The Mt. Washington Hillclimb: A case study
Steve thought it would be interesting for me to write up a case study of how I prepared for Mt. Washington and some of the science and ideas behind my training. I must warn you that my training would probably never be recommended by any coach for anyone else as it is one done of out necessity. However, as such, it offers a glimpse at a completely stripped, brutally effective regimen.
I started graduate school in physics at MIT last fall. To say this year it has been difficult to train is an understatement. To put the past year into perspective, my total riding (training + racing) hours for the effective 2012 season have been: November: 19 hours, December: 28 hours, January: 25 hours, February: 21 hours, March: 42 hours, April: 26 hours, May: 45 hours, June: 64 hours, July: 55 hours, August: 31 hours.
This meant that my training focused 100% on quality over quantity. Usually during the semester I am pulling around two all-nighters a week and have work to do and deadlines to meet. During the work week the trainer and Summit Ave in Brookline (0.38 mi at 10%) are my staples. I found that even after all-nighters I can motivate myself to hop on the bike for 45 mins each day, just to stay sane and sleep better, at the least.
Even though I am a natural climber, Washington is extraordinarily steep and long, and so I knew I needed to focus on strength as well as muscular endurance to ride to the level I know I can on less steep climbs. Fortunately the trainer and Summit Ave are also conducive for this.
Most of my workouts on the trainer involved putting it in the 53x11 and grinding at a low tempo pace (320-330w) up to an hour. Summit Ave I usually do 5-9 reps at 1:45 to 2 minutes in length at a >500w average. The first third I sit and spin, the middle third I attack out of the saddle, and the final third I grind out in and out of the saddle. I do this for maximum power as well as to work everything: legs, arms and core. I know this short climb better than any other and have used it to play psychological tricks on myself. For example, I will put a harder cassette on the back as I get stronger which allows me to go through the same motions and shifting without thinking, thus “tricking” myself into pushing a harder gear and more power. My rationale behind this is I believe a lot of people get stuck in ruts doing the same training loops and races and intervals at the same power zones, etc. I firmly believe the mind is the strongest and weakest link in the cyclists’ performance chain, and as such, needs to occasionally be circumvented through clever change to break through to new levels.
If I have more time during the week, I will try to ride outside more. If I have 2 hours I know I can ride out to Blue Hills (.8 mi at 9-10%), do 4-5x4 mins at ~460w and get back. Or if I have 3.5 hours I can ride out to Concord and have 1.5 hours to do longer intervals on the Charlie Baker loop. For most people, Mt. Washington is a slightly below threshold effort, so it’s important to train for a longer period of time. For example, figuring I can ride an hour at 380-390w I did a lot of 90 minute tempo sessions on the Charlie Baker loop at 350-360w.
Doing intervals is great, but to truly get strong you need to be able to combine power with endurance. For example, how can I possibly replicate the final 10-15 minutes up Washington, when I need to keep it pinned but my legs feel like noodles? In other words, how do I work on muscular endurance? Simple, I do intervals at the middle or end of a long ride on tired legs. Three times this summer I rode out to Wachusett from Cambridge, did intervals on the mountain, and then rode back for a 120-135 mi, 6-7 hour ride. In the spring I also once rode to the Fresh Pond training race and back for an 8+ hour ride with a race in the middle. These absolutely helped extend the length of time I could hold a certain power by forcing me to work hard on tired legs. I believe this is the simplest thing most people can do to get better but realize it is not simply going out and trying to hammer every climb for as long as possible – it is a deliberate strategy of tiring the legs by riding zone-2 but for a long time and then trying to empty the tank such that I am crawling back home on fumes, barely turning the pedals.
I also believe strongly in block training. For me that most easily translates into three days on, one day off, repeat. Again, even during the semester I would still get on my bike Tues, Wed, and Thurs. for 45 minutes to an hour and go hard and then try to get outside on the weekend. As I got more time during the summer I would do blocks over the weekend such as climbing intervals Friday, a long ride Saturday with the 90 min Charlie Baker steady state session in the middle, and then another long ride Sunday. For my days off I would just go sit in the sauna at MIT for 30 minutes, preferably after spinning 30-60 mins.
As Newton’s Revenge and Mt. Washington got closer I would do more specific workouts the weeks leading up to the race. Before Newton’s Revenge I went up to Ascutney (same gradient just half the length) and hit that back-to-back to mimic a Mt. Washington effort. The first one I did at 402w in 25:07 and the second one at 389w in 25:35. From that and knowing that me + bike was still several kilos overweight, I knew I was going well and expected a time in the low 50s. However, at the actual race I strained by back 20 minutes into the climb and suffered like never before just to finish because of the high winds combined with the strain on the injury! There is a simple but important lesson in this that I will never take for granted again. What happened is I had stopped doing my daily core routine because I thought I was too busy. I would have never thought a daily 7 minute routine could be the difference in having a great ride and a terrible one up Mt. Washington. It just goes to show a climb that steep and long absolutely requires a lot of core strength to deliver the power to the pedals. From then on I made sure to re-introduce the routine and to roll out my back with the foam roller after car drives and hard climbing workouts. My routine is super simple and literally takes <7 minutes: 50 consecutive fingertip push-ups, 200 bicycle crunches, 100 side crunches on each side, 10 reps on the ab wheel straight out and then 10 more reps on the ab wheel alternating left and right side. That’s it!
