Conquering the Pain – Getting Through That Impossible MTB Climb

by Robb Sutton

Climbing a Mountain Biking - Mountain BikingThis past weekend, I came to a fork in the trail. After slugging it out in the mountains for miles with friends, there was a decision to be made. It was time to either head back to the car or go for bonus miles on a steep, long climb with little payoff on the other side. We are hit with this decision a lot in our rides. The truth…the only way to get back into peak riding shape is to do some things that stretch our abilities. Just sitting back and hoping the power comes back to our legs is not going to cut it. I sucked it up…tried to muster what was left of my legs forward…and hit the climb knowing it was going to hurt like hell.

Conquering the Climb Even When It Hurts

These kind of climbs serve two distint purposes.

  1. You are on a mission to get to a killer downhill.
  2. You are trying to get into better shape.
  3. You are a freak and love climbing.?

Ok…I know…that was actually 3 reasons but I don’t consider the 3rd one to be real…or human for that matter…so it doesn’t really count in my book.

When I hit the trailhead on Saturday, I didn’t have much left in the tank. Being a rider of heavier, longer travel rigs, there is an amount of power you need to have to get through the longer rides with mountain bikers on light bikes. To get this power back (or get in better climbing/overall shape), you have to start to push your limits and extend your fitness. What this creates is a painful experience that pays off huge dividends in the long run.

When you go to start one of these climbs, mind and body management is key. Most of the time, it will be the concentration on the task at hand and managing what power you have left that will get you over the hill. With cramps and mental breakdown looming on the horizon, what can you do to insure that you will get to the other side without falling on the side of the trail gripping your CamelBak crying for your mommy?

Tackle Your Climb 50 Feet At A Time

If I look all the way forward to see how much I really have left to muscle through, my mind will want to quit. Part of the trick I play on myself is tackling the climb in sections instead of worrying about the entire process.

“Just get over that next steep pitch.”

“You can make it that next 50 feet.”

By sectioning off the climb and mentally preparing myself for each section, the climb seems to go by quicker and it keeps me on the bike not thinking about the miles ahead.

Stay On The Bike and Smooth

One of the biggest mistakes riders make when trying to make it through a grueling climb is getting off the bike. 99 times out of a 100, you are better off gearing down, slowing down, focusing on smooth pedal strokes and lowering your heart rate. When you get off the bike, you are making your legs cool down again causing lactic acid build up and the need to warm back up again. Unless your completely locked up with cramps, do everything you can to stay on the bike and moving forward.

Think About Anything Other Than Your Burning Legs

While I am tackling these climbs on my mountain bike, I do everything in my power to try to block out that insane burning sensation that is coming from the muscles in my legs. I’ll put on music, count the rocks I am passing, argue with myself, sing an annoying song…anything other than think about that pain. If you focus on how much it hurts, you will just end up giving in and giving up (unless you are the freak that applies to #3 in the list above).

You Can Do It…You Just Have To Try

While it absolutely sucks while you are in the process, it is very satisfying to finish a painful climb victorious. On top of that, the next time around will be easier because you bit the bullet and made it happen. If you are wanting to become a faster and stronger rider, you can only achieve that through extending what you consider normal riding. If you plan on doing the same thing day in and day out…you are just going to get the same results.

If you are ready to push your mind and body even just a little bit, the results will be mind blowing. You just have to mentally prepare yourself and apply a little bit of riding technique. The rest will be just dirt under rubber.

14 comments

14 comments

Dortha Doren June 23, 2012 - 7:56 am

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Robb December 1, 2010 - 12:33 am

Well, I guess I’m the freak. I live for the climb. I love the lung bursting pain. I love the wheezing and the snot running on my face for I dare not let go of the bars on the steeps. Leg burn gets easier to deal with over time. Warmup is important. I’m not a weight weenie. I ride a Big Mama Salsa 29r @ 29 lbs. It’s not the weight. If the geometry fits, wear it. If your front is wondering it could be your fit. Try a longer stem, of remove spacers to lower your bars. Maybe your saddle needs adjustment to the rear. BTW, I love a killer DH. I will push my Big Mama to the limit, but that is it.

