Getting defeatist me up hills

I have a long history of struggling to cycle up hills. In 2010 I rode the Coast to Coast (C2C) with Christians Against Poverty and returned to the start by the Reivers Route on my own.

I was useless at the hills. I managed the C2C without needing to walk up any hills, but was last of the group I was in up every big hill – (often first down though 🙂

I found the Reivers Route even worse. I have plenty of excuses (I was towing a BOB trailer with my gear, it was very very wet, the wind was very strong in the wrong direction and I was a bit optimistic with the distances).  Basically the hills meant that I stopped enjoying myself and became overall very depressed and nearly gave up.

It seems to me I have two types of problem:

First, my fitness which is demonstrated by my fatty overweightness, note this is a technical term that I just invented and have copyrighted 🙂  The result is that when climbing I get seriously out of breath, my legs give way and I sweat so much that my glasses steam up so I can’t see where I am going. Yesterday included a fair bit of climbing with a cargo in my Bullitt (I managed ok’ish). However, it is interesting to compare that cargo to my weight. Since a (short lived) peak I have lost 50% of the weight of the cargo I was carrying yesterday. If I stay on target then by our summer holiday I will have lost more weight than yesterday’s cargo (will have lost in total about 20kg).  I am sure that losing that extra weight and generally increasing my fitness through continuing to cycle everyday and not use the car for work will help a lot.

But the second problem, and I think this is actually the bigger one, is that in my mind I seem to approach hills with the assumption that they will defeat me. I see a hill in front of me and my heart sinks. When I face a lot of hills on a route I get depressed and my mind keeps looking for excuses to give up. I am sure that a lot of my slowness and tiredness on hills is actually a mind thing rather than just physical limitations. This is not a new thing and I am fed up with it as it so often spoils days out and puts me off doing things I would like to do (eg touring).

Yesterday was by no means bad in terms of how I felt about it. I did get the sinking feeling when I saw the hills in front of me, I am sure it slowed me down but I didn’t feel too much like giving up. The 2.5 miles from Newtown Linford to the  M1 (avoiding the A50 by using Ashby Road) were almost continually uphill, the longest of the ride and I managed it and without collapsing in a heap at the top. I was down to first gear for a while but able to spin it reasonably.

I have had other bad experiences in the past. On a touring holiday with the whole family I ruined one day by getting depressed and even despairing about the hills ahead of us (plus a stretch of busy road that worried me a bit). Several of the holidays we had with the Company Cyclists left me with painful memories of long struggles up hills, they are not stronger than the good memories of those holidays but they do contribute to this general feeling when I see a hill or know there are big hills ahead.

While I can see progress with the physical side (weight loss and getting fitter) I wonder how to change this mental conditioning. I guess the obvious thing is to find more hills and ride up them lots and lots of times. But I don’t want to have to drive to big hills with my bike in the car so I am limited to what is available here. I have also been hoping that but riding my Bullitt (especially with cargo) I will feel stronger and more confident on hills when I ride an ordinary (much lighter) bike.

Locally I have found shortish hilly route (about 10 miles)  and I have ridden it the hillier way (ride to Beeby via South Croxton and then back the same way) as per this tweet:

I could ride this more often but even as I think about it that defeatist feeling comes over me 🙁

So suggestions please on how to (gently and realistically) tackle this defeatist conditioning and free myself from my hill climbing phobia.

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  1. Bigger rear sprocket. I am running 23t on our nexus 8 cargotrike and i just sit there spinning untili get to the top.

    In terms of mind hacks, I’ve read comments that you should focus on the summit, and looking up helps with breathing. Doesn’t work for me. I get into a matched breathing and pedalling pattern, and stare at the road. I don’t need to know how fari have to go. I just ride like it odd never going to end.

    • Yep low gears is one of the reasons I went for recumbent trikes for many years. You can climb anything with low enough gears on a trike – it may take a long time though 🙂 With the original gears (81 of them!! ) on our recumbent tandem I could have a young son as stoker and another on a trets trailer bike and get up almost anything in the Cotswolds, but slower than everyone else was walking up and I did feel like death by the top.

      I can’t go a lot lower on my Bullitt without balance issues. I suspect in a slightly hillier area I would drop 1 tooth on the chainring (39 to 38) which would have the added benefit of allowing me to fit a Hebie Chainglider to protect the chain.

      The longer term answer will be a 11 speed Alfine which will allow me to have lower and higher gears which would be handy.

      I agree looking at the summit makes the depression worse a significant disadvantage of a recumbent is you look straight up the roads from a low vantage point, the hills then look a lot worse.

  2. Cycling up hills is not that different to running up them, and I would definitely NOT focus on the summit. Look at the patch of road ahead, lower the gear (comparable to reducing the stride) and find something interesting to think about which will distract you from the mental mixture of boredom/defeatism/fear which is your biggest enemy. I find composing sermons really helps!
    (and I bet you’ll beat me on the hills to Launde!)

    • Rachel,

      “Cycling up hills is not that different to running up them” oh yes it is 🙂 I hate running! It kills my shins and everywhere else also it takes ages to go almost no distance. If God had meant us to run then nobody would have invented the bike!

      The ability to think about something else requires more fitness than I used to have. It used to get to the point where I could think of very little but the next breath. That is improving, now I do enjoy looking at the views and am working up to being able to think about other things.

      To some extent my speed is independent of how I feel. Jane is slower than me but does not mind walking at times and does not seem to feel so intimidated by the hills or depressed by them. So I am not confident that when I get fit it won’t be a problem.

      Still I feel like my ability is improving and hopefully that will move the despondency to progressively steeper and longer hills so I don’t need to encounter it so often.

  3. I heard a good tip is to guess how many crank rotations it will take you to get to the top and then count them and see how close your guess was to the reality. I also never focus on the top, keeping my vision low so as not to see the top but not too low to affect breathing.

    I’ve also found that lower back strength makes a big difference. During the times that I’ve been practising my yoga more I’ve had a stronger lower back from the specific exercises I do and found hills easier.

    Bullhorn bars also work a lot better than flats or risers too on steeper climbs.

    I think a really important part of it is to go easy on yourself mentally and don’t expect too much or get defeated if you don’t make it. Keeping trying is more important than anything else. I’ve always found that applies to a lot of things, not just riding bikes up hills.

    Try riding hills with groups as well and turn it into fun. We have regular hill climb events here in Bristol with different groups of us (most not very fit or at all professional) and it makes it good fun. Especially if there’s the lure of a social and some cake at the end. I’d never normally get up half the hills that I do or go on the rides I’ve done if it wasn’t for being in a group encouraging each other.

    • Hi Adam,

      Good grief, I don’t know if I can count that far 🙂 I sometimes do counts of a 100 revolutions or count to the next lamp post or whatever.

      We have recently got an exercise ball and accompanying guide, I am sure you are right that both core strength and flexibility would help with the physical aspects.

      I have bar end’s and like to use them some of the time, variety of hand position is nice.

      I am sure you are right that going easy on myself would be healthier and helpful as would group rides, one of my difficulties is that so many social rides are on Sundays when I work. I did enjoy a 50mile ride for the Heart Foundation last year and may look for other similar rides.

  4. Nice rides help « 42 Bikes - pingback on February 3, 2011 at 11:41 pm
  5. I am learning to cope with hills - 42 Bikes - pingback on January 28, 2015 at 6:16 pm

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