Recently an athlete asked me the following question:
I’ve noticed that I can pretty much keep up with people on rides. Except when we hit a hill, I hit a wall. Thank god my descending skills are great otherwise I wouldn’t catch up with the pack!
Any recommendations in terms of training for climbs? I would like to work on those at least once a week.
Here is my answer:
You can do several things to train for climbs.
#1 More Overall Power equals Better Climbing
The first is to climb, climb, climb! Climbing is all about strength to weight (or power to weight) ratio. So the more overall power you have the better you will do on climbs. Thus any sort of training that raises your threshold will help with climbing (sweet spot, threshold, VO2).
#2 Climbing Short Fast Hills
Shorter climbs are frequently about anaerobic efforts and the ability to recover from them quickly. Especially in Pittsburgh most hills are only a few minutes long or shorter. This taps into anaerobic energy stores. So doing hill “sprints” at various lengths from 30 seconds up to 3 minutes with FULL RECOVERY will add an aspect of fitness. #3 Training to Recover from Short Efforts
As far as recovery from hill-climbing, doing sprints with short recovery will help you learn to “tolerate” lactic acid and keep riding when your legs are cooked.
So you can craft a number of different workouts to improve at hills. #4 Overall Leg Strenght Work (Bodyweight Training)
I think it is also beneficial to work on sheer muscular strength with bike-specific leg work in a weight room or with body weight. Lunges, Bulgarian split squats (rear leg up on a chair, other leg forward, squat down and up, step-ups, deadlifts, one-legged deadlifts, etc).
#5 Develop a Solid Core for Climbing
Don’t forget solid core work. When climbing the upper body often comes into play and without a strong core to transmit energy and stabilize the upper & lower body with one another, you’ll just be a floppy noodle on the bike. Sue’s “Core and More” exercises are great for this. (She also covered the good leg work).
Mixing it all together
I would do core 2-3 times per week, bodyweight leg strength 1-2 times a week, even progressing to some plyometrics, and finally at least one day a week focusing on on the bike climbing and strength work, with at least one long hilly ride on the weekend.
That’s enough workout ideas to keep you busy for a while. Finally, I’ve talked to many cyclists who simply say that “one day” they were suddenly good climbers. It comes as the years of riding add up and you get stronger and more efficient. Unfortunately, there is no fast way to become a better climber, but if you are consistent in your training you will get there!
/* This article was original published on my retired blog excersice physiology, MD on March 18, 2009 */
This is a response to a forum post over on Beginner Triathlete about so-called “Hypoxic Breathing” swim drills, and originally appeared on my retired blog, exercisephysiologymd.comon January 17th, 2007
I’m a huge proponent of using terms that accurately reflect the underlying physical changes that occur on a biochemical level when training for triathlon swimming. The words I use as a coach transmit meaning to the athlete that may help reinforce what the benefit is.
That’s why the term “Hypoxic Breathing” does not belong in a swim or triathlon coach’s lexicon. If you ask swimmers, triathletes and many coaches what hypoxic breathing drills are, they’ll respond with answers like:
Holding your breath
Swimming Underwater (as far as you can)
Swimming a length while minimizing breathing
Swimming with increasing time between breaths, eg. every 3, every 5 or every 7 strokes
I want to address the first two responses primarily, but principals apply to the latter 2 answers as well.
Firstly, holding your breath prevents CO2 from escaping your lungs. Our body is constantly consuming oxygen and producing CO2 as a waste product. The CO2 builds up much faster than the oxygen is consumed, and needs to be released through the lungs. Holding your breathing causes the CO2 level to build up in your bloodstream. So these sets should really be called “Hypercarbic” sets. “Hyper-” meaning elevated and “-carbic” relating to the carbon dioxide level.
The build-up of Co2 in the lungs while holding your breath stimulates the brainstem and diaphragm to breath. This is the sensation you feel when you hold your breath without exhaling. The lungs start to burn and the urge to breath is irresistible. Breathing is usually involuntary, meaning we don’t think about it and when not thinking about it, don’t have control over it. Our brainstem, spinal cord, and diaphragm will keep the bellows moving no matter what.
But when we voluntarily decide to hold our breath, we are overriding the built-in mechanisms. We can continue to override those mechanisms even when the urge to breath crops up. When trying to stay under the water for a long time, some swimmers and divers will hyperventilate first, in order to lower the CO2 level and delay the urge to breathe. This means that the oxygen in your bloodstream drops lower and lower while the CO2 level takes longer to build up.
