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Hillseeker® Interview Series: Olympic Medalist Emma Pooley

Olympic Medalist Emma Pooley

We’re thrilled to kick off the Hillseeker® Interview Series with a feature on one of the premier climbers and time trialists in professional cycling, Emma Pooley. Emma, a Swiss-based Briton, won a Silver Medal in the 2008 Olympic Time Trial, was the 2010 World Time Trial Champion and competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Her racing C.V. includes many other victories and outstanding performances. She’s in an elite category of climbers and time trial specialists and clearly is at home in mountainous terrain. And if that’s not impressive enough, Emma ran a 2:55 marathon in cold and snowy conditions, is a winner of the Lausanne Marathon, as well as the Swissman triathlon. She’s also featured in an interview in the excellent documentary Half the Road: The Passion, Pitfalls & Power of Women’s Professional Cycling Respect!

Thanks very much Emma for joining us and giving the Hillseeker® community a chance to learn more about you. Let’s start at the bottom and go up!


Do you truly enjoy climbing and if so, how would you put it into words what it is about a climb that brings you joy? 

Yes, mostly I do really enjoy it. Partly I think I enjoy pushing my body – it sounds weird, but the pain is satisfying! On a good day, I get into a rhythm with my breathing and pedal strokes and standing and sitting and swinging round hairpins…I forget everything else and just want to go faster. Also I really enjoy the beauty of mountains and being outside and away (as much as possible) from civilisation and distractions. I’m quite sure that I get more pleasure from beautiful climbs than from the ugly motorway-type drags. I also enjoy racing other people up climbs, that’s like a game! Though of course, there are also days when I feel wretched and slow and trying to ride uphill just hurts without feeling like I’m going anywhere at all. But everyone has bad days (don’t they?!). And sometimes in races I dread a climb, because I’m a “climber” but I might not be able to ride it well enough…

What is your mental fuel on a challenging climb? Silent focus? Anger? Music in your head? 

It really depends. Wanting to get to the top faster, and push my body faster, is normally the training fuel. I think that would be silent focus. Competitiveness when racing friends. In a happy mood, if I’m just riding a climb for fun rather than doing a specific session, a good song stuck in my head (“Ohrwurm”!) is fantastic. In a real race, it’s quite different. There I’m rarely on my own on a climb, and it’s about tactics and interaction and watching the other riders and attacking or counter-attacking…in a race I’m normally thinking about my competitors, not about how I feel. Sometimes if something’s gone wrong in a race, there’s definitely anger (not at anyone in particular!) there and it can help.

Photo Source: Jered Gruber

What is your favorite motivational song for a turbo trainer session?

Hmm, tricky. There are so many good ones… currently my favourites would be “Waiting for my chance to come” by Noah and the Whale, or “Out of the Blue” by Julian Casablancas, or “Hysteria” by Muse… “Lose yourself” by Eminem would get my vote for all-time greatest motivational song – but I save that for warming up for races!

Do you specifically train on hills (e.g. timed hill repeats) or just incorporate them into rides and ride all hills hard? Any favorite hill workout?

Yes, I do all kinds of different structured sessions on climbs. It’s the best way I think to get a good training benefit when riding alone. In fact I do most of my hard sessions on hills because it’s much easier to push yourself to the right power output uphill – and with fewer interruptions from traffic or corners or villages… I certainly don’t ride all hills hard. My favourite session, one that I do a lot especially when on my own and if it’s raining, is adapted from a running “Fartlek” session I used to do. I just ride the whole climb doing 90 seconds hard, 30 seconds slow, over and over again. If I want to make it even harder I do 45 secs hard, 15 secs slow. Or if I want to train accelerating and riding really hard, I reverse it and do 15 secs full, 45 secs easy… Basically there are many many variations on the pattern, but the key thing is it gives me something to concentrate on and focus my effort, and can make even dull climbs hard and interesting.

Photo Source: Jered Gruber

What is your favorite climbing moment in your racing history? 

Hmmm….I don’t know that I could pick one. There have been a few races where I attacked and got away on climbs, and that in retrospect was pretty fun. But at the time all I was thinking about was the tactics of the race, and worrying I’d get caught! I think my favourite area for racing, where I’ve had lots of fun on the hills, is in Ardèche in France. The Tour de l’Ardèche is one of the toughest races for women in terms of the terrain.

Any advice you’d like to offer to cyclists struggling with climbs? 

Well, if you’re struggling it means you’re not enjoying it. Not everyone can be the best climber (by definition!) and if you’re not built for being a “Bergfloh”, you might just have to accept that – but you can still enjoy pushing your body, feeling the pain (and resulting gain), looking out for the view and the mountain scenery, and the sense of achievement when you get to the top. One very very important thing is to have the right gearing, because if you don’t have a small enough gear for the speed you’re limited to, it will be painful and miserable and also bad for your knees and back (and bike!). I’d advise always making sure you have a couple of gears smaller than you think you’ll need. Especially if you let me choose the route 😉

Photo Source: Jered Gruber

Any preferred recovery approach: foam roll, ice bath, massage, other? 

Massage would probably be my first choice at races. At home I don’t have that option so easily, so I use my Compex, hot bath, and a foam roller. The foam roller can be agony though! I hate ice baths, but if there’s a cold river or lake handy then if I can summon the courage I might go for a dip. In fact, I find gentle swimming (in warm water) a good way to get active recovery on rest days. If my legs really feel bad I go to see my phsio, Daniel Steiner in Oberrieden.

What are your off-season plans? Any special training, winter sports camps or other activities planned?

I have lots planned for the off-season! First and foremost, I have to finish my PhD in geotechnical engineering at ETH Zürich – I’ve been lucky in having a very understanding supervisor (professor Sarah Springman) but it’s time to write up! It’s going to be great just to be home for a long stretch without needing to travel. No warm weather training this year but on the other hand, I’m hoping to do plenty of cross training to keep myself in shape over the winter and to make up for the days when the weather is too bad to ride (I have gone a bit soft!). I love running, I swim lots too, and I plan to work on my cross country skiing. I really enjoy CrossFit too so when I have time to ride out to Hillseeker CrossFit in the evening I do. And I want to learn to ski tour too, and I do yoga when I get the time…. really, there are not enough hours in the day for all the cross training I want to do 😉

Editor’s Note (January 2015): Emma Pooley finished her PhD in 2014 (after this interview was orignally published). Well done Emma!

Anything else you’d like to share? 

This might amuse… when I started racing I had a crash on a descent that really shook me up, and left me scared of descending for a long time. Fear combined with poor technique meant I was a really slow – and dangerous – descender. I hated it, I was bad at it, and I dreaded the descents in races because I knew I’d get dropped and that would mean chasing back or losing the race, as well as just the humiliation of being such an Angsthase. So there was a time when I had to attack on the climbs to try to get away so that I had a headstart for the descent! That way, I might have a chance of getting to the finish with the leaders. I think that was actually a contributory factor to my developing into a “climber” type rider, my weakness in other areas!

Emma Pooley Women's Montreal UCI World Cup 2009

Thank you so much for sharing with the Hillseeker® community Emma! We wish you the best!

Make sure you sign up for the Hillseeker® Newsletter so you don’t miss out on future interviews, tips and articles. We’ve got an awesome list of interesting people lined up for the Hillseeker® Interview Series, so please sign-up, stay tuned in and enjoy!


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