anaerobic, so it’s good to work both systems.

  1. Warm Up: 20 min @ 55 % of FTP
  2. Main Effort: Repeat 4 times
    1. Hard: 5 min @ 107 % of FTP
    2. Easy: 2 min @ 50 % of FTP
  3. Active: 15 min @ 88-94 % of FTP
  4. Cool Down: 12 min @ 60 % of FTP

Thursday: In the final weeks leading up to a key event stacking efforts with varying intensities is a good way to keep quality high and control specificity. The following session is an example of one of these varied sessions, but this would also be a good day to integrate classic hill repeats built around the demands of your event.

  1. Warm Up: 5 min @ 55-60 % of FTP
  2. Main Effort: Repeat 1 time
    1. Hard: 3 min @ 89-93 % of FTP
    2. Harder: 1 min @ 110-115 % of FTP
    3. Hard: 3 min @ 89-93 % of FTP
  3. Recovery: 5 min @ 50-55 % of FTP
  4. Repeat 1 time
    1. Hard: 5 min @ 86-89 % of FTP
    2. Harder: 3 min @ 105-110 % of FTP
    3. Hard: 5 min @ 86-89 % of FTP
  5. Recovery: 5 min @ 50-55 % of FTP
  6. Repeat 1 time
    1. Hard: 3 min @ 89-93 % of FTP
    2. Harder: 1 min @ 110-115 % of FTP
    3. Hard: 3 min @ 89-93 % of FTP
  7. Cool Down: 13 min @ 60-65 % of FTP

Friday: Depending on your level of fitness and preparation this can be a full rest day or a light day to prep your body for the effort over the weekend. Here’s an example of a good tune-up workout.

  1. Warm Up: 15 min @ 55 % of FTP
  2. Main Effort:
    1. Active: 10 min @ 80 % of FTP
    2. Active: 10 min @ 60 % of FTP
    3. Active: 10 min @ 92 % of FTP
  3. Cool Down: 10 min @ 55 % of FTP

Saturday: This can be the day for a classic long ride. The duration should be based on the goal event and should include plenty of climbing mixed in throughout the ride. Typically these rides should be performed below Zone 4. They are also the chance to work on nutrition strategies and gear selection for your goal event.

Sunday: Traditionally this ride is shorter in duration than Saturday’s ride. It can also be on more moderate terrain and performed at a lesser intensity. The goal of “stacking” endurance sessions is to force the body to not only increase endurance but also develop the musculature and aerobic strength for climbing focused rides.

Becoming a proficient climber can be one of the most rewarding aspects of a focused training approach. Feeling strong and capable in the hills will open up countless options for a variety of bucket list events around the world. Make sure that you focus on keeping the training as individualized as possible, and start your preparation early. Climbing is physical and your body must be up to the task before any workouts are integrated into the training plan. Give climbing the respect and time it deserves and you’ll be treated to an improved level of fitness and enjoyment on the bike that will make all aspects of training and racing better.

Taylor Thomas is the founder and head coach of Thomas Endurance Coaching (TEC) and has more than a decade of experience in the endurance sports industry as an athlete, coach, race promoter, and team organizer. TEC provides expert level coaching to athletes of all ability levels and specializes in both a scientific and metrics-based approach to endurance sports. They guide athletes in all disciplines of both running and cycling. Browse their pre-built training plans on TrainingPeaks, or for more information on personal coaching and custom training plans visit Follow 

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