However, people have died doing these drills. There is no physiologic benefit from doing them. The name is a misnomer. If you want to swim uninterrupted without worrying about breathing, use a snorkel. The benefit of using a snorkel is that you don’t have to break form when breathing, and can focus on other parts of your swim stroke comes from not having your form break down when you roll (or don’t roll, or lift your head, or claw your way to the surface) to take a breath.
A far, far better solution is to have someone work with you to learn how to breathe properly. The number of strokes you take per breath is irrelevant. There is no right number. You need what you need. The body’s need for oxygen consumption and getting rid of carbon dioxide is dependent upon how much energy you are using and in what form you are using it (aerobic/anaerobic, etc). When I start my swim warmup, I will frequently swim 7 to 9 strokes without breathing only because I am swimming smoothly, I have not gotten my oxygen consumption up by working hard, I am not generating a lot of waste products due to the low effort. When I have the urge to breathe, I breathe. When I am doing long endurance sprints, I may breathe every 2 strokes. When I am rested and doing a single 25-yard sprint, yes, I can do it with no breaths. But not because I am forcing myself to do it. It is because 15-20 seconds of maximum effort requires little oxygen.
A novice swimmer who uses all the energy they have just to stay on the surface of the water will need to breathe every stroke because of the amount of energy they are using.
Do not play with the basic needs of your body.
There is a mantra in Emergency Medical Services:
Air goes in and out, Blood goes round and round Pink is good and blue is bad.
That’s all an EMT, Paramedic or Emergency Medicine nurse or physician needs to know in order to resuscitate a patient. If it’s good enough for these professionals, it’s good enough for the recreational swimmer.
Air goes in and out.
Don’t forget it.
Practice it daily. Frequently. You’ll get really good at it.
Is Training by Heart Rate Better than Training by Effort?
Do you use a power meter or heart rate monitor for every cycling workouts? Do you know your training zones by heart? Do you regularly execute a threshold test set every 4-6 weeks throughout the year as your fitness improves? If so congratulations are in order…or are they?
Executing a workout well often means hitting prescribed training levels such as a target heart rate or power zone. But an even more powerful training skill to master is nailing the effort level without out prescriptive guidelines. Instead of having a pre-determined target to hit, you ride (run/swim) by effort following the guidelines of the workout and tuning in to your body’s response and signals.
How long can I sustain this effort?
Can I work at this level of dis-comfort for another 4 minutes without fading?
Can I repeat this focus level for another three sets of the same activity?
Is this recovery level easy enough that I can do another hard effort for the next eight minutes?
Nailing the workout intention when using effort alone means you’re in tune with how your body is responding to effort that day. But it takes practice!
Failing is a Step Closer to the End Result
The first time you execute a workout like this, you may, in fact, you will fail miserably. You’ll start too hard and won’t complete all the efforts. You’ll finish too easily and not hit the desired intensity. You’ll look at your heart rate tracing after the fact and see a line that looks like the profile of the Hilly Billy Roubeaux instead of even like the Sahara desert. In other words, your efforts were all over the place, rather than steady, even and repeatable.
You’re thinking, “But coach, just give me a power target and I’ll hit it”.
Success in triathlon is not always about hard work. It’s more often about being in tune with your body on a consistent basis and relying on that instinct you’ve developed on race day. Power training is fantastic, but there’s no substitute for your intuition about your own body’s performance.
There’s a recipe for developing this instinct. Given any specific task, complete the workout in a “practice” mode. You’re not trying to build fitness, nail a heart rate zone, get anaerobic, VO2 max-ish, or wherever the effort falls on a physiologic scale.
You’re trying to tune your instincts to hit the intention of the workout. ie “go hard for an hour”, “run easy for exactly 30 minutes”, “execute three evenly paced efforts with 2 minute rest at the maximum of your ability”.
Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Training
It may be hard to see how it’s different to hit a power range for three eight-minute efforts, versus doing the same effort without targets and going just by feel.
The first is “prescriptive”…your efforts are given by your coach or your spreadsheet of training zones. But your spreadsheet doesn’t know your body’s ability on that specific day, and your coach won’t know unless you are in a daily training environment or communicate intensively on a daily basis.
