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So, I've been riding at different levels of difficulty for years now, from a 33lb, one gear bmx to a 21 speed, 44lb mountain bike, and now to a 22lb, 21 speed road bike. Each bike had its own challenges, and I've always tried to ride my hardest. (lungs burning, legs weak, etc) for my entire ride, but even now, years later, I can barely surmount some hills and when I do, my cadence drops to a very low pace of around 30rpm. Is there any way to improve my leg strength? Have I been doing something wrong?
Edit: I live in Sierra Vista, AZ, but I don't know how relatively hilly it is.

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    What gear (front and rear) are you in on you 21 speed road bike? If you have a triple you should have some really low gears available. – paparazzo Nov 17 '15 at 17:54
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    You definitely want to be in the middle or small ring on the front, and stick to the larger gears in the back when climbing. – Kibbee Nov 17 '15 at 18:15
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    Try riding at easier pace and save your strength for the hills. It's common and often recommended to take it so easy that you can talk without problems for most of the time and and do only short intervals at full effort. – ojs Nov 17 '15 at 18:57
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    It's unclear, when you're hitting a low cadence uphill or a high cadence downhill, what the gear range of your bike is. If you're doing 30 cadence and you have lower gears you could be using (but aren't), there's your problem. – Daniel R Hicks Nov 18 '15 at 3:48
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    If your cadence drops below 50 uphill you should shift to an easier gear because you're pedalling in an anaerobic mode. Gears have the purpose to keep the cadence up. From 70 to 90 rpm is the aim. – Carel Nov 18 '15 at 15:36
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Always "riding your hardest" is called "junk miles" because it is not possible to always ride your hardest. The biggest performance gains come from more targeted and disciplined riding (as suggested by mattnz).

To climb your steep hills (I assume these are relatively short, steep climbs, not a mountain pass) you need to work on developing high power over a short period of time. The following components will likely come to play:

  1. Strategy - Sprinters can only sprint for about 400m (if that). As such, they don't ride around the whole race at max output, they save everything they can for the last 400m. In the same way you can't be at max output the whole hill. Try backing off for a while before hitting the hill, even as you start climbing keep your effort low and slowly ramp up. Aim to hit your maximal effort at the top of the hill. As you get better you can work on starting the harder effort earlier and earlier.
  2. Muscle recruitment - how efficiently do you fire your muscles when pedalling. For example, do your knees flail about or do you have a smooth pedal stroke. It is hard to generate large power if you have a rough and undisciplined pedaling stroke. The efficiency of your firing patterns is also affected by peddling cadence (e.g., 30 RPM is too slow to stay on top of a gear).
  3. Muscle strength - improving how much force your muscles can generate over a short period.This is of course greatly affected by (2, 3, and 5) and is what most people think of when getting "stronger."
  4. Mental strength - being able to push through the pain and hold on to a gear until as long as possible. This is often underestimated, but the effect size has been estimated to be as high as 20-30%, even among pro athletes (will track down ref).
  5. Getting your body in the proper state. Maximal output only comes when you have done all the necessary prerequisites such as sleep, rest, proper food, hydration and being properly warmed up before an effort.

All these components can be trained individually or in tandem. Different types of interval training will work these components in various amounts. It is hard to tell you what exercises would work best without directly observing your cycling abilities.

