Walking uphill is a great way to stay in shape and you certainly feel the burn. You feel more of a burn when you use a bike instead. Why is it harder to cycle uphill than walk?
It is obvious from the start that cycling uphill is harder than walking. As soon as you hit that hill your heart rate and breathing increase. You notice that there is more of an increase in body changes with cycling than walking. When the slope is the same and you are in the same shape, what causes the difference? Gravity, momentum, tire traction, and weight all influence the situation.
The basics behind why it is harder to cycle uphill than walk is based in science. Any gradient adds resistance to a moving force, be it walking or cycling.
Any cyclist will tell you that the strain is greater when riding a bike, so I have compiled the top reasons behind this. No longer will you wonder why it is harder to ride uphill. Plus, when you get to the top, riding down makes up for the hard work.
To see all of my up-to-date recommendations for bikes and cycling gear, check out this resource that I made for you!
Table of Contents
Momentum refers to the forward motion of a moving object. Without momentum an object can fall over.
With regards to riding a bicycle, momentum is needed to move the wheels and bike otherwise it will tip over.
You will need more momentum when cycling uphill. The gradient will naturally slow the wheels down and will slow your walking pace down too.
A hill with a gradient of 4% will slow a person walking by 38% but slows a cyclist by 75%. So, more momentum is needed to keep moving forward. You will cycle harder.
When walking, you swing your arms to generate and keep momentum. This will not require as much energy as you need to propel a bicycle up the hill.
As a result, you work harder on a bike, which makes cycling uphill more challenging.
Tire traction refers to the resistance between the tire and the ground. Larger tires provide more traction and reduced rolling resistance.
The steepness of the hill you are climbing will interfere with traction, even with larger tires.
The combined weight of you and the bike will pull the bike towards the base of the hill. While it will not lift the bike completely from the road (unless the incline is very steep), it will lift the tires enough to lessen traction.
This reduced traction will make it harder to keep moving up the hill, so more effort is required on your part.
Cyclists can counteract this effect by leaning forward so additional weight is displaced on the front tire.
This can improve traction and forward movement. However, the change in your body mechanics to do this will use more energy, thus making riding uphill harder than walking.
When you are walking it is easier to maintain contact with the ground, because the surfaces of your feet are flat as opposed to round.
Moving uphill requires pulling and pushing your weight. This requires more energy than moving along a flat surface.
When cycling, you are also pushing and pulling the bicycle’s weight along with yours.
This additional weight will inevitably have an effect on your movement and will make the uphill climb more challenging. When climbing, the power-to-weight ratio is important.
Heavier weights slow down a climb. The energy you need to produce to move a weight uphill will increase in proportion to the weight.
Larger weight loads make your body work harder to reach the momentum needed to move.
When walking there is less weight overall, so the forces working against the body are less, so less energy is needed.
In addition to this, weight adds rolling resistance to tires which will slow the bike down.
Rolling resistance also increases in proportion with overall weight, equaling about 0.5% of the load.
You will have to work harder to keep the wheels rolling against this resistance. Overall, more weight makes moving uphill harder.
Gravity is the reason we do not float off into space. It is a powerful force that pulls us down to the ground.
When you are moving uphill you are working against gravity, which means you will be working harder.
This is the same for walking or cycling. You can feel the increased resistance as soon as you move up a gradient.
As you walk or cycle along a flat surface, gravity pulls you towards the center of the Earth. Your feet have to exert an equal force in the opposite direction to keep you standing.
When you are on a bike, you are not touching the ground directly. There is also more weight involved. You have to lift both your weight and the weight of the bike away from the force to stay upright.
Because the bicycle also requires momentum to remain upright, you have to work much harder to keep moving while pulling the extra weight away from gravity.
With cycling there are more forces involved so more work is done on your part to keep you moving up and forward.
Power is the amount of energy converted per a unit of time. With regards to moving uphill, you will need more power to keep the forward movement in contrast to being on a flat surface.
The reason is because you need to overcome the gravitational forces pulling against you. The power-to-weight ratio is what matters with uphill travel.
An ideal power-to-weight ratio is 3 watts per pound. This is easier to achieve when you are only dealing with your weight. The additional weight of a bicycle means you need to increase your power.
As you walk uphill, your legs work harder to create the power you need. You can feel this in your leg muscles.
With cycling, the power comes from pedaling, and you will need to pedal harder to keep your momentum up.
It is easy to calculate the power-to-weight ratio. Divide the power by the weight of the object (your body or the bike plus your weight).
Reducing weight (using a lighter bike) will allow a cyclist to provide more power, which will make it easier to ride uphill.
Even with the lightest bike and more power, total weight will still be heavier than a person, so cycling uphill will be harder than walking.
One thing you can do to help your uphill ride is change gears. Changing gears as you cycle is designed to help cover different terrain. With walking you do not have this option.
The trouble with gears is that the wrong gear can make your ride a real uphill battle. The gears need to be changed in a way that allows you to keep your speed up.
The slower you go uphill, the more likely it is you will have to stop. It will also be much harder. Gears are defined by their size. For example, a higher gear is a bigger gear.
Changing gears relates to the chainrings at the front of the bike and the cassette sprockets at the back. A high gear will be the combination of the largest front chainring and the smallest rear sprocket.
This will typically be expressed like ‘53×11’, for example. These higher gears are better for cycling downhill.
The opposite size is better for uphill riding. A lower gear features a small front chainring and a large rear sprocket.
It will help you keep pedaling as you travel up a gradient. Because the wrong gear can quickly make your travel uphill more difficult, it will always be easier to walk.
Stability At Lower Speeds
As I mentioned earlier, a bike needs to keep moving to get up the hill. The curved surface of the tires and the changing center of gravity require momentum for a bike to stay upright.
This is harder to do when you are going slow. As you hit the gradient, the bike will naturally slow down as gravity works harder against you.
Slowing down allows you to get better stability but in the end will slow overall momentum.
Your body exerts more energy cycling uphill because it is carrying more weight than when you walk. More energy means you do more work and at the same time you also need to maintain balance.
As the bike slows, your body leans to each side more to provide more powerful pedals. This disrupts balance and ultimately makes you work harder to stay upright.
The best way to get a bicycle uphill is to drop to a lower gear so you can keep momentum and faster pedaling.
Helpful Tips To Know Why Is It Harder To Cycle Uphill Than Walk
There are several different factors influencing your upward movement. Weight increases when cycling and more momentum and energy is needed as compared to walking uphill.
Now that you know the reasons why it is harder to cycle uphill than walk, you can try these tips to make your uphill ride as easy as possible.
- Make sure your tires have good tread and are inflated properly
- Lean forward as you move uphill
- Do not bring anything with you that is not necessary (you don’t need the extra weight).
- Don’t head uphill on icy, wet, or gravel-covered ground as this reduces your traction
It is no secret that going uphill increases the workload. You use more energy whether you are on foot or on a bike. But what is harder to cycle uphill than walk?
There are several factors that influence this and the combination of gravity, weight, and momentum exert more power on a bike than on a person walking.
To make it up the hill, a bicycle has to keep moving. It also needs to keep moving to stay upright. This means you are continuously working and working harder to get up the hill.
The good news is that once you get to the top, all those forces can relax as you roll down the other side.