10 things I wish I’d known about: climbing hills

With our advice on climbing you might even find you love hills. Photo: Ian Stratton
Hills can be off-putting, especially to newer cyclists. Digital officer Rebecca Armstrong identifies some common mistakes many of us make – read on to find out how to avoid them

There’s no getting away from it – hills are hard. No one wants to get to the top gasping for breath, covered in sweat and thighs shaking. It’s surely no coincidence that the country most famous for cycling is just as famous for being flat.

But there are a few common mistakes that make climbing harder than it needs to be. Learn to avoid them and you might find that hills can even be your friends – I like to think about how much stronger they’re making me!

1. Don’t increase your speed going into the hill

Hands up if you’ve ever – or still do – speed up as you approach a hill to get to the top more quickly. That’s not what happens. Instead you just tire yourself out before you even get to the hill, and increase your chance of injury.

Drop down a gear just before hitting the hill so that you’re not pedalling too hard at the beginning. Your cadence – a fancy term for how fast or slow you’re pedalling – will increase but the amount of power required of your legs will fall. This means you’ll have the energy in your legs to keep going.

2. Take it easy

This relates very much to my point above. Ignore those people speeding past you – either they’re hill-climbing experts or they’re going to exhaust themselves and you’ll pass them again in a few moments. Go at a steady pace that suits you.

It’s much better to start off easy, even too easy, and increase your pace as you continue than to start off too strong and run out of power. The idea is to maintain a pace that you find comfortable so you don’t overdo it – risking having to give up or, worse, injury. This is especially so at the start of the climb, but also applies for the whole hill.

3. Use your gears

That’s what they’re there for! If you’re finding it hard, drop down a gear. There’s no ‘right’ gear – just the right one for you, and figuring that out will take a bit of practice. Experience will show you which gears are best for you at which time.

There’s no glory in struggling up to the top in too high a gear. That just means you’ll arrive a sweaty mess, or you’ll end up walking. Shift smoothly and quickly, and drop down one gear at a time – failing to do this can cause your chain to fall off.

Try shifting up a gear – or even two – on flatter sections. This gives you somewhere to go back down to when the hill gets steeper again.

4. Weave side to side

If it’s safe to do so, weaving side to side helps to flatten out the hill. This sounds counterintuitive because you end up doing more cycling. But cycling diagonally, left then right, rather than going straight up, decreases the angle of climb. This makes climbing easier, even though you’re essentially going further.

However, and this can’t be overstated, you should only do this on clear roads. Don’t do it in traffic and don’t get in the way of other cyclists. You’ll only end up making yourself very unpopular, and potentially put yourself and others in danger.

It also helps to take any corners wide. But again, only do this if it’s safe to do so.

5. Set markers

There’s nothing more off putting than being at the bottom of a steep hill and looking all the way up to the top, thinking you’ll never get there. Instead break it down into more manageable sections.

You can use trees, lampposts, anything that’s visible and you can ride to. Set that as your destination. Once you get there, set the next one as your next target. Repeat and before you know it you’ll be at the top.

Setting markers like this makes the climb feel a lot less overwhelming and gives you a mini-boost every time you reach one.

6. Encourage yourself

It sounds a bit woo-woo, but all that ‘positive self-talk’ really does help. I go for “You can do it legs!” A kinder version of Jens Voigt’s (in)famous “Shut up legs!” I say it out loud and I haven’t had any funny looks – yet.

It does make sense. If you’re telling yourself you can’t do it, then you’ve got that barrier to overcome before you even get to the hill. If a friend was having a hard time of cycling alongside you, you would offer some words of encouragement. Similarly, imagine what that friend would say to you when you’re struggling – and say it to yourself.

7. Seated vs standing pedalling

Cycling sitting down is more efficient; standing up puts more power through the pedals. If you can stick to the former you’re less likely to run out of energy. It’s also easier to maintain a steady pace.

However, that extra boost can help on particularly steep sections. Try shifting up a gear to make the most of the increased power, but do so before you get out of the saddle. Standing up uses different muscles, too, so it can give your legs and back a bit of a rest.

8. Breathe and relax

It’s easy to tense up and forget to breathe when you’re focusing on something hard. But that’s about the worst thing you can do when doing any sort of physical activity!

Take long, deep breaths to get as much oxygenated blood to your hardworking legs as possible. Hold your upper body still – don’t weave from side to side as this will just use up precious energy.

Keep your back straight and don’t lean forward too much. Try to keep your shoulders relaxed – this will help with the breathing – and don’t lock out your elbows. Don’t grip your handlebars too tightly either or you’ll end up with aching hands by the time you reach the top.

9. There’s no shame in walking

Your lungs are burning, you’re standing on your pedals and you’re already in the lowest gear. Stop. Take a breather. Walk. You might get back on the bike after a bit; you might walk to the top and only get back in the saddle for the descent. It doesn’t matter – you did your best.

Maybe you slept really badly the night before, maybe this is a much steeper or longer hill than you’re used to, maybe you’re just having an off day. It happens to us all. There really is no shame in getting off and walking if you have to. Just stay out of any other riders’ way.

It’s also not cheating to use an e-cycle. You still have to pedal; you just get a bit of extra assistance from the motor. If hills are especially hard for you, an e-cycle will certainly help.

10. Practice makes perfect

So you had to get off and walk the final bit of that last hill. But you almost got to the top, didn’t you? And next time – because there will be a next time – you’ll make it.

It’s a simple fact that the more you do something, the easier it becomes. Instead of trying to avoid hills, why not deliberately include one or two in some of your rides? Start off with some easier climbs before progressing to harder ones.

Short, sharp hills feel very different from long, gradual ones, so if possible practice on both sorts.


You’ve done it! You’ve made it to the top. Take a look at that view. Now you get to enjoy the descent – the speed, the freedom, the pure joy of the wind in your hair. Hills don’t have to be a reason to avoid cycling. In fact, follow all this advice and you might even find you love them!