There may be many reasons why you can’t tackle the iconic climbs or hilly trails you’ve been dreaming of, but the fact that you live in a flat area shouldn’t be one of them. While training for hills without actually living near a hill isn’t ideal, there are plenty of tactics you can use to prepare your body for the climbs, whether you’re training in an outdoor pancake house or logging miles on an indoor trainer.
Even if you have aerobic fitness that lasts for days, climbing places special demands on your body and the more prepared you are to meet those demands, the lower your risk of injury, the faster you’ll get to the top and the more fun you’ll have. Climbing usually requires a high power output at a lower cadence and if you don’t train that way, [the effort] it will feel foreign to the body, says US-based certified trainer and skills instructor Patrick Carey of Speed Science Coaching.
That foreignness translates into your inability to repeatedly generate a strong effort while riding, which will have big consequences if you’re in a competitive situation. On a hilly course, the inclines are almost always where the decisive moves are made, Carey says. If you’re not used to producing power in that range, you might be able to get going with the first move or two, but you’ll struggle to respond to any subsequent attacks, he says. And if you don’t train strategically, you’ll burn all your matches too early in the run to stay competitive.
More than Cycling
If you want to maximize the number of matches you have to burn, but your local elevation profile is more predictable than Friends replays that accompany your training sessions for a trainer, here are some tactics you can try.
5 ways to train for hills, even if you’re a flatlander
1. Choose your equipment wisely
If you’re surrounded by flat terrain, you can still simulate a climb by shifting into high gear and finishing your hard efforts at a lower cadence. Carey suggests extended Zone 3 or 4 intervals (10 minutes or longer) at 50 to 70 rpm, taking into account any knee discomfort. If it hurts [your knees]don’t push yourself, he says
You can also do these intervals on any nearby gently rolling terrain, but you’ll need to use a lot of active shifting to stay in the target zone, Carey says. That means downshifting before you get stuck on a hill and upshifting just as the hill flattens out and drops down, Carey says.
That said, if you’re doing a really specific Zone 4 workout, it needs to be steady (flat or hilly), or you’re doing it on a treadmill, Carey says. The challenge with Zone 4 training is that small excursions over the threshold make the intervals much more challenging. These [fluctuations away from zone 4] it can be caused by rolling terrain, high winds, or even simply careless shifting. So keep that in mind if you want to take advantage of these hard efforts at a lower cadence and also want to ride outside, you need to be very aware of the efforts you’re riding and the zones you’re hitting.
Wherever you ride, if you’re power training, Carey suggests setting your computer to display a 10-second power average. This smooths out the displayed numbers and prevents you from constantly chasing the power number up and down, he says.
2. Take advantage of the headwind
If you live in a flat area, wind is most likely an ever-present factor and with a little planning, you can use it strategically. While it’s certainly not the same as riding uphill, pedaling into a headwind can create many of the same adaptations.
To make the most of a headwind, plan your interval training so that you warm up with a tailwind (or even a crosswind), then go into the wind when it’s time to pedal hard, change direction to recover, and repeat.
The benefits of this type of exercise are not only physical. Every time you take on a challenge, whether it’s riding into the wind, climbing a steep climb, or tackling a challenging set of intervals, you’re reinforcing the idea that you’re capable of doing hard things, a form of resilience that will serve you well during your event when you encounter climbs, says cycling coach, physiotherapist and Olympian Ann Trombley.
3. Practice your posture
When riders pedal hard, especially on steep hills, they tend to round their backs and bend their torsos, which is a big mistake, Carey says. This position puts pressure on the thoracic and lumbar spine and tears your lower back to shreds, he says Cycling.
Instead, try imagining your chest being pulled uphill by an invisible string to help open your chest and bring your spine into a more neutral position, Carey suggests. This is a skill that you can practice on any type of terrain and even on a trainer, especially during hard work.
Also, pay attention to your position in relation to the saddle. To optimize power transfer when climbing, your weight should be slightly more forward and your upper body should drop toward your top tube, says Trombley. She suggests practicing this position when riding into the wind at higher speeds.
4. Adjust your intervals to the course
When training for a hilly course, you need to think beyond total elevation gain if you want to optimize your performance. Two trails can have exactly the same number of feet of climbing, but the way you train should depend on whether the elevation profile looks like a long, steady upward slope or a series of peaks and valleys.
For long, sustained efforts, focus on building muscular endurance, Carey says. To that end, he suggests focusing on lactate threshold (zone 4) intervals, including three to four seven- to 20-minute intervals with a work-to-rest ratio of 1:1 to 3:1. [Its] it’s not the most fun workout, but it’s very, very effective, he says.
If the course is more like a long series of short, steep climbs (or what Carey calls a paper cut), he suggests prioritizing repeated burst training. The idea is to suffer for 30 seconds while pushing high speed at a low cadence in zone 5, recover for 30 seconds and repeat anywhere from 10 to 30 times.
5. Contact your coach
If you can tolerate indoor riding, a trainer can be a super useful tool. Smart trainers do a great job of simulating hills, and depending on which app you pair the connected trainer with, you may have the opportunity to virtually ride the exact course you’re training for. (Platforms like Rowvi and FulGaz offer a selection of iconic climbs and bike routes.)
If you’re on a tight budget but like the idea of being able to do your interval training without having to contend with incompatible terrain, traffic, cold weather, or limited daylight, a magnetic or fluid trainer is a great option. Trombley recalls working out on a hill on an indoor trainer long before there were smart trainers, with her front wheel resting on a stack of books to simulate the sensation of riding on an incline.
If the idea of spinning in place makes you want to pull your hair out, feel free to skip it. If you’re motivated to get out and do a 20-minute interval at high speed, go for it. If you’re motivated to do it on Zwift, find a hilly course and do it, says Trombley. The best way to approach your non-hill training is any way that works for you as long as you actually have it.
Pam Moore is an occupational therapist turned intuitive nutrition coach, certified personal trainer, and award-winning freelance writer with bylines in publications including The Washington Post, Time, SELF, Outside, Runner’s World, and more. Listen to her podcast, Real Fit, or subscribe to her newsletter, Real Nourished, at
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