If you ride a bike, chances are at one point in time you have met a hill that you have had a bit of trouble getting up.
Maybe it’s that pesky hill that you encounter daily on your bike commute. Or, it could be that hill that you always avoid when you are planning your bike route because you know it’s going to be a struggle.
In fact, I bet that you have some memory, somewhere of a monster climb that took literally everything you had.
Alternatively, sometimes those suckers catch us by surprise! If it’s a new route or an area we are unfamiliar with we can find ourselves just going up and up, seemingly with no end in sight.
Maybe you had to get off your bike for a bit and walk up the hill. Or, even turn around and find another way because the hill was just too steep.
This actually happened to me once when I was traveling for a family wedding. My husband and I brought along our bikes, and took turns hanging out with our son while the other person got their ride in.
My husband planned this epic route that climbed to this highest point in New Jersey or something and of course was just fine.
Me on the other hand? Not so much. I planned a modest route for myself that seemed very manageable…until it wasn’t.
I found myself climbing, climbing, and climbing. Eventually I had to hop off and walk. And when I finally got to the top? The road down was closed. If you could even call it that! It was more of a path with waist high grass, and there was a very big gate that made it clear it was not to be traversed…especially with a road bike.
I had to turn around, and find another way to climb up and over that hill. It was tough, the ride took about an hour longer than I planned, but I did it!
Curious about how I pulled it off? Take a deep breath, settle in, and read on for my quick and easy tips on how to climb hills on your bike.
Tip #1: Prep for Your Hills In Advance
The idea here is to make sure that your body and your mind are ready to attack some hills before you even set out on the bike!
Fuel Properly for the Ride
You’re not going to have fun on hills, or on the ride in general, if you haven’t fueled properly for it. Make sure that you have some easy to digest carbs before the ride.
According to Bike Radar, you want to make sure that you eat a fast fueling carb (energy bar, gel, or chew) about 15 minutes before a climb.
So if the climb is right at the beginning of your ride, eat something before you set out. If it’s future in the ride, then take a little break roughly 15 minutes before you are going to hit the climb to make sure you have enough fuel in the tank to make it up!
Manage Your Thoughts About The Hill
Do not, under any circumstances, underestimate the power of your thoughts to either make or break your hill climbing experience. The mental approach to a climb is just as, if not more so, important as the physical.
If you tell yourself that the hill is going to be hard, that you won’t be able to do it, that it will be a miracle if you get up?
Well, guess what? It’s probably going to be hard and you might not make it up.
Instead, consider prepping some encouraging thoughts in your head that you will actually believe. Try telling yourself “This is hard, but I can do hard things” or “I might take it slow, but I am going to make it up this hill.”
There have been so many hills that I have looked at on the bike over the years and my initial thought was “holy hell there is no way I am making it up this monstrosity.”
In those moments, though, I check myself and pump myself UP! I focus on breathing, I keep my legs spinning, I settle in, and I conquer that hill one pedal stroke, one foot at a time.
Tip #2 Get in an Easy Gear
When you see a hill coming on the horizon you need to start thinking about what you need to do to prepare your bike to get up the hill.
There is nothing worse than going full speed into a hill in a gear that is too high only to have your legs all but stop as you start to pedal.
Shift down into an easier gear before you start to go up. Otherwise you might find yourself panicking. You will shift into a lower gear quickly, and your gears may slam in protest.
This isn’t good for your legs, and it certainly isn’t good for your bike!
There is actually a sweet spot that you will find with practice in terms of just where and when you need to shift from your flat road/descent into that hill.
The idea is to get the most out of the descent/flat road before you shift into that easier gear. When in doubt, though, shift earlier rather than later.
It feels way worse to enter a hill in too high of a gear than to miss out on a little bit of that momentum of easier pedaling in a higher gear.
If you aren’t sure exactly how or when to shift, just practice. You will get the hang of it! Every single hill you tackle will bring you that much closer to finding your natural rhythm of when you, your body, and your bike want to shift.
If it feels too hard to pedal at the base of the hill, you didn’t shift soon enough or shift down enough. If it feels too easy, then you probably shifted down too hard or shifted too soon.
Tip #3 Take it Slow and Keep Your Head Up
Unless you are literally in a bike race, there is truly no need to fly up a hill.
