Marginal Gains

What are ‘Marginal Gains’?

'Marginal gains' is a term that most people have heard, thanks to its prevalent use in sports the world over. That wasn't the case prior to the London 2012 Olympics, during which we constantly heard it used by the British Cycling team athletes and coaches (Chris Hoy was a big fan) and Jessica Ennis and her coach. Coupled with a very successful Olympics for Team GB, it became a byword for sporting success. 

The father of the theory was Dave Brailsford, who was at the time the Performance Director of British Cycling. In addition to that, he was also General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky (Great Britain’s professional cycling team).

In 2010, no British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France. Brailsford was tasked with changing that.

His approach was simple.

Brailsford believed in a concept that he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He explained it as “the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement.

They started by optimizing the things you might expect: the nutrition of riders, their weekly training program, the ergonomics of the bike seat, and the weight of the tyres.

But Brailsford and his team didn’t stop there. They searched for 1 percent improvements in tiny areas that were overlooked by almost everyone else: discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels, testing for the most effective type of massage gel, and teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection. They searched for 1 percent improvements everywhere.


British Dominance of the Tour de France

Brailsford believed that if they could successfully execute this strategy, then Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years’ time.

He was wrong. They won it in three years.

This was in 2012, just before the Olympics, when the Team GB cycling team went on to win a record number of medals. 

From zero British wins in 2010 (that’s 107 years of racing), a Brit (and Team Sky) have won 4 out of the last 5 Tours. That is astounding.

In addition, Team GB Cycling again dominated the sport at the 2016 Rio Olympics, breaking their own records from 2012.

As an aside, cycling in the UK has grown exponentially since London 2012, massively increasing the Athlete Denim demographic; i.e. fit people who can't find jeans to fit their large legs. Thanks Dave!


How Does This Relate to Normal People?

Like most busy people, I don't obsess (or even think) about my marginal gains, because I'm too busy juggling everything going on in my life, such as work, my children’s’ sports, coaching mini rugby (most challenging hour of my week), school pick-ups and drop-offs, changing nappies, homework etc. We all live busy lives and unless we are professional athletes, chances are we're not focusing on self-improvement. 

However, marginal gains popped in to my head this week, because I hit a PB on my back squat, hot on the heels of recent PBs at clean & jerk and farmer's carry. I had other PBs recently as well, and there seemed to be no apparent reason for me, at the age of 34 (and hanging on to that by my fingertips) to be getting regular lifetime bests at anything.

Why am I getting better at a range of strength and functional movements?

I have been eating much better following a particularly indulgent summer break, back on my staple porridge breakfast and a good range of salads for lunch and dinner now more common than not.

Proper fuel for my body. That is a definitely a marginal gain.

The other thing I am doing differently – and I give this the most credit of all – is that I started seeing a chiropractor a few months ago. I have had chronic back pain since childhood and have always ‘managed’ it with mobility exercises and rest when required. The arrival of our third child 4 months ago tipped me over the edge. Long periods spent cradling a baby to sleep with sub-optimal posture took me to a stage where I could barely pick her up. Cue chiropractor appointment and last throw of the dice.

I had always had a healthy scepticism of chiropractors and had never seen one before, but within 24hrs of my first session I felt an overwhelming feeling of relief as my back eased off. Weekly, then bi-weekly sessions improved me every time, to stage where it has noticeably improved my notoriously bad mobility and is allowing me to hit PBs on a regular basis.

Not so much a marginal gain as a good 5-10%er. Thanks Bearsden Chiropractic

Where Else Can I Use Marginal Gains?

It has got me thinking, where else can I find some marginal gains? I’m going to spend an hour with a sheet of paper and split it in to three sections:

  1. Family life
  2. Business
  3. Fitness & health

I’m going to commit to 5 marginal gains on each (I’m not as meticulous as Brailsford) and see if I can drop my kids off at school or nursery a little less rushed/stressed, improve my productivity at work, and continue my record of PBs at CrossFit. Pertinacity will be key.

Where Are Your Marginal Gains?

Take some time. Have a think. Write them down. Everything you note down should make life easier for you; so it is worth doing. It isn’t rocket science but it clearly works, and can be applied to anything.

I’ll update with the results of my own experiment in a month’s time.

Until then, happy gaining.

Athlete Denim

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