Better Training: Rolling Hills or Steep Climbs?

This was a question I pondered often on this Saturday’s ride. I was out with John McSwain, a fellow mountain goat who rides locally (you can read our ride on his blog here). He brought me out to his neck of the woods, the hills of Lake Wateree. Overall the total climbing was comparable to an easy mountain ride, but it was all of the rolling variety. There were a couple longer climbs, both of which were new to me, but most of the punishment was on the rollers.

In my opinion, rolling hills can be a better way to train than long climbs. The difference is in the way you attack them. I tend to try and gain momentum on the descent, pedaling downhill, and attack at the bottom of the hill. John has a power meter and he noted that I would often be above 300 watts at the beginning of the hill and would relax at 200 or lower around the middle. My thought process is that I want to conquer the hill. I want to power to the top without losing too much speed and then carry that momentum into the descent on the other side. This is great when the uphills are short or not too steep, but not when they become longer, steeper climbs, as they did on John’s ride this past Saturday. In essence, this makes it a hill jam, where you power up a climb in the highest gear possible and grind your way to the top. When the hills are few and far between, there really is no consequence. There is plenty of time to recover. On John’s route this weekend, the rolling hills were relentless and threatened to chew me up.

On longer climbs the goal is to find a suitable heart rate or wattage, get into a rhythm and spin to the top. Once you are in that zone, you can take control of the ride. You can either crank it up or hang back and go at an easy pace. These climbs can still be quite challenging, especially when steep, but once at the top you have plenty of time to recover on the descent. There have been many mountain rides where I have felt fine the next day, as if I walked in the park. I have found that after some rolling rides, like last year’s Ride2Recovery, I felt like I had been beaten by a bag of potatoes.

Highway 21, rolling hills for miles and miles

In my opinion, rolling hills can be just as effective a training tool as mountain climbs. Sometimes they can be even better because they are approached more like an intense workout rather than a scenic journey. If you do hill repeats on Mount Mitchell, for instance, you are going to end up a monster. Given the choice between a leisurely ride up a 6% grade for a few miles or a rolling ride through a river corridor, I may choose the latter if I want to get stronger.

Strava Link

10 responses to “Better Training: Rolling Hills or Steep Climbs?

  • Wayne Wells

    Have you considered a GoPro Hero or Contour Roam for picture taking.
    I bought a Contour Roam that I’ll be testing on the flat roads of the Everglades. Really a big ring prep for the Skinny Tire Festival in Moab, UT, in early March, which I’ve scheduled for some picturesque rides for early spring training.

    • aaronwest

      Hadn’t heard of them until now. They look nice and a little expensive, so probably not. I spend way too much money on cycling as it stands. The above picture didn’t come out well and I took very few because it was cold. We have a nice digital camera, but iPhone usually does me fine and it’s one less thing to carry.

  • Matt

    Rolling hills probably work well for the below article on intervals.

  • Gerry Patterson

    I think it might depend on what you are training for, i.e. what energy systems you need to call on for the climb/race you are aiming at (if any at all). Rolling hills will get your HR up for short periods, but to do giant climbs fast you probably want to train in a high zone (or a certain power range?) for extended periods of time, making long climbs ideal.

    From my very short experience, the two types of training you are describing aren’t better or worse, but just different.

    • aaronwest

      Good point. As I just noted to someone on the FB post, my HR for Sassafras mountain (20% grade) got up to 202, while my high for this ride was 176. Obviously the big mountain was a lot better workout. It is probably best to mixup rides like mine with the mountains. I know some people who ride in the flats or the mountains, no in-between, which I don’t think makes a lot of sense.

  • John McSwain

    Rolling hills are mostly about anaerobic energy ability while climbs are all about aerobic ability. As Gerry said above, depends on what you are training for. Rolling hills are very similar to doing VO2 Max interval work. The literature on all this is copious!

  • John McSwain

    Thanks for calling me a mountain goat but I don’t want your readers to get the wrong impression. I’m just an old man, thankful when I finally reach the top of a climb!

  • Steve

    As a Flatlander, this is an encouraging post. I will be climbing some mountains in Western Maryland in September with nothing around me but rolling hills to train on.

    • aaronwest

      Hey Steve. I would still recommend making a trip or two to the mountains over the summer. I think you can do the majority of your training on rolling hills, but it is good to get a taste of the mountains to test your climbing ability.

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