Correction to This Article
A photo accompanying a May 27 Health section story on cycling up hills was incorrectly captioned. The photo on page F4 showed Carol Ennser, a member of a local women's racing team out for a training ride in West Virginia in April, not Cynthia Johnson.

An Easier Way Up

By Rita Zeidner
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

If you're like lots of casual weekend cyclists, distance doesn't throw you. You can crank out 20, 30 miles easily on the bike path. But what gets you down, admit it, is going up.

Defying gravity can be wicked work. Even lightweight bikes with triple chain rings that increase gearing options can do only so much to ease the pain. I know. Like many cycling enthusiasts, I've invested thousands of dollars over the past two decades in equipment upgrades. But I've yet to find a bike that can make climbing a 10 percent grade feel like a walk in the park.

You could shrug off the challenge and stick to the flats -- Washington's bike trails, connecting outposts as diverse as Purcellville, Mount Vernon and downtown Bethesda, are as free of elevation changes as they are of motorized traffic. But at this time of year, when cyclists, skaters, dog-walkers and others mix it up on these narrow stretches of pavement, you might be sorry. And you'd be missing out -- on health benefits as well as thrills.

Fitness buffs and athletes have long used interval training -- punctuating moderate activity with short bursts of intense effort (hill climbs, for example) -- to improve performance. A study in last June's Journal of Applied Physiology suggests there also are health perks: Researchers showed that bike riders upped their cardiovascular fitness and burned more fat after just two weeks of interval training on a stationary bike every other day. Hills may let you reap similar benefits in the open air.

Including a few hills in a weekend or evening ride is a great way to boost your endurance and improve your cardio-respiratory fitness, says cycling enthusiast Glenn Gaesser, who heads the kinesiology program at the University of Virginia. Cardio fitness "is important for health and disease prevention and also functional fitness," he says, referring to the body's ability to handle everyday situations.

Need more convincing? Try this: Hill training may also help counter a major effect of aging: the breakdown of fast-twitch muscle fiber, used for short bursts of strength or speed, says Glenn McLoughlin, a science and technology specialist at the Library of Congress. Climbing teaches large muscles -- the quadriceps (upper thighs) and the gluteus maximus (the butt) -- to compensate. That's why McLoughlin, who doubles as a spin instructor, sometimes devotes an entire hour-long class to hill drills.

"I think the reason people don't like doing hills is it's hard, hard work," he says.

Luckily, there are some tricks that can make a climb less of an uphill battle.

Looking Up

· Anticipate the hill. Get a leg up by gaining speed and momentum before gravity becomes the enemy, advises Evelyn Egizi, a nurse who coaches Artemis, a local women's bicycle racing team. If the ideal cadence -- about 60 revolutions per minute -- is too high, pedal as fast as you can.

· Shift gears -- physically and mentally. If you're a beginner, consider changing to an easier, lower gear before you start up the hill. "It's better to be in an easier gear than to have to shift into an easier one once the climb becomes difficult," Egizi says.

Downshifting may sacrifice speed and power. But it's worth it to reach the top without making the soul-sapping decision to get off your bike and walk.

Don't be too rigid, though, about the gear principle. There is no right or wrong gear for climbing, says Beth Antell, a personal trainer and D.C. fitness instructor who is an avid cyclist. "Play with your gears to figure out what gear makes you most efficient."

· Stay seated as long as you can. Efficient cycling means leveraging as much power as possible from the largest muscle groups: the quads, hams and glutes. Bikes are designed to do this best from a seated position. Standing on the pedals and leveraging your body weight delivers a quick burst of power, but it'll cost you, according to Antell. "As soon as you stand and have to hold up your body weight, you're going to be using more energy," she says. "The only reason people should stand is to get a break," Gaesser says. "It is inefficient, but it saves the quads."

Changing position can also take the pressure off sore knees.

· Dance on the pedals. For optimum power, pull up with one leg while you push down with the other, McLoughlin says. "When we do hills, we move away from the larger circular pedal strokes of the flat and take on a pedal stroke that more resembles a piston stroke," he says. The goal is to smooth your pedal stroke and maintain momentum, a technique perfected by seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.

Toe cages or, better yet, cleats that attach the rider's shoes to the pedals give additional mechanical advantage.

· Engage the core. Beginners often assume cycling is all about the legs. But engaging muscles in the lower back and abs provides additional pulling power, says high-tech lobbyist Cynthia Johnson, one of the area's top over-40 climbers. "I like to think of it as spreading the load of the work around to more parts of your body," she says. Strengthening core muscles with exercises such as sit-ups and the plank will reduce stiffness and injury risk.

· Know your hill. Riding "just seems easier when you know what to expect," says Rob Barber-Delach, a geographer from Montclair, Va., who typically pedals more than 3,000 miles yearly. Before heading out into unfamiliar territory, he downloads the routes into Google Earth, which superimposes the course on a three-dimensional topographic map.

The data, which he uploads into a GPS unit attached to his bike, came in handy during a challenging 94-mile ride in Wisconsin last fall.

"I decided to reroute around one of the major climbs in order to conserve energy and finish the ride without a death march for the last 20 miles," Barber-Delach recalls.

It's not just mapping experts who rely on high-tech tools to figure out where to ride. Matt Mikul, a 30-year-old Seattle software engineer with a gears-are-for-sissies approach to cycling, wanted to gauge some of his area's formidable hills before attempting to ride them on his fixed-gear bike. With the help of data from Google Maps, the U.S. Geological Survey and a bit of calculus, he designed a hybrid application -- what Web designers call a mash-up -- that automatically calculates the steepness of a hill and creates a profile of the entire route. The self-styled tool he named Veloroutes and posted to the Web two years ago ( has been averaging about 10,000 users per month.

· Drink lots. Eat less. Pedaling at a moderate pace (12 to 13 mph) on rolling terrain will burn 400 to 500 calories per hour. But eating heavily before or during a ride can invite gastric distress. Try snacking lightly during a ride on carbohydrates and high-protein, low-fat foods such as fruit, nuts, peanut butter crackers or a protein bar.

The rule of thumb for fluid replacement is at least a full water bottle every hour.

· Choose good company. An equally paced cycling buddy can make a grueling climb more fun.

· Practice, practice, practice. As with any exercise, it gets easier the more you do it.

Enjoying the Downside

My oddball preference for hilly terrain was reinforced one crystal blue April morning when my partner, Harold, and I joined our friend Joan Oppel on the "Blue Ridger," a ride she leads each spring for Potomac Pedalers. The 54-mile loop meanders for 20 miles or so through gently rolling hills before a series of sharp left turns lead up the spine of Mount Weather, 16 miles west of Leesburg. After an undulating 10-mile romp along the ridge, my riding companions and I were treated to a screaming two-mile descent into the picturesque village of Paris, Va. It wasn't exactly all downhill from there -- we still had to go over Naked Mountain -- but the scenery was glorious, and the downhill a thrill.

"No matter how many times I do this ride," Harold later gushed, "I never get tired of it."

I couldn't agree more. I'll take the ups and downs of a hilly ride over Washington bike-path mayhem any day.

Rita Zeidner, a Washington area writer who leads occasional rides for Potomac Pedalers, is training for a five-day, 350-mile bike tour in Washington state with more than 30,000 feet of climbing.

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