Ask the Coach: How Can a 83-Year-Old Climb Long Hills?

This article was inspired by the WheelPeople Editor, who is trying to continue riding strong, and who deeply appreciates the wisdom of Coach Hughes.


By Coach John Hughes



Road Bike Rider Reader Eli asks, “I have a local route where I have an option at one point to take 1) a continuous long climb or 2) a series of short steeper hills with flat sections between. The hills in option 2) are steeper than the continuous climb in option 1). I find option 1) wears me out and I have to dismount. I don't know what to make of this. Currently option 1) is under construction.


Coach Hughes, I suspect pacing is the reason the sustained climb wears you out more than the multiple steep hills. There is a very slow pace at which you could do the sustained climb without stopping.  Try riding at an easy conversational pace. Of course you have to ride fast enough so you don’t fall over.


Eli follows up,Yesterday my son (who is an accomplished cyclist) and I rode the detour route around option 1), which unfortunately has a much longer climb than my customary route! Previously I couldn’t do that climb on the detour. After about 1/4 mile I had to get off the bike and I walked until the road flattened out. I attributed this to declining capacity due to age.


“But no! Yesterday I was triumphant and rode the entire stretch of that climb without dismounting.


“Here is my take on why I succeeded yesterday after several prior failures. First, riding with someone else, I was less willing to give up and tried harder despite the feeling of slowing and tipping over. Perhaps more important, I followed my son up the hill, and he went real slow, slower than I thought possible, and not within my ride experience. To be clear I don't try to scoot up the hill, but I pedal as hard as I can to deal with the grade. At Alex's suggestion I went slower then I thought possible without falling over. This conserved energy and did not wear me down to the breaking point.”


“So I learned a new riding strategy, but don't know if it will serve me if I try that route alone. In any case, it was a very good day.”


Coach Hughes Any day you can ride with your son is a good day! And mastering the climb made it a very good day!

Eli climbing Farm Street in Medway,MA.

You mastered the climb using mental skills and our mental skills don’t decline with age. You used a new riding strategy. You learned a mental skill of pacing. You changed your motivation. You were “less willing to give up and tried harder.” You performed better riding with your son rather than alone— psychologists call this the group effect. You changed your belief about how slowly you could ride — this belief is what defeated you previously.  After riding with your son, you know you can do the climb. This should increase your confidence — don’t be skeptical about whether you can do it again. Use your new mental skill of pacing.


I wrote my eBook Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling because most cyclists can get greater improvement from investing some time each week in practicing mental skills than they could investing the same amount of time in training! This is especially true after age 40. In the eBook I demonstrate how sports psychology can be another tool in your toolbox to help you improve your cycling, just like effective training, good equipment and healthy nutrition. Gaining a Mental Edge is set up as a workbook with a progressive set of skills to practice and master. Just you can practice specific cycling skills you can also practice and learn specific mental skills. Winter when you are riding less is an opportunity to gain a mental edge. The 17-page Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling is just $4.99.


Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio



Weight lifting can help raise your bicycling power curve (power output vs. time sustained). Supposedly the ideal for cyclists is SOME weight lifting, not excessive weight lifting. Even if you are not a cyclist, weight lifting can help counter loss of strength with aging. This is based on some recent scientific articles. I haven't tried it recently myself!