Climb Hills Faster — Mountain Goat Style

Distance: 38.22 miles
Time: 2:54:45
Average Watts: 181 watts
Normative Power: 219 watts
Average Heart Rate: 146 bpm
Total Work: 1,895 kJ
Average Speed: 13.1 mph

I know it looks like I did this route on my mountain bike and I wish I did. There is a canyon that goes up to the Snowbird and Alta Ski Resorts called Little Cottonwood Canyon. I will tell you this — it is one steep climb. The approach to the Canyon is 9.6 miles and you climb 788 feet. That lead-up is really a warm-up for the main course. Once you enter the Canyon, it is an average of 6.9% for 9.4 miles. It is a pretty steady climb the entire time with the exception of a section that is actually over a 10.0% climb. The entire ride from the start to the top of the canyon is a climb of 4,271 ft over 19.1 miles, which is no joke.

26.2ismycooldown.comNow I ski Snowbird and Alta all the time and can tell you from experience that pushing on my gas pedal is a much easier way to get up this climb. Today I completed the climb with my buddy Juston Puchar who is a mountain goat and he shot right up the road. It was amazing to watch his relentless pursuit of the top and to see him pound his pedals all the way up the grade. It really is embarrassing to ride with him on steep climbs because he just drops everyone and leaves them looking up the mountain wondering how he is so fast. My seven year old son Hoss said at lunch today it may be because he is eating drugs. All I am saying is from the mouth of babes…

As triathletes we all participate in courses that feature some really good climbs. Preparing for an effort that would be required on a climb like this (think Ironman St. George, Ironman Louisville, Ironman Wisconsin, and even Silverman), it really takes a focused program. Even if you are riding in a flatter course like Ironman Florida, you can really benefit from training in the mountains.

How to Climb Like a Mountain Goat

I will tell you this — there is no secret to becoming one of those riders who can climb and continue to climb once everyone else has pulled over to the side of the road. I read this years ago on a website I frequent — beginnertriathlete.com — and I have found it to be one of the absolutes in my training. If you want to be fast on the bike, you need to ride lots. Now there are exceptions to this, but let us assume you don’t over-train.

Before I get too much more into this, let me make sure I let you know I got beat on both of the serious climbs I did this week. Juston beat me up Little Cottonwood Canyon today and my pal Curt beat me up to the Bountiful Bench on Wednesday. I offer no excuses to why I got beat as both are great athletes and I really am not embarrassed by being beat by either. But as I want to make improvements specific to the Double Triple Bypass in Colorado, the Gran Fondo of Park City, and LOTOJA, I have some work to do between now and those races. Here is my strategy to get a pair of legs under me that resemble those of a mountain goats…

  1. At least once a week, put in some time in the mountains. At all three of these races, there are long sustained climbs followed long, sustained downhills. There will be few rollers. Riding in the rollers around the house and in canyons with an average climb of less that 4.0% will do little to make improvements specifically for these races since they all feature at least one climb of over 7.0% for anywhere from 4.0 to 9.0 miles. Between now and the Double Triple Bypass, I will put in workouts like this one.
  2. Focus on sustained effort on every ride. While the WKO+ software from TrainingPeaks.com and the Garmin Edge 500 I use tell me the percentage of time I am not pedaling, I need to start using this information. On this ride if I stopped pedaling I would stop within 5 – 10 yards. So on my flat rides or rides through rollers, I will not be taking a break in pedaling to rest my legs or bring my heart rate down to keep my legs moving and accustomed to no breaks.
  3. On flat rides, push harder. Now I know this sounds like a “duh” moment, but there is a scientific reason behind this idea. I ride with a PowerMeter, so I monitor my watts output pretty carefully. Pushing 300 watts on the flats will produce some significant speed where on a 9.0% grade, it is what is required to get up the hill. While there is nothing like climbing a mountain to toughen up mentally, you can simulate the effort on the flats by pushing a much higher gear and sustaining that effort for longer. On this ride I pushed 290 watts for 5 minutes. If I want to replicate this ride, I could do a 5 minute interval at 290 watts and the training impact will be similar.
  4. Use better technique climbing and descending. This ride was done on a road bike, which I feel very confident on as it pertains to my handling. Today we were supposed to ride this canyon and then do on to Big Cottonwood Canyon. That Canyon would have added another 1,007 feet of climbing over an additional 35.0 miles. The Canyon itself is an average of a 5.0% incline over 14.0 miles. To add that climb to this ride would mean I would have to rest on the downhills to recover for the next climb. I would also need to eat and drink like I was at an all you can eat pancake feed on the downhills. I need to figure out how to eat and drink at 35+ mph down a canyon. Tough, but not impossible.
  5. Improve my Mental Toughness. This is easier said than done. I think Juston and Curt were able to beat me on the climbs because they are able to suffer just a little more than I can. I wouldn’t say either is in that much better shape than I am nor was there a physical reason why they were able to beat me up the mountains. Both days really showed me I have serious work to do in this area.

I wouldn’t say I am a pansy by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems lately that my will to suffer ends at about 30 minutes. For some reason, I am needing to get past that threshold. In his book I’m Here to Win, Chris McCormack has the perfect quote for this situation…

“You have to love and embrace the pain. Start planning in your training how you will deal with the mental impact of suffering. That’s no being negative; it’s being realistic and empowering yourself. If you let your fear blind you, then you’re impotent against the pain. My pain strategy starts with self-talk. I tell myself, ‘You’ve don this a thousand times. You know what’s going to come, and you’re better than it is.’ Then when the pain comes, you know what I do? I smile. People say, ‘Macca is always smiling.’ That’s my way of honoring the pain. All right. You’re here. Let’s buckle down now and get this job done.

It hurts to climb mountains. If it didn’t you would see every weekend warrior out there on their beach cruisers on Saturdays and Sundays. We all make the choice to point our wheels up the mountain and pedal and because of that conscious choice, we are athletes instead of weekend warriors. Let’s buckle down now and get this job done…

About the Author

I have been participating in running and triathlons for 10 years and love the feeling that training provides. You may not agree with me, but you know you just can't look away...