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Dennis September 27, 2010 - 12:39 am

I have been mountain biking for 15 years. I love to hate climbing. The best trick I have learned to make it to the top is, never look all the way to the top, focus on the ground, and recite in your mind lines from your favorite movie. My Cousin Vinny works for me. I practically have the whole movie memorized by now.

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Robb Sutton September 27, 2010 - 11:51 am

I use music to do the same thing. Keeps your mind off of how many more pedal revolutions you really have until the top. I also repeat “what goes up must come down”. That is always great motivation.

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Troopbee September 4, 2010 - 11:03 pm

Advice please! I am 54 and have been MBTing for ten years- mainly for the joy of exploring the Great British conuntyside and keeping myself in a generally fit condition. I have tried over the years to improve my skills but the one area I just can’t seem to get right is the steep climb! I always start off OK and have mastered the balance between – pedal power, maintaining forward momentum and not spinning out on the rear. However, I can’t seem to stop the front end from wandering especially on steep to very steep climbs, resulting in loss of control and veering off track – followed by the embarrassment of taking the bike for a an uphill walk!! I have tried altering my body position, relazing my grip but I still end up zig zagging like a drunk on a Friday night. Any tips!!

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Jcck September 5, 2010 - 3:05 pm

I have the same problem when trying to pull steep short rock climbs.It helps me to shift one gear up and push alittle harder.(51yrs young)

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Troopbee September 7, 2010 - 11:48 pm

Thanks JCCK. I’ll give it a try. I have tried staying in a higher gear in the past but it’s trying to find the balance between not zig zagging and coming to a grinding halt!! Maybe I will have to just get a new pair of legs with heart and lungs to match! (54 is the new 34 – yeah right)

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DJ April 1, 2010 - 7:00 pm

We love to ride, it keeps you healthy, keeps you sane. Free to enjoy just being “alive”. Ride’s are 80% climbing 20% flying down the hill as fast as you dare. I get just as much a frill making a climb as cleaning the the tuff techie down’s.
As in life you take the ups with the downs, so enjoy. Cheers #3

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Jonnygogo March 31, 2010 - 9:11 am

I started riding mountain bikes in 1988. I have had some ‘off’ periods where I was focused on other sports but I like climbing. I used to be pretty good at it for a Clydesdale rider. 20 years ago I was 190 pounds, now I am … 220. Hard to admit but there it is. The thing is I still like climbing, especially technical climbs where you have to conserve enough mental/physical bang to pull the crux moves going up. For me adding the ‘trials’ challenge of no dabs makes the climb more fun. Viva l’altitude!

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Yarden March 23, 2010 - 3:57 am

There is no feeling like vanquishing a tough, steep, tech hill that has beaten you over and over again. How great it is to get to the top and your heart is trying to explode and you feel the need to throw up. (hmm… maybe I AM a freak.)

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Moshe March 22, 2010 - 2:36 pm

I am not a freak, but I love climbing. I came to mountain biking from long distance running (I had foot problems) and road riding (crashed into a car, so I abandoned road riding). I love the “runner’s high” that comes from sustained climbs. I hate crashing going down technical trails, and don’t enjoy the “I survived that scary ride” feeling. I ride down a mountain just to be able to go up it; in fact, when riding alone, I often ride down a paved road and up a trail. Because some of my riding buddies ride up just to be able to ride down, my bike is an Ibis Mojo, which acts as a XC on the climbs but as a AM on the descents.

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198 March 22, 2010 - 2:50 pm

That is one of the things I love the most about the sport of mountain biking. While we may ride in groups or alone, the individualistic nature of mountain biking allows you to enjoy whichever aspect you want to while other riders do the same.

Keep on climbing!

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Brent March 22, 2010 - 10:30 am

I consider #3 to be real. I know too many people that are freaks and love climbing. They will find the climbs not because of the downhill reward, but simply because of the climb and the pain that they will cause the rest of us who are following. They are usually the riders on the ultra light XC bikes that get off an walk when it gets technical on the way down..

I agree that once you conquer the mental block and make those climbs, they become even easier next time. Mostly because you know you have done it before and your mind knows you can do it.

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198 March 22, 2010 - 2:04 pm

I have a couple of friends like that. Complete freaks! Blow by them on the DH’s though…

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