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Cycling on hills can be intimidating. But it shouldn't be. Climbing hills will train your body to respond with more muscle, endurance and confidence -- as well as higher aerobic capacity. Lance Armstrong knew this and focused much of his training on climbing hills to dominate the Tour De France for seven years. The benefits of cycling on flat ground are good, but cycling on hills enhances those benefits.
Almost nothing will build raw muscle like climbing hills. The more hills you climb, the more your legs will respond by building lean fiber that give your legs more definition. Take a look at road biker legs. They are wiry, lean and elongated. Take a look at a mountain biker legs. They are husky, more compact and thicker with legs that bulge and flex with more muscle. If you climb until you hurt, you are breaking down small fibers in your muscles. When these fibers grow back there are more of them and they are bigger and tougher.
The more hills you climb, the better your endurance. Hills demand more from your body. You can't sit back on the seat for a leisurely ride. The constant demand of mashing the pedals builds your endurance by maxing out your body's systems. Your body begins to reciprocate by increasing limitations and what it can handle. Each hill you climb will get easier. The difference might be subtle at first but the more you push yourself, the more your endurance will continue to grow. Road riding also builds endurance, but not at the same rate as a routine of cycling on hills.
Aerobic capacity is the limit at which you can run your pulmonary system without overloading it. You may have heard the term "going aerobic," this means that you run out of breath before you reach the top of the hill. We all have an aerobic threshold. If you cross it you can't breath and will have to stop the bike and recover. Every time you push yourself to climb farther your aerobic threshold increases. This means you have more wind in your lungs, and are more capable for anything requiring strenuous activity.
Your body relies on your circulatory system for oxygen. Your veins, arteries and heart work together to deliver the oxygen-rich blood to the muscles. The heart speeds up as needed to get the blood through the system as fast as it can, but if you climb too fast, it can't keep up. The heart is also a muscle, and just like the other muscles in your body, it can grow stronger and obtain more endurance. Your veins respond in kind by actually growing more tributaries to handle the extra demand for blood. This benefits you against heart and vein problems. Riding on hills puts heavy demands on your circulatory system -- much heavier than any other discipline in cycling -- and your circulatory system responds by increasing its capabilities. It responds much like your muscles as they increase in size to accommodate heavier and heavier loads.
Hill climbing -- unlike ordinary road riding -- builds upper body strength. The weight-forward position for hill climbing engages the muscles in the stomach and the constant pulling on the handlebars for leverage engages the arms, shoulders, hands and wrists. This also shows on a mountain biker's body. Compare the lean, wiry look of road bikers to the husky, muscular look of mountain bikers and the difference is obvious.