Tips on Cycling Up Hills

By Laura High @healthwriter61
October 18, 2016

If you enjoy bike riding but limit yourself to flat rides, these techniques will help conquer hilly terrain and other challenges, giving you more options when choosing a route.

I love to ride my bike. I’m an average rider for where I live — Colorado has some of the best cycling in the country, no matter what your cycling style. In the summer I try to ride two to three times a week, and I consider a 15- to 20-mile-ride respectable.

Denver, where I live, sits at the base of the Rocky Mountains and the terrain is pretty hilly. I used to avoid rides in certain parts of town because I was intimidated by the hills. But over the past couple of years I’ve practiced some cycling fundamentals that have allowed me to set my fear aside, opening up a whole new world of riding possibilities.

The most helpful tip came from my brother, David. He lives in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and has been an avid and formidable cyclist for many years. He has been called “the fastest man in Steamboat with a desk job,” a compliment not to be taken lightly considering the number of world-class cyclists who call that town home.




We were riding a couple of years ago, and I told him of my struggle with hills. He told me the trick to conquering them was to ride at a level of effort I could comfortably maintain, and when I came to a hill, to use my bike’s gears to stay within that level of effort as long as possible. 

We’ve all ridden with someone (maybe it’s you) who attacks a hill, trying to keep the same pace going all the way up, pedaling mightily and with increasing effort as the ascent is made. The challenge leaves you feeling weak and winded and thinking about just walking next time.

The approach my brother suggested was, instead of muscling your way up the hill by pedaling harder and harder to maintain the same speed, use your gears to downshift as you ascend, maintaining a steady level of effort — not speed. This conserves your energy and leaves you with some gas in the tank so you can enjoy the rest of your ride.

To make this approach work for you, here are some equipment an

Clipless pedals and good riding shoes

d technique fundamentals that should be helpful.

I first got into road cycling about 30 years ago. At that time, toe clips were popular and consisted of a metal cage you slid your shoe into and then secured with a leather strap. This “technology” began advancing in 1984 in France with the release of the first commercially successful clipless pedals. Clipless pedals are now the norm. I was leery of this technology when I got back into cycling about three years ago, but I can’t imagine riding without clipless pedals now. 

There are a number of different styles to choose from, and typically you’ll buy the shoes, cleats, and pedals together. Make a trip to your favorite bike shop and enlist the help of a professional to find the right style and fit. They do take a little getting used to, but they are well worth the investment and are, in my opinion, more convenient than toe clips because you don’t have to reach down and tighten a strap.

I’ll repeat what the woman who helped me said when I got mine. “You will fall down.” Accept it, and realize that if you’re a regular rider you’ll probably fall down occasionally anyway. Get over it, and go get some (and please wear a helmet).

If you consider that your feet are arguably the most important point of contact with your bike, you’ll understand why this tip is at the top of the list. By being clipped in you are better able to “become one” with your bike, which has all kinds of advantages in terms of efficiency. Not only can you push down forcefully on the pedal without fear of your foot slipping off, you can also pull up on the back of the revolution. 


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Make sure your bike fits you and is properly adjusted

When you go to the shop to get your shoes and pedals, make an appointment to have your bike professionally “fit.” Your bike will be put on a rack and you’ll sit on it while a tech watches you pedal. Seat and handlebar heights and the horizontal distance of the seat from your handlebars will all be adjusted. 

Or, you can make the adjustments yourself. Put on your gear and enlist the help of a friend or family member to hold the bike while you sit on it.

  • When your knee is over the ball of your foot, the pedal should be at 3 o’clock. When the pedal is at 6 o’clock your knee should be slightly bent. Achieve these positions by adjusting the height of your seat. To find the right seat height, sit in the saddle with the heel of one foot on the pedal. Adjust the seat height so your leg is perfectly straight. When you clip in you should have just the right amount of bend in your leg at the bottom of the stroke.
  • When you are sitting in the saddle with your hands on the handlebars (on the brake levers if you have drop handlebars), the angle made by your upper arms and torso should be about 90 degrees. Achieve the proper reach by adjusting the horizontal positioning of your seat.
  • Adjust the seat so it’s level. If this is uncomfortable, you can tip it slightly up or down, but no more than 3 degrees to avoid putting additional strain on your arms, hands, and knees, which can lead to injury.

Having your bike properly adjusted will give you more power and help prevent injuries.

Use proper form

Think about how your legs would look if you were watching yourself ride in a mirror. Your legs should go up and down like pistons, with your hip, knee, and ankle lined up throughout the rotation. Your legs should not flare out to the sides or cave inward. Not having proper positioning can result in knee pain or injury.

Pedaling should be a continuous motion instead of one in which you’re alternately just pushing one leg and then the other. Focus on making a circle, not a square, with your feet and keep your feet flat all the way around. For example, don’t angle your toes toward the ground when you’re pushing.

Understand cadence and spinning

Even if you’re just a casual rider, having a basic grasp of these concepts can help you ride more efficiently. 

Cadence is how fast you pedal measured in revolutions per minute. Most recommendations are to maintain a cadence of between 80 and 100 rpms. Many experts believe we all have a natural cadence we’ll default to. This is your natural pedaling tempo when you’re riding on flat terrain in a comfortable spin.

Spinning is the term applied to the sweet spot achieved when you are pedaling at a relatively fast cadence (see above) while not exerting a lot of effort — it’s very efficient.

To experience spinning and find your natural cadence, choose a relatively flat route. Start out in a medium gear, one in which you can easily get going from a standstill. Choose the smallest or middle ring in front, and a gear somewhere in the middle on the back. If you have to pedal very fast to gain momentum and find you’re are bouncing in the seat, the gear is too easy. If you have to continuously push with a lot of force to maintain the same speed, the gear is too hard. 

Once you get rolling, shift to a higher gear (smaller rear sprocket) while maintaining the same cadence to gain speed. Play around with the gears until you find a combination that keeps your legs spinning comfortably while maintaining enough pressure on the pedals.

When you are riding on hilly terrain, shift often as the landscape changes to maintain your cadence and level of effort. 

Familiarizing yourself with your bicycle and some of the fundamental principles of riding can making riding more enjoyable and give you the confidence to conquer rides you may have previously avoided.


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October 18, 2016

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN

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