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    Yes, good work Rider_X! – andy256 Nov 17 '15 at 21:35
  • Nailed it. I can't stress the importance of strategy during a ride, and getting in lots of "feels fun, not hard" miles. Seems like lots of those with just the occasional deliberate tough spots within a given ride, and the occasional deliberately hard overall ride is the ticket. – zxq9 Nov 18 '15 at 23:22
  • @zxq9 fun is in going fast, in rising to the peak of a hill (or challenge) and surmounting it, you know? – Hellreaver Nov 19 '15 at 6:42
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    @Hellreaver Fun is in being so strong you can do 100km of hills. Fun is having energy to hop around and do stunts for the kids in at the end of a ride. You'll never get fast if you don't get strong first. Riding so hard you can barely stay on the bike, gasping for air over ragged, metallic, snotty exhalations as your hip flexors and calves spasm involuntarily and the major muscles feel like they are being pulled apart by a million fire ants for the entire ride every ride is not fun. Train to be faster than the guys who ride like that every day without exhausting yourself in the process. – zxq9 Nov 19 '15 at 7:12
  • @Hellreaver - I agree going fast is fun. But the ultimate question, is it more fun to you to go somewhat fast all the time, or face stretching, "I had no idea I could go that fast," fast some of the times? If it's the latter you have to pick and choose your battles. (Either that start chemical or mechanical doping to go faster all the time. No judgement!) – Rider_X Nov 19 '15 at 17:01
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I get the impression when you hit the road its full out 110% effort for the length of the ride. I would suggest from the "lungs burning" description that you are over training and exercising above your anaerobic threshold. You don;t say how often or how far you ride.

First up - your cadence is way too low and you risk damaging you knees. Go for a series of rides with the sole purpose of learning to spin at a cadence of at least 90. If possible, do this on the flat and slight down hills.

You also need to ease off and focus on long distance endurance, then introduce interval training with short (30 second) sprints, with plenty of easy days and rest periods. I suspect you would benefit from a Heart Rate monitor and working out your VO2Max and training zones (I won't go into it, it too much for one answer), and working to a training plan based on it to improve your endurance (Strength comes after endurance)

  • These are great workouts that I use that do a good amount with interval training - bicycling.com/training/fitness/…. – Buggabill Nov 17 '15 at 21:21
  • I've noticed that I'm either pedaling at 30rpm uphill because I'm too weak to maintain a higher cadence in that gear, or I'm pedaling at 120rpm (twice a second or so) to keep the speed up to how fast I would be going if I were in a higher gear. Is there any way to rectify this? I try to find a balance between cadence and speed, but am often unable. – Hellreaver Nov 17 '15 at 22:26
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    Do you have a speed and distance computer. If not, get one. You need to re-train you body to ride at higher cadence. Forget about going faster - slow down and focus in technique. Hit those hills spinning at 120 for a week, then try to climb at 30 and see how it feels. Like any sport, get technique right and results follow, get it wrong..... Get a HR Monitor and watch the effect of cadence on effort (HR) and speed. You might be surprised. – mattnz Nov 17 '15 at 23:35
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    Also, work out where your aerobic threshold is and try sitting at that on the climb. It's something that's useful to be aware of when you're riding because it feeds into a whole lot of tactical decisions. – Móż Nov 18 '15 at 0:15
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Time for some Pee

You need to consider PACING yourself. Use something like strava to log your rides and see your improvements over time, because it never feels like you're getting faster at the time. I did a hill last weekend in 8 minutes that used to take me 15 minutes, 9 months ago. Didn't feel like it at the time.

PEERS - riding alone is nice and quiet and relaxing, but there's nothing like riding with some fellow cyclists. Ones who are slightly better than you is good - they drag you up to their levels (mentally, and physically by draughting)

PRACTICE - get out and do more climbs. There's really no substitute.

PERFORM - This relates to pacing. When alone on a hill - I tend to sing along quietly to myself. The tempo of the song helps with the rhythm of the ride. You're doing the right power output when you can't sing all the words, but can mouth them or hum the tune while breathing. Yes - I know it sounds stupid, but it works for me.

PERSEVERE - do the same climb once or twice a month. It gets shorter and quicker each repetition.

PEDAL - sounds simple, but just keep pedalling. Don't coast even if there's a wee flat bit or downhill. You can ease off the pressure, but keep spinning at 60-90 RPM

POSTURE / POSITION - the accepted wisdom is that sitting through the climb is most efficient. If you stand then its faster and harder, but you're less efficient and will tire quicker. This all goes out the window if there's a short section of steep grade (like going up the inside of a hairpin turn where the grade can exceed 30% for a couple metres) or any grade above 18%. In those two cases, your bike's front wheel will be trying to lift on each downstroke so you need to position your body weight off the saddle, and accept the lower efficiency till the grade drops a bit more.