In the second example, the power is “descriptive”. You or your coach look at your power levels, effort or heart rate zones AFTER you complete the workout instead of before or during.
You improve your ability to understand your body while executing a practice session, rather than a workout. While practicing, you’re also developing the specific fitness needed to improve your fitness and master the pace, master the effort and tune into your body.
On race day, it matters less what your power or heart rate targets are…it matters more if you’re operating within your body’s ability to cross the finish line having used your energy wisely and finishing in the fastest time you’re capable of.
Fitness Follows Mastery
Once you master the workout you can learn to push your abilities while still maintaining the practice intentions. Maybe it takes you three ‘practice sessions’ to do an evenly paced 3 x 8 minute effort with 2 minutes rest. “But Coach,” you protest again loudly…”If you’d just give me a target, I can do it right the first time!” Right…but that’s not the point.
Building fitness is easy. Anyone can prescribe hard workouts. Online training simulators like Trainer Road, Zwift and Sufferfest can help you do testing sets, tell you how to crunch the numbers (or do it for you) and give you back more training sets to do. That’s algorithmic.
But coaching is an art and racing well requires practice…not just fitness.
Practice executing specific workouts by listening to your body. Repeat these efforts to do it “better”…more evenly paced within the workout guidelines. See what your heart rate and power were AFTER the effort is done. Are your efforts even or ‘hilly billy’? Is each effort similar to the previous or do they get less intense as you get more fatigued? Or is the first effort even and the second and third efforts ragged?
Practice Perfect the Push Performance
Photo: Nils Nilsen, Triathlete.com
Reread the workout guidelines and see if you executed it well. If you did, congratulations! You now have a baseline. Next time you try it, see if you can push just a little bit more. If the workouts are well designed, you’ll be building the fitness you need, but more importantly, building your reservoir of body sensing, pacing and confidence in racing.
“Training is about teaching yourself to understand your boundaries and then slowly pushing those boundaries up. You need to know how to feel those and where they are!
I say go out and try to get in touch with your perceived exertion and your body rhythm at least a few times a week in all the disciplines of our sport. Most of the time in training, especially when I go to a new town, I often test myself by doing the following. I leave the hotel room for a run and check the clock before I leave.
I then say to myself, ok I am going to go and run for 1 hour. When I come back I try and see how close to that hour I actually was. I take no watch with me nor do I set any preconceived pace. I run freely and try and feel my way to understanding just how long I have been running by my surroundings and my pace and effort. Funnily enough, the fitter I get the better I am at getting very close to the hour.“
Ride “Blind” and Benefit
During your next training session, try putting black electrical tape over your power meter or heart rate monitor. Turn off Zwift and Trainer Road and go old school while listening to tunes, or watching a scenic youtube video. Learn to “practice” rather than “workout”. You’ll tap into a new set of skills needed for triathlon speed, success and enjoyment.
You can learn something from 100m sprinter Simone Manuel or distance specialist Katie Ledecky, regardless of which one of these remarkable women is your hero.
Streamlining and drag reduction in the water helps us conserve forward momentum because water is 800 times denser than air. Anything you can do at any point in the stroke to become more streamlined, even as you’re trying to swim faster, will allow you to swim better, with less energy. Why? because slowing down is what humans do best in the water! Staying fast means paying attention to small details…for example, the “crossover effect”.
The Crossover Effect is Human
The Crossover effect occurs because of the way our shoulder joint is oriented, and the fact that we are used to operating in our daily lives with our arms reaching, holding and manipulating objects directly in front of us. When we turn our upper body, we are usually still operating in the frontal plane, or the plane that divides your body into a front half and a back half. the shoulders lift the arms forward and typically our arms stay in front of us most of the time.
Picture things like typing, driving, cooking, cycling, having a conversation with someone (arms folded or hands in front pockets) as typical things we do. We carry this habituated position of the arms into swimming and as a result, while you don’t feel like you’re crossing your arms in front of you, the effect is that arms cross midline of your direction of travel.
This is a key point, and the reason it’s so difficult to correct…your arms are still in front of you when you crossover in swimming. The crossover effect is that you direct your energy diagonally instead of the direction you really want to go! How frustrating, right? Believe me, I know. But sometimes you don’t know you’re doing it until you see a video or photo of yourself, or have someone physically make that correction for you.
Olympians Eliminating the Crossover Effect (this is the slick arm trick)
Here are two examples from the 2016 Olympics, Katie Ledecky in the first photo, and Simone Manuel in the 2nd photo.
