Keeping Watts, or Effort, Down on Steep Hills

150 150 Rich Strauss

We are deep in the Ironman® season and that means IMUSA, Louisville, and Wisconsin. Many athletes pre-ride these courses, to see what they are in for on race day, and more than a few times we receive this comment in the forum:

“So…I rode the IMXX bike course this weekend. Per your power/heart rate guidance, you want me stay under watts x or hr y on all of the hills. However, there was one (or many) $#^$ hills that I had to go way above your guidance or I would have fallen over. Help!!”

Below is Rich’s answer, posted in our members-only forum:

Here’s the Dealio:

Getting up a hill is ultimately a function of your watts per kilogram of body weight (ie, the combination of how strong AND light you are) and the absolute watts you produce.

All of us, at some percent grade of hill, are forced to go above (sometimes way above) what we want to hold.. The lighter you are and/or the stronger you are the higher the percent grade you can ride before experiencing these “oh crap!” moments, which is when our watts/kg bumps against the % grade and our need to actually get up the hill by any means possible.

Finally, we manipulate the gears we put on the bike so that when the oh crap moment happens, at least we are at a higher cadence. Oh crap is still gonna happen and the watts will probably be the same, but you’ll be at 75-80rpm vs the 45-50rpm if you had not investigated gearing.

Short answer is that

  • It is what it is. Do your best to adhere to our pacing guidance on the hill but, ultimate, you still gotta get up the hill by any means necessary…preferably not by walking!
  • You improve the situation by becoming strong and/or lighter
  • You do the best you can to help the situation by putting as many gears as you can on your bike. Our preferred gearing, for all of our athletes on every US Ironman® (the exception of Florida and maybe IMAZ) is a compact crank (50/34 chainrings) and a 25-12 cassette.

So, again, three components:

  1. Get stronger
  2. Get lighter
  3. Know thy gearing

The good part is that the non-EN athlete:

  1. Get Stronger — like most IM athletes, they focus on going longer which usually helps you go longer, not get any stronger. The hill doesn’t care about how many 6hrs rides you did…all it cares about is how much raw power  you bring the fight. If you want to get faster/strong, not longer, you need to work, hard.  Work is Speed Entering the Body — we put it on the back of your training and racing kit as a simple reminder of what it’s really all about.
  2. Get lighter — likely doesn’t have tools and methods presented to them in the organized manner that we use in the Wiki and the nutrition forum.
  3. Gearing — likely has no clue. Now that you know it and are looking for it, you will be astounded by the atrocious gearing choices people make on race day — either the gears they put on their bike (guarantee you’ll see lots of 21’s and 23’s out there, from FOP, MOP and BOP peeps) or the gears they don’t friggin’ use when climbing. As a confidence boosting exercise, I like to look at cassettes and gearing choices on a hill, as another validation of the smart choices I’ve made on race day.

Interested in learning more about advanced Ironman® racing topics? Check out this podcast, recorded by Rich, at our Ironman® Wisconsin Tri-Rally. Rich discusses gearing, climbing hills, racing with power, cornering, descending, bike handling and much more! Over 3000 downloads!

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