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I recently bought a bicycle, mostly for exercise and fun. I am not fat, but I am really out of shape, I get tired quickly and cannot stand very long rides.

I know riding a bike constantly will reduce this, but the area I live are not very plain, which I would consider better. Most of the time I'm going (slightly) uphill or downhill; I'd like my bike rides to be "smoother" than this.

Is there a way to optimize my ride, so I can get the most of it?

I have a cheap road bike. It has only 12 gears, but except for steep hills, the gears are ok.

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What exactly is the problem with slight hills? You should be able to shift gears and change speed so that you exert constant effort. Does that not satisfy your desire for smoothness? – Jefromi Feb 9 '12 at 6:08
I was looking for techniques (or changes in route, or whatever) that would lessen the difference the needed effort (some while uphill, none while downhill) during my ride. Shifting really does part of the job. – Doug Feb 9 '12 at 11:29
Would you describe these hills in a little more detail? Where are you? – ChrisW Feb 9 '12 at 14:06
I'm in Brazil. In my area practically all roads are in some kind of hill, even though most hills are not steep. I think an average biker would not have problems with them, but at this time, I'm sub-average, so even this slight hills can get me exhausted pretty quickly. Looks like I just need some workout, and must work on keeping a cadence (never really cared about it, now I see this is an important thing in cycling). – Doug Feb 9 '12 at 15:48
Getting exhausted is precisely how you get better. :) – Stephen Touset Feb 9 '12 at 22:13

You can climb a hill basically three different ways:

  • Spinning up the hill in low gear at high RPM
  • Charging up the hill standing up (or at least really pumping the muscles sitting)
  • Grinding up the hill at 20-30 RPM

Of those, the third one is a good way to wreck your knees and generally make yourself miserable. The other two, however, are both perfectly acceptable.

Basically, you divide hills into those that are short enough you can comfortably "charge" up, and those that are longer and more challenging.

For the short ones (and "short" is purely a personal choice) you typically downshift a bit and then raise your exertion level to something near your comfortable maximum, probably dropping your RPM a little but maintaining at least 60 RPM.

For the longer hills (and maybe a few shorter ones at the end of a long day) you downshift a fair bit more, raise your exertion level only a little, and "spin" at roughly the same RPM you'd use on level ground (though truth be told mine always falls off a bit), adjusting gears up/down to maintain that RPM and exertion level.

The thing you want to do is to use your gears to maintain the "sweet spot" where you're holding a relatively steady RPM (somewhere between 60 and 90) and also maintaining an exertion level that you can sustain for the long haul.

Of course, if your bike doesn't have a broad enough gear range to "spin" up longer hills then you have a problem. You can try "charging", but that can run you ragged pretty quickly. So (since you should NOT "grind" up the hill) you probably need to figure a different route that is more suitable to your bike and fitness level.

One basic rule of thumb I use while cycling that seems to work out pretty well is to always pedal faster than I breathe. That is, if my respiration rate is 60 then I should be pedaling at least 70-80 RPM. If I notice my RPM falling off or my respiration rate climbing, I downshift until my respiration rate drops a bit. And on the flat I aim for an RPM that's twice my respiration rate.

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Master hill climbing.

Hills are generally what separate the cycling wheat from the chaff, and provide a great workout. Generally people are wary of hills because they are climbing with the wrong technique. There are some other questions that deal with hill-climbing technique, I suggest you check some out. E.g.:

How should I approach hills?

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Agreed 100%. The "best way to train in an area with many hills" is to ride up the damn hills! – Stephen Touset Feb 9 '12 at 2:19

Basically, improving your hill climbing means riding hills. There is no way around it. (Well, maybe there is...:~)) In a nutshell, you just find a nice low gear and spin your way up. Like Daniel said in another answer, you pretty much don't want to grind your way up in a higher gear because your knees won't really like that...

However, there are some drills you can do to improve your hill climbing ability and shorten your time to climbing fitness. Do these drills a couple of times a week and not on consecutive days. The hills won't bother you so much after you do this for a month or two.

  • Hill Repeats - Find a long, steady, moderate climb. Pedal up the hill for 5 minutes at 70 - 85 RPM. Turn around, pedal slowly for 5 minutes. Then repeat this 2 or 3 more times. (After you've done this a while, you can increase the climbing time and the number of repetitions.)
  • Hill Acceleration - Find a long, moderate climb. Pedal slowly until you reach the last 500 yards. Gradually speed up till you reach the top. Rest on the way back down. Do this 2 or 3 times in a session.
  • Hill Sprints - Find a moderate hill with a longish flat approach at the bottom. Pedal at a moderate speed in a moderate gear, as you hit the hill, come out of the saddle and go hard up the hill until you hit your limit. Turn around, pedal back down and repeat it a couple more times.

Do one of these drills in a training session. Say, hill repeats on Monday and hill sprints on Wednesday, for example. Also, don't do these drills more than 3 days a week; and don't do them on consecutive days.

Note - These drills are fairly basic and based on personal experience from living and riding in hilly/mountainous areas. And also based in part on training advice by Chris Carmichael and Joe Friel.

