Key bike training sessions that simulate hills and climbing

Got a hilly Ironman scheduled but don't have any hills nearby to train on? Six time Ironman World Champ Dave Scott shares some key hill-free bike sessions to help you conquer the climbs


All is not lost, so don’t worry if there are no climbs nearby! But before you start thinking about your training, you need to consider your bike choice. If the course is hilly you’ll probably be better off with a road bike because you can sit further back, taking the stress off your back, and a little higher to activate your glutes. I see a lot of people on tri bikes and using their aerobars while riding uphill – that’s a mistake when the climb is too long or the gradient is too steep, as you can’t apply the pressure from your glutes or core.


As for descending, if it’s a winding descent, a road bike will handle much better, although you’ll still have to practise descending. If the turns aren’t too tight, however, and you’re planning to ride a TT bike, you can make up some time by descending in the aero position. You’ll definitely want to practise this, however, as it’s all about confidence. Another good tip is to look up when descending – keep your eyes up and focused on the road ahead!

Is a road bike or triathlon bike best for a hilly Ironman?

 A key weekly workout

There’s one key workout that will help get you ready for that hilly course without actually having to train on hills. It’s a VO2 bike workout, which you should complete once a week. This session teaches your body to clear lactate and hydrogen ions, and resynthesise fuel. People also have a tendency to be over-zealous on the climbs, causing them to blow up. This set will prepare you to work at your best manageable effort.

So how do you measure VO2 load? Well, it varies depending on your output, but it should be roughly 6-12% above your lactate threshold. So to find it, measure your output over a session of 45-60mins and then work out 6-12% above that to find your VO2. You can express it in Watts if you have a power meter, or as a heart rate, if not.

My suggestion is that you train in three-week blocks. An ideal segment length for this VO2 session is 3-7mins and I’d start at the lower end, so 4 x 3mins is the set for the first three weeks, with 3mins recovery between each rep. In that recovery, the first 30-60secs should be at your aerobic speed to help the body clear lactic acid, then slower for the remaining 2mins to rest and get ready for the next rep.

Within this session, you also need to practise standing and seated cycling and also variable gearing (using lower and higher gears than you intend to), so the frequency of movement and also the load will increase the activation of fast-twitch muscle fibres. All these things are going to enhance your climbing when you’re on that hilly Ironman course.

 Put it together

Once you’ve completed the first three weeks of 4 x 3min sessions then you can start to progress by lengthening them, gradually working up to 4-5min blocks of work totalling 20mins. But make sure your recovery intervals are long enough to let you truly recover, so you can get the output again in the subsequent reps!

So exactly what might your VO2 session look like? As an example, let’s say you’re doing 5 x 4mins, and you’re in the final block of three about four weeks away from your race. (The last week would be a taper on the end of the last three-week block, where you wouldn’t include one of these sessions.) Here’s how that 4min segment would look:

• 30secs in a bigger gear, seated

• 1min in a lower gear, so increasing RPMs

and spinning the legs faster

• 2mins in your intended climbing gear

• 30secs in a higher gear, this time standing

You can mix that up a bit too, so you’re not always doing it in the order described above. It’s a good idea to mix it up in fact, as you want to be able to trick your body with different workloads but be able to respond to them with the same output.

You should also do a weekly VO2 set in your run training and it can look similar to the session outlined here – with the same reps and recovery intervals. Spread these two workouts out, though. You don’t want to do them back to back. A few weeks of these and you’ll soon be on your way to a great hilly race!


Dave Scott is the first 6x IRONMAN World Champion and a Master Coach of IRONMAN U.  As the founder of the Dave Scott Multisport Institute, he dedicates himself to making triathletes of all levels faster and more efficient.  Learn more at