Dave Brailsford introduced us to a new way of thinking when he entered the cycling scene with Team Sky and the principle of ‘marginal gains.’ The British cycling coach and manager has won seven out of the last eight editions of Tour de France. Difficult not to consider if there is something we can learn from him.
It is a philosophy that you can easily use to achieve better results. This blog post will explain how you can implement and use marginal gains to your advantage.
What is the marginal gains theory?
When you add minor improvements, they can significantly improve when they are all added together.
When race cyclists, cycling coaches, and cycling experts evaluate cycling races, there is a strong tendency to look straight at the top of the podium.
There is a mantra called ‘the winner is always right.’
It is tempting to find inspiration from the best rider, and there is also a valid reason to pay attention: the winner crossed the line before everyone else. Brailford has had several victories on Champs-Élysées.
However, the ‘winner is always right’ mentality may limit your creative process of improving your race performance.
It is clear that the 1st place probably did many things pretty well. However, the sum of all training, race-specific preparation, nutritional strategy, tactical moves, and technical performance made the winner cross the finish line before the peloton.
But if you split all the elements related to your race performance up in atoms, you will find places for improvements.
From a scientific perspective, you will have to accept that many minor tweaks are insignificant. Even if there is a tiny gain, for example, 0.5%, it is impossible to prove that there is an actual advantage, but the sum of all these small gains will, hopefully, make a competitive advantage.
First of all, you should focus long term.
Looking for many marginal gains is a philosophy that will not make considerable improvements in the short run.
There usually are no quick wins. It is no miracle cure.
Instead, this behavioral approach will secure you significant and incremental improvements in the long term.
And it should be an ongoing process. You will have to adapt to a routine that always aims to improve things. As you start implementing small gains, they will begin to accumulate, and over time, you will give yourself a clear advantage.
I had such a challenge back in 2015 when I got the opportunity to coach Mads Würtz Schmidt, who had won the U23 world championship just two months before. But, seriously, what can be improved next season?
It is no secret that coaching the world champion is a challenge but not so easy task. All primary and advanced training advice has been redundant and implemented for several years. Nevertheless, nearly all professional riders know how to use solid principles for training, nutrition, and recovery.
Building on all the great principles used from previous seasons makes perfect sense when you wear the rainbow-colored jersey. Just imagine what people and the press expect from a rider who has just won the World championship. There are no good reasons to make significant changes. And lots of reasons to be blamed if the following season is no success.
So it is tempting just to hit the ‘repeat’ button and let him do the same over again.
In such a situation, it makes sense to consider the concept of marginal gains. Minimal changes are not as scary to implement as larger ones. Who can say they have a significant negative influence if you make harmless minor adjustments?
So I decided to look for tiny improvements to help him improve further. And set a clear goal for the first season: a pro contract on the world tour.
Through my data analysis, it was clear that it was still possible to add more training volume and total workload, which is not surprising for a 21-year old rider. There is logical, natural progress in training and total race volume for the most talented riders.
Even though you are among the best in your age group, you can add more to your training volume. Therefore, the most reasonable way to plan training is to make progress in training volume and add slightly more races (also more difficult races) to his calendar.
Secondly, all those minor improvements made sense from a theoretical point of view. These are ‘marginal gains.’
- Extended recovery time between sets during weight lifting
- Adding sessions with pace behind scooter as race preparation
- Lowering bodyweight for specific races
- Adding race-specific intervals according to the race calendar
- Heat acclimatization for certain events
- Altitude camps for better performance in altitude
- Aerodynamics in road bike and TT setup
And also, several small, technical changes in race setup could positively influence performance (bike fitting tweaks, ceramic bearings, etc.) But, again, finding meaningful improvements that you believe will give you an advantage is a question.
Marginal gains theory at amateur level
A 360-degree analysis of every single process associated with Tour de France makes sense when you are Dave Brailsford. And it makes sense when I coach a 21-year danish rider who has just recently won the U23 world championships.
But what is the take-home message for you? The marginal gains theory also works at the amateur level, but it is crucial to remember to implement all the basics before looking for marginal gains.
It sounds tempting (and relatively easy), but please remember that everything else should be close to perfect (training volume, intensity, frequency, recovery, etc.)
If you think longer cycling socks will do the trick and make you MUCH faster, you will probably be disappointed using the marginal gains philosophy.
So get the basics right.
Then keep an eye for areas where you can add tiny improvements to your cycling performance. If you believe in what you do, there is also a better chance of succeeding.