And also... You said that you are "really out of shape". So, here's a plan to turn that around. Pick an easy/moderate less hilly route (Maybe a loop or maybe an out-and-back). Ride that for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week with a rest day within the 5 days. Do that for maybe a month. Then when you feel more comfortable with it, start increasing the riding time 15 minutes every couple of weeks, and maybe make the route a little more hilly. In three months you'll be doing 2+ hour rides (depending on just how out of shape you are). Use the drills I mentioned above on a couple of days a week, and you'll get faster results.

Since you're fairly new to cycling and out of shape, I wouldn't worry too much about maintaining a specific cadence. Just find a comfortable gear and a comfortable pace. Once you can ride comfortably for an hour or so, then you can start thinking about cadence.

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." -- Confucius

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I am looking to increase my climbing ability, so I was thinking about using these techniques you speak of. I have a bunch of different hills on my training routes. What I don't know is what what you regard as a long moderate climb. I have a really nice 2KM climb that is rates by strava as a 4th Cat, and 8km climb that is a 3rd cat and some longer 2nd cat climbs. All contain sections of 8% or above. – robthewolf Oct 25 '12 at 16:18

My suggestions would be:

  • Consider getting lower gears if you think you'll feel more comfortable.
  • When going up a hill, give up any hurry for now. Simply choose your gear and go. Don't think about moving the legs, just look around, think about life, world and things. You'll get to the top, your legs are going to get used to it.
  • Keep doing that, and soon you won't mind going up any hill.

Since the arrival of abundantly geared bikes, going uphill is much more a mind problem than a leg problem.

I commute to work with a relatively steep (although short) hill in the way, sometimes with a relatively heavy bike, and basically I assume two "modes":

  • When I feel like climbing, I pump it up relatively fast, in a good cadence. This satisfies my thirst for exercise.
  • When I'm in a lazy mood, I choose a granny gear and go up only slightly faster than walking speed, "thinking about life" as I said. Don't look too much at the speed-meter, if you have one :oP

I think that, if you face the fact that hills are inevitable, and keep riding without avoiding them, each time more you'll be in the "climbing mood" instead of the "lazy mood", specially after you lose some weight and gain some cardio.

This is not to say you should become an athlete. It's just that you could ride anytime you want, and the fact of being hills doesn't matter anymore.

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That's right. I'm always in the "climbing mood", I just didn't have gained enought cardio yet. It looks like I need to focus on cadence and keep trying until my physical condition improves. – Doug Feb 9 '12 at 15:43
I really like that "thinking about life" expression, I also do that :) – jackJoe Feb 10 '12 at 12:31

There really are no shortcuts here. As Greg Lemond said, "it never gets easier; you just go faster" (this is true of every aspect of cycling, but particularly so with hills).

Start with less-steep hills. Keep riding them, in the same gear, until you can do it comfortably. Then ride it with a harder gear. And keep repeating. Then move on to steeper hills, and do the same thing. Over and over and over. It never gets easier.

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It does get easier - it never gets less work, but your body adapts to perform that work more comfortably. It'll never get less fun. Hills are fun. Learn to love the effort. – Unsliced Feb 9 '12 at 15:59
If it gets easier, you're doing it wrong :-) – djangodude Feb 10 '12 at 0:42

I recently bought a bicycle, mostly for exercise and fun. I am not fat, but I am really out of shape, I get tired quickly and cannot stand very long rides.

Here is a question, which I posted soon after I bought my bike: How much rest (tendon or ligament), for a novice?

You might find the answers (to that question) helpful.

I know riding a bike constantly will reduce this, but the area I live are not very plain, which I would consider better. Most of the time I'm going (slightly) uphill or downhill; I'd like my bike rides to be "smoother" than this.

Gears: try for a smooth 'cadence', cycling between 60 and 100 RPM, no matter what the slope: constant effort, constant cadence (but variable slope, gear, and speed).

See also

Is there a way to optimize my ride, so I can get the most of it?

You say you bought it "mostly for exercise and fun".

I bought mine for commuting, which means two hours every day (one in the morning, one in the evening). Does that sound like "exercise and fun"?

A thing I like about cycling is that I can do it for a whole hour. It's not a sprint. It can include sprints. The first 20 minutes is warming up. My route is a mixture of paths and streets; and some slopes, some steep; some busy streets; some sprinting; many stops and starts, at intersections.

All these give a change in pace.

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"Most of the time I'm going (slightly) uphill or downhill"

"I was looking for techniques (or changes in route, or whatever) that would lessen the difference the needed effort (some while uphill, none while downhill) during my ride."

Every (circular) route is partly up-hill and partly down-hill.

Cycling (slightly) down-hill doesn't mean "low or no effort": you still pedal (or even pedal hard); but you go faster (or even much faster).

You say, "I have a cheap road bike"; so I'm not sure how fast you can go, with safety.

I have a nice suspension-less 'hybrid' with flat bars and great brakes and tires, and derailleur gears with a 'big ring' on the front; and I can keep pedalling (and going fast) even down-hill: and especially when it's "slightly" down-hill.

Also because you're travelling much faster down-hill, you finish the down-hill parts more quickly (and so spend a higher proportion of your time going more slowly up-hill).

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