In between Newton’s Revenge and Mt. Washington more racing transpired and more of the same type training. A week before Mt. Washington I went out to Western Massachusetts for a family thing of my fiancé’s but hit up Greylock while I was there. I did the climb in 37:45 at 396w and so I knew I was on track for a good ride. The plan was to actually do a one-off effort all-out and then go back down and ride back up the climb to get some muscular endurance in but I could not as there was a tornado warning and as soon as I finished the climb in heavy rain and some hail, I hopped immediately off the bike and into the car that Rachel was following me in! It was an awesome experience climbing up through hail and thunder/lightning clouds but I did not want to tempt fate twice.
Washington is not just about power, but power to weight. I wish I could offer more advice here but I am naturally a pretty lean guy and so do not have a lot of practice or more importantly, self-control, when it comes to limiting my diet. Last year before Jelly Belly team camp I was really motivated and got to 148 lbs from my winter 158 lbs in 5 weeks from riding lots and eating really cleanly. Pre-breakfast rides, the sauna after riding, and not having a huge dinner help, too. It’s easy to lose weight when you ride 20 hours a week, sleep 10+ hours a night and don’t have to think. As a stressed out grad student having to meet deadlines, pull all-nighters and is only able to train ~10 hours a week tops, I felt it was too much effort and risk until I had a decent ride up the mountain at a power I know I can sustain in training. I think everyone can relate that it is awful feeling like you have no energy as you go about your daily job. Although for Newton’s Revenge I was able to drop 4 lbs the week leading up to it and rode it at ~151 lbs, I really did nothing for Mt. Washington and probably started the ride at 154 lbs. 154 lbs is “topped-off” weight (I weighed 152.8 on the scale that morning). I generally lose a kilogram or more even during an effort like Washington and can lose up to 3kg during a long, hot race before performance is impacted.
Gearing. The gearing is pretty simple. Know what your optimal cadence is for such an effort and then get the gearing the allows you to achieve this up Washington – and then make sure you have at least one cog easier! For Newton’s Revenge I rode a 34x32 but because of the back strain and wind was way overgeared. I probably did not leave the 32 above timberline and was still grinding below my optimal cadence (100 rpm seated). For Mt. Washington I ran a 36x36 and was extremely pleased with this. I probably spun in the 36x36 and 36x32 for 80% of the climb. Only towards the end did I wish I had something in between the 36t and the 32t in the back. I ended up taking the easier road and spinning in the 36 more often than not, and my heart rate dropped a little bit over the final 13 or so minutes. This is probably the only part of the race that was in my control that I look back on with regret.
Bike and gear weight. Here is another place you can shave weight but the weight per dollar costs start to get astronomical! To drop weight from a normal setup I took off the front brake and front derailleur and swapped out my bars and shifters for a carbon TT base bar with a single brake and single shifter. I did not ride with a bottle or bottle cages (in contrast to Netwon’s). Bike weight was 12.6 lbs and my other gear (shoes, helmet, kit) were 3 lbs.
Putting it all together, for the actual Mt. Washington race, I did 381w at 95rpm and 181bpm for 52:28 with a VAM of about 1650 (excluding the first flat 30 seconds). Using my average mass over the climb, this is around 5.5 w/kg. Because of what happened at Newton’s I rode conservatively at or below threshold the entire time. Also in contrast to the July race I pretty much sat the entire time and spun in as easy a gear as possible in order not to risk straining my back again. It was hard, sure, but in terms of effort did not feel as hard as the Greylock climb that I did in training. A good ride for me is to have heart rate increase over the entire ride for a 183 bpm average. Based on that and the Greylock ride, I think a perfect ride on that day if I emptied the tank would have been around 390w. If you combine that with the 67 kg I know I can get to, that is a little over 5.8 w/kg. Based on my calculations as well as others’, Tom Danielson’s record was most likely done at ~5.7 w/kg. So at least in my view, the record is definitely achievable. However simple the math is, it is far from simple to have everything come together on one day like that, with good weather as well.
Now I not only believe I am capable of setting the record, I know I will. More than anything I think a lot of self-imposed mental limitations were shattered this year. It was a relief to finally ride on a big stage what I’ve been doing in training for years. I look forward to continue making the pilgrimage up to the “rock pile” for years to come.