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Big-gear and hill reps training, do they work?

Updated: Mar 23, 2022

Having been recently asked by one of my athletes about the value of them I thought I would take this opportunity to review some of the research in this area and whether that supports the prescription of them in your training cycles.

It is inevitable that if you have been training long enough then you would have completed hill reps at some point in time, whether that is running or cycling. Although there is the feeling that they add benefit, the real question is does the sports science support the application of these in your training?

Specific strength training for endurance.

Whether you are running or riding up and down hills, using your turbo/stationary bike in a big chain ring with low cadence, then the power/watts you are producing in these sessions use both force and speed/velocity.

Let me give you an example to explain it differently:

When cycling, velocity equates to the rate that you are turning the pedals (cadence) and force is how hard you are pushing down on the pedals. Let’s say that your typical choice of gear generates 250W at a cadence of 95, now let’s say you drop down a couple of gears (make it harder) but maintain the same power now at a cadence of only 65, then you are producing more force, but at a lower velocity. So low cadence training on the bike is strength training that is specific to cycling.

What’s more, cycling at a lower cadence and or higher power produces fundamentally different muscle fibre recruitment and activation.

What does the research say?

There have been some studies in this area and one of the best had 18 cyclists perform a month’s worth of training, half of the group doing their interval training twice a week at low cadence (60-70) and the other half of the group completing theirs at higher cadence (110-120).

A range of measurements were taken before and after, with the one most relevant to long distance triathlon being power output at anaerobic threshold.

Interestingly the group performing their intervals at the low cadence saw an average increase in power 11%, which was much larger than the 3% average seen in the high cadence group.

In another study, a group of cyclists trained for the same period, completing two outdoor long interval training sessions each week. The participants were separated into an climbing group and performed their intervals at 60 cadence, and a flat-ground training group that did their intervals at 100 cadence. Before the training took place all cyclists performed a TT and climbing test.

Whilst the climbing group saw improved power output during the uphill and flat time-trials following the training, the other group only saw improvements in the flat-ground time-trial. To see an improvement on the flat sections too is a welcome surprise. Which means to race well on the flat you must incorporate hills as well, for a greater range of adaptation and muscle fibre recruitment.

What about running?

In a recent study, 32 athletes were divided randomly into 2 groups. One was only given endurance training, whilst the other was trained on both endurance and two sessions of hill sessions per week, both over a 3 month period. The athletes were tested at the beginning to ensure that they were similar in all metrics being measured (VO2 max scores, resting heart rate, speed endurance, and race times) prior to the experiment. At week 6 and 12, the group that was trained on hills showed significant improvement in their VO2 max, resting heart rate, and speed endurance, while the control group did not.

How to incorporate this into your training?

For the long-distance triathlete, I would recommend including hill work in all three phases of training. In the high-volume general preparation phase that has a primary focus on low intensity sessions, get as much long, hilly endurance riding in as possible. These rides are great for building your base ahead of the more specific sessions later in the training cycle.

As you would move into the specific strength phase of training, you might look to perform really power interval sessions at and above your anaerobic threshold.

In the competition phase, it would be a good idea to include longer low cadence sessions much closer to your race day intensity (70.3 or Ironman), which target extending your sustainable time of these specific power outputs. The low-cadence element of these sessions is designed to help build muscular endurance, as the forces generated to produce the power are still high.

Lessons learnt.

Love them or loathe them, there is very sound support for incorporating hill reps (running or cycling) or indoor big-gearing sessions into your training. I am a supporter of this type of training and recommend including this type of work in all phases of your training and in the build-up to your next big race.

Sisu Racing Triathlon Coach

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