Coaching Advice

Conquering the Cols: Training for the Demands of the High Mountains

November 12, 2018

Words by Lisa Mazzola

After my last trip to the Pyrenees in 2016, I knew I wanted to go back at some point and ride some of the cols that I missed and shadow parts of the Tour de France. When the course was announced for the 2018 Tour, the moment presented itself. I would have the chance to ride some new mountain passes that would also be included in the tour and revisit some old favorites. The planned routes were more ambitious than my 2016 trip, but I was confident that with a carefully thought out training plan I would be able to accomplish my goal of completing all of the rides feeling as those I had put in my best effort, and ready to push a little harder the next day.

Route knowledge

My first step was to study the details of the routes, including length, elevation gain, and average gradient of each of the categorized climbs we planned to ride.  The routes ranged from 25 to 77 miles with elevation gain ranging from five thousand to eleven thousand feet per day including several Category 1, and HC (above category) climbs. In some cases we would ascend multiple Cat 1 or HC climbs in one day.  With that information, I developed a plan that was designed to build my functional threshold power and core strength. I needed power and stability in order to be able to maintain a high level of fitness and form. (See my cols “ hit list” at the end of the post.)

Biomechanics and strength training

I find that the winter months when we often get forced inside is an ideal environment to focus on refining form on the bike. Fitness and form can naturally decline over the course a cycling season, so the base period is the perfect time to revisit core skills and refine body mechanics.  In order to be able to maintain good climbing form, I incorporated strength training to help increase my economy and efficiency to limit losses along the chain of movement. In addition to gaining more core and posterior strength, I added form and cadence drills on rollers which allowed me to work on maintaining a smooth, fluid pedal stroke.   

Training with specificity

In addition to power and form work, I had to train to the specific needs of the terrain I was going to encounter. My training plan included two to three structured workouts per week that targeted the heart rate and power zones that I wanted to build up. The types of intervals mimicked the performance response I hoped to achieve. As my plan progressed, so did the length and intensity of the intervals. As I got within three months of my goal event, I planned a series of outdoor training rides that would progress me to the maximum mileage and elevation I would encounter within one ride. It allowed to bring all the pieces together with the added element of tweaking nutrition and hydration in hot and humid conditions.


Being able to manage effort and pace over the course of a long mountain climb is critical. Even the strongest of climbers can crack if they don’t know how to pace themselves. Even though I did not have access to local climbs as long or as steep as the ones I was training for, I was able to practice my pacing skills by working with heart rate, and power zones. I created interval sessions that would emulate the different zones or energy systems that I needed to train adjusting intensity and duration as my training progressed.


Training my mind was just as important as training my body.  Physical and mental stress are very interconnected, so I would practice focusing on my breath and form whenever I encountered extreme difficulty while training. By placing attention on my breathing, the sensations of discomfort would ease up and I could begin to relax back into a steady, smooth rhythm. Just like most things, repeating this process allowed me to integrate it into my mind and body, creating a new neural pathway. This was a practice I invoked every single day of my time in France. Most of the time I was able to bring my attention back to my breathing and finding a steady rhythm. At times, when the temperature soared to extreme levels and the discomfort levels in my physical body were impossible to ignore, the gorgeous views and vibe of the the Tour de France motivated me to keep going and push a little harder.

These are just a few pieces of advice for anyone looking to do a similar type of cycling vacation, and for people who are interested in becoming better climbers. Setting a goal for yourself that is a little bit scary or intimidating are an important part of how we progress in the sport.  So don’t be afraid to set the bar high!

If you want to learn more, join us for the Art of Cycling indoor climbing camp!


A list of the cols I conquered on this trip:

Luz Ardiden
length: 8.5 miles
elevation gain: 3,474 feet
average gradient: 7.4%

Col du Tourmalet (starting from Luz Saint Sauveur)
length: 11.8 miles
elevation gain: 4,606 feet
average gradient: 7.4 %.

Col du Tourmalet (starting from Sainte Marie de Campan)
length: 10.7 miles
elevation gain: 4,097
average gradient: 7.4 %.

Col de Portet (via Le Pla d’Adet)
length: 9.3 miles
elevation gain: 4609 feet
average gradient: 9%

Col De Menté
length: 6.8 miles
elevation gain: 2,234
average gradient: 6%

Lac de Cap-de-Long
length: 14.9 miles
elevation gain: 4,453 feet
average gradient: 6%

Horquette D’ Ancizan
length: 5.6 miles
elevation gain: 2,200 feet
average gradient: 7%

Col D’Aspin
length: 3.4 miles
elevation gain: 1,219
average gradient: 7%

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