I've run out of words that start with P. Any further suggestions?

POTION! synonym for DRINK! okay not a Pee word until after the body has processed it, but do drink a few mouthfuls before the climb starts. Snatch a swallow when you can on the way up too. Dehydration is a sneak, stealing away your power and your enjoyment of the ride.

EDIT1: PERSEVERENCE (a pee word for endurance) Keeping your average speed up over a long run is better for the slow twitch muscles to develop. Going hard brings in the fast twitch muscles, which have low endurance and get tired quickly and generate lactic acid quicker.

PIES (its better than "Plighter Pbike") Every kilo you drag up the climb has to be lifted there by your legs. Stop taking things that you don't need. No need to go overboard with weight reduction, but do consider the benefit of a lighter item over a heavier one. Daytime only ride? Leave all your lights at home (I take one of each anyway, but not my usual three.)
Do you end your ride with food to spare? Take fewer things, or make an effort to eat them so they're doing you some good. Tools? What can you do without? (but I carry an 8" crescent by choice and have needed it once.) Your clothes - do you need all the weight? I wear cycling pants but I wear normal pants on top. mostly because I feel uncomfortable without a belt for back support. If you're on platform pedals, shoe weight can be quite noticeable too. I have some thin mesh shoes that cost $10 at the local cheap-shop and weigh very little. Even thin light short socks can help save reciprocating weight

PARTY! Mix it up. Do a long endurance flat ride like a metric century if you can, with rest stops. Next day do climbs with intervals of 100% effort for 20 sec then back to endurance speed for a minute. Repeat till you get to the top. Just occasionally, ride for fun with family or friends or some random guy on a bike who is going your way at your speed. Then try some easy MTB or off-road tracks for a change.

PHUN! Cycling is often seen as an end-goal in itself. However its a means to an end, of getting fitter and getting somewhere. If you're not enjoying the benefits, change your approach before despondency sets in.

PHUCKEDUP! Do take a moment to check on your fellow cyclists too - My old bikes are a bit crap, and I have the odd breakdown. Its very rare that anyone checks on me, but I always slow and ask anyone on the side of the road whether there okay.

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    +1 for the dehydration - it's too late if you start Panting. Other things that should be worked on are Pendurance and a Plighter Pbike. – andy256 Nov 18 '15 at 3:06
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    @andy256 Done - I used PERSEVERANCE for Pendurance and "PIES" for Plighter Pbike . Google led me to POTIONS as a P word for drink. – Criggie Nov 18 '15 at 3:51
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30 cadence is too low and will tend to fatigue the legs more. Pick a lower gear.

You don't need to be a pro to climb like a pro. And there are other videos on youtube.

As for getting better at climbing - climb more (and at a higher cadence).

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Judging by the comments, you're in too high a gear. It is easiest to pedal when the chain is around the smallest gear in the front and the largest gear in the back. Note that the hardest/highest/fastest gear on your mountain bike is probably not nearly as fast as the highest gear on your road bike.

But... I mainly wanted to share my hill climbing strategy, because it is different:

Before reaching the hill, I get out of the saddle ( stand up ), and try to gain a little speed/cadence.

Once in the hill, my cadence will drop and it's time to sit down and lower gears. I'm pretty good at knowing what gear I will use for the rest of the hill, so I just coast until I hit the correct speed/cadence for that gear.

Mid-hill, I stand up to stretch my legs out and then sit back down.

At a certain point, I will reach the part of the hill where I can do most of it standing up, and I will do that. I don't make it to the top.

With about 20 or 30 seconds left in the hill, I sit back down and go at a slower pace than I was when I was climbing. This is my cool down time, I catch my breath and drink water.

I like this strategy because it makes it so I'm not out of breath at the top of the hill. I get to enjoy the view. Mainly, though, it means that I stand up and quickly get to the speed that is correct for the flatter slope.

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    For most people, this strategy only works for short rises, say 50 meters of climbing in half a km to one km. If you need to gain cadence then it's already too low. – andy256 Nov 18 '15 at 4:54

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