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Getting Disciplined: Uphill Mountain Biking

By Daniel Gillespie

Mountain BikingUphill mountain biking is very demanding and can zap precious energy throughout a race or during a workout. Whether it is steep, technical singletrack or those long, open grinders, the following tips will help improve your climbing. The goal is to maintain a pace that won't leave you completely wasted for the long descent to follow.

1) Keep a high cadence. The most common mistake when climbing is pushing too big of a gear, which wastes energy and causes increased muscle fatigue. The key to climbing is efficiency. Downshift before the start of the climb when there is less tension on the drivetrain and the legs and maintain a high cadence (80 to 90 RPM's). This will help promote blood flow through the legs, keep the heart rate lower, and shifts some of the demand from the leg muscles to the cardiovascular system. Position yourself evenly over the bike to ensure proper leg extension and a smooth pedal stroke. If the grade changes, shift gears to maintain those higher RPM's.

2) Stay in the saddle. The most economical climbing position is in the saddle. Standing puts more stress on your legs, which increases muscle fatigue and the cardiovascular fatigue. The saddle supports more of your body weight, allowing the muscles to apply more force to the pedals. Plus, the seated position distributes more weight on the back tire, improving traction and stability on those steep climbs. And riding in the saddle allows you to relax your upper body and open up the lungs, delivering more oxygen to those working muscles. It is sometimes necessary to stand, usually to accelerate or to just stretch out. But in general, try to stay in a seated position.

3) Shift your weight. On steep climbs, slide your weight toward the front of the saddle. This allows you to use more of your body weight to drive the pedals forward and keep the front end of the bike down. As your weight distribution changes, the rear tire may have a tendency to slide out. Stay relaxed in your upper body but apply some force to the handlebars by pulling back on the opposite side of the pedal that you're driving forward. This helps counteract the pressure applied to the bike and will drive the rear wheel into the ground for increased traction. Initially this will be awkward, but with practice, you will be climbing the steepest pitches.

4) Tackle switchbacks. Switchbacks tend to be off-camber, loose and sometimes very steep. The shortest distance around a switchback is not always the best route, as it tends to be steeper and more eroded. Always look ahead to plan out your line. If it's an open road or wide switchback, take the outside line; It's longer but shallower and you can maintain a faster speed without loading up the legs. If it's a tight switchback, swing the front wheel around the outside line to allow the rear wheel to fall into the track while driving the pedals forward. Stand up after the apex, lunging forward to accelerate through the steep part of the climb. Then sit back down and settle into that comfortable pace, allowing your heart rate to come back down. Always maintain a relaxed upper body. If it's super steep, you may want to jump off and run the switchback instead of wasting precious energy.

5) Stay hydrated & fueled up. Those long climbs are great opportunities to re-hydrate and re-fuel. Many athletes forget to drink while climbing so it's a skill that needs to be worked on during those training days. Whenever a climb flattens out a little, take a few seconds to grab a drink or nibble on some food. You should take in fluids every 15 minutes and the pace of the climb allows you that extra time to grab something.

These few tips should help improve your climbing. The key is to be efficient and stay aerobic for as long as possible. Some teams use tow lines to help riders maintain an equal pace, which is something that should be practiced and tested before the big event.

Daniel Gillespie is a Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) elite coach, experienced adventure racer and professional mountain biker. For more information on Daniel and CTS, visit www.trainright.com

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