I cannot tell you how many times I am leading a group bike ride and women fly past me at the beginning of a hill. They tell me it’s because they are so concerned that if they don’t go up it at full speed that they won’t make it up at all.
Trust your own body and your momentum to get you up the hill at your own pace. If you are burning yourself out on each and every hill, the entire ride is going to likely be a struggle.
Or, even worse, you burn yourself out on the bottom of the hill and have to hop off your bike because you run out of steam before you get to the top.
Take it slow. Breathe. Count pedal strokes. And, keep your eyes up.
I used to climb hills by staring down. Staring at my legs. Willing them to continue making their happy little circles.
Eventually I realized that if I keep my eyes up, and pick a focal point, like a mailbox, a house, or a tree, I can actually see my progress.
Believe it or not, the climbs started to feel shorter this way! When my head was glued to my legs I was able to focus on keeping my legs going, and I did get up the hill, but my goodness it felt like it was taking FOREVER.
When you can see your progress, and see that top of the hill getting closer and closer, it is a great way to motivate yourself to get all of the way up.
Tip #4: Bum Down! Stand Only If You Have To.
There are a lot of technical articles out there on the internet about climbing. They will tell you under what conditions you should stand, and what conditions you should sit.
At the end of the day? Sit. Stand only if you have to.
The reason for this is that our bodies are always more efficient in the saddle than out. Again, if you are racing bikes, when you sit and when you stand really matters, but for those of us who are just out for a good ride you really want to stay seated.
This is especially true if the hill in question is a longer hill, or a not particularly steep hill. You want to conserve your energy for future hills, and for the rest of the ride in general.
If you blow all of your energy on the first hill that you come to by getting out of the saddle, then you are going to be trying to play “catch up” for the rest of the ride.
Now, if you know the hill well, and it’s a shortie and you just want to stand and power up it? Then go for it!
Alternatively, if the hill is so steep you feel like you need to spend a little bit of it out of the saddle for momentum? That’s fine too.
Overall though, try to stay seated and save that energy for the rest of your ride.
Tip #5: Seek Out Hills/Do Some Hill Repeats
Now if you hate hills, this will be a bit of a tough hill to swallow, but trust me on this one. The more hills you climb, the more confidence you will have, and the easier they will be.
I honestly had literally no choice with this one. I live at the top of a very steep hill. It takes me about 10-15 minutes of straight climbing to get back home after Every. Single. Ride.
This is clearly trial by fire. I always know that if I don’t have enough left in the tank that I am physically not going to be able to make it back home.
Now, it doesn’t make me love hills to have to climb this beast every single ride, but it does make hills a part of my every-day cycling routine.
As a result I am just not as intimidated by hills as some other people are, and this is a good thing!
If you start seeking out hills on your rides, and making sure that you incorporate a hill in most of your rides, you will learn how to manage your mind and your body on the hill.
You can even do some hill repeats, if you like! This is riding up to the top of the hill, back down, and back up again. I can’t say that it’s something that I particularly enjoy, but it’s a great way to boost your cycling fitness and your confidence with hill climbing.
Keep It Calm and Simple
At the end of the day, the best way to approach hills is to keep calm, and keep it simple.
Make sure your body has the fuel it needs for your ride. Keep your brain from freaking out and remind yourself you can do hard things.
Shift into an easier gear, take it slow, and keep your head up and focused on getting up that hill!
Don’t over-complicate hill climbing. Don’t let that hill intimidate you. It’s just an incline, after all. And, as you know, what comes up must come down!
Focus on that glorious feeling of getting to the top, and that amazing rush of flying down the other side. You’ve got this! I believe in you. Now get out on your bike and climb up some hills!
More Tips You Might Appreciate
- Don’t Wear Underwear With Bike Shorts & 5 Other Tips On How To Wear Bike Shorts
- 7 Tips To Help You Train For Your First Century Ride
- How To Clip Into Bike Pedals: 5 Tips To Increase Your Confidence
About The Author
Stacy Ann Smith is a New England-based cyclist who strives to stay upright on her bike. She is the founder of Sascy Cycling, and her mission is to encourage women to love their body and focus on what it can do, not what it looks like. When Stacy’s not cycling she is teaching high school history and eating pizza with her husband and son.