Their arms are extended parallel to the lane rope, right? The arm is aligned, no crossover. The effect of arm aligned, is that momentum continues forward. However look at where their sternums are directed, and look at their body rotation.
Now imagine those activities I mentioned previously…driving, typing, shaking someone’s hand. If Simone Manuel were autographing a gold medal photograph at this moment instead of swimming, her left arm would be pointed way over towards the right edge of the photo in a diagonal direction, right?
Her arms would be “in front” of her chest or directed to the right since her body is rotated to the right.
How does she do that?
When the body is actively rotating in freestyle (or backstroke), the lead arm aligned requires you to have the sensation that your arm is kind of off to the side a bit, even sticking out. Visualize yourself in their rotated positions in the pool…now hold your arm above your head and visualize where the surface of the water and where the lane rope would be. Can you get your arm lined up with the lane rope? It will feel far off to the side.
Avoiding the crossover effect is one easy trick you can practice while standing in the mirror so that you start to develop your Olympian’s freestyle stroke!
How else can you practice it? I wrote a book all about it!
Last weekend I participated as a guest coach with Dinah Mistillis of Discovery Aquatics to help teach a two – day swim clinic. Dinah asked me to lead a 15 minute talk that was a condensed version of my “Every Day Skills for World Champions” talk that I gave in Minneapolis as keynote speech for the Total Immersion Coaches Summit in May.
For this open water clinic I chose three key skills to share with the dozen swimmers present on Sunday. My first key skill was “Plan a Map to Your Success.” In order to plan your way to success in swimming or triathlon, you need to know of course where you are now, and where you want to go.
In the context of open water swimming, recognition of problem areas might included open water anxiety, difficulty swimming in a wetsuit, trouble sighting in open water, that pesky left hand that smacks the water…this list can get really long! It’s easy at this point for swimmers to feel overwhelmed.
The reality is that each of these skill and mindfulness issues takes time to address. While Dinah and I were discussing this, she shared a quote with me…eerily this was the day before Muhammed Ali passed away.
It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.
3x Heavyweight Boxing World Champion
In these swim camps and workshops, we typically have a set order of skills to present to our athletes, and we present them in a logical building order that allows each skill to build on the next. But even if the athlete is 95% competent in a foundational skill such as head position, for example, the review allow that athlete to find any pebbles or grains of sand that may be interfering with a better execution.
There are probably bigger pebbles or grains of sand as well, and at some point, the pebbles become rocks or boulders which are simply too big to be addressed in one lesson, one trip to the pool, and at times, even one training block or season.
I used this quote in our clinic and it was well received, and then I investigated the origin of the quote. It was used by Muhammed Ali, but it also appeared in military literature 50 years prior to his use of it.
It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it is the grain of sand in your shoe.
Back up your ideas with courage that will not back down, and there will be no way too long, no road too rough.
The reason most men and women do not accomplish more is that they do not attempt more.
My takeaway from this quote parallels what I’ve learned in my own journey of becoming a better swimmer, triathlete and coach: be courageous and one by one you’ll remove every obstacle in your way. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, or how difficult it seems, you and I have the skills and tools we need to improve bit by bit…one pebble out of the way a ta time. We can accomplish far more not only as triathletes, but as individuals than we think we can because we often don’t even attempt to do something more.
Coach Suzanne leading a skills clinic while wearing a walking boot!
It is important to monitor your progress through an injury so as to know where you stand. This is made much easier once you start monitoring yourself while healthy so that you have something to compare it to. When you are injured, monitor how you feel every day. In general, how do you feel doing different tasks, at different times of the day. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to monitor how you’re feeling and set goals for yourself.
Recovering from an injury requires dedication and hard work for a triathlete in order to get back on track
When one is injured,monitoring what aggravates the injury, how it is recovering, and what hurts or doesn’t hurt is important to track and look back on progress.
The best way to improve when one is healthy is by monitoring ones progress, which may be done through software like Trainingpeaks.com (not an affiliate link, although I do use them).
As I write this, I am edging my closer to a start line. My body is close to full health and as my fitness builds, soon it will be race time again. Nothing excites me more than the thought of battling with the best in the world. But how did I get here? How did I, and so many others, get through such a long period of injury?
Professional triathlete and current holder of the fastest half-distance time by a female 3:55:50