The Power of Marginal Gains

author : MCurle
comments : 1

Marginal gains...Can it be applied to the weekend warrior?

"The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together," Dave Brailsford (2012).

With the dramatic success of British cycling over the last decade we have seen the notion of Sir Dave Brailsford ‘marginal gains’ become a mainstay in sports coaching and training, with coaches, managers and athletes in a whole range of sports latch on to Sir Daves concept.

Ignoring the recent TUE scandal, (if I can call it that) something is certainly working for British cycling and its professional road spin off - Team Sky, and now Team Wiggins. British Cycling has been dominant on the track since Sir Dave took over the role of Performance Director in 2003 all the way through to the Rio Olympics. Despite the retirement of some of the more established stars, the British team is good hands as a new generation of elite cyclists are coming through the ranks and proved their class at the recent Under 23 European Track championships: a gold in the Men’s Team Sprint and Women’s Team Pursuit, as well as a number of other notable performances. The success of Team Sky on the road and in particular their dominance at the Tour de France over the last 5 years, the numerous World Class riders we Brits have in all disciplines of cycling, just go to show the dynasty SDB has created.

As illustrated by the quote above the whole notion comes from taking every single aspect that effects performance and making small improvements, and then overall performance will be increased. I have witnessed first hand the acute detail SDB and his team goes to. I have sat through lectures by Nigel Mitchell (former nutritionist - Team Sky), Dr. James Moreton (current nutritionist – Team Sky) and shared an informal dinner with Sir Chris Hoy and Shane Sutton (former Head coach to GB track cycling). The former two gave fascinating lectures that gave extensive detail about the process Team Sky went to ensure their riders were in top condition during races. For example, riders were forbidden to touch door handles in hotels to minimize the chance of germ contamination, the Team would take their own Chef to race hotels, and support staff would enter hotel rooms prior to the riders and remake the beds with familiar bed sheets and pillows establish familiar surroundings to promote a better night's sleep. Then there is the bike, the kit worn on race day, the training conditions, the gym work, the coaches, travel ... every aspect is looked at in view to making it world-class.

However, the application of these principals to the ‘weekend warrior’ is something that interests me as a coach. As a generation of amateur sportsmen and women, have we taken our eye off the ball and forgotten about the basics? After all, if you have targeted the E’tape there is no hiding from the fact you have to train your body (and mind) to cycle for 180km over two mountains. If you want to complete an Ironman triathlon as a minimum you have to be able to swim for 3.8km, cycle 180km and run a marathon.

We amateur athletes don’t have the luxury of having a team around us to ensure the smallest detail is taken care of (which is probably why we aren’t professionals in the first place). So we should prioritize our time, effort and money on the basics of our sport. For us triathletes and cyclists this means making sure we cram in that 4-hour cycle on a Sunday morning before the kids wake up, ensuring we can get to the pool twice a week before work and lacing up the running shoes and getting our miles ticked off during lunch break or while the kids are at dance/football/ballet class.

Of course there are always areas any athlete can improve and I always advise my athletes to think out of the box when trying to maximize performance.

Here are my top tips for applying SDB’s principals to your training.

1 – Planning. There is no hiding in individual endurance events; if you haven’t done the sufficient mileage it will be a very tough race day. Plan your training from the start to finish. Be honest with your self, how much time can you dedicate to training per week? When is the best time to train and how does that fit in with family and work commitments.

2 – Body weight. Generally the lighter you are the easier it is to cycle/run, especially up hills. With increased training volume and intensity eating healthier can become second nature to a lot of people, others may struggle to match calorie intake with expenditure, and knowing what to eat and when. This is an area where individual needs must be met and expert advice is very much worth it.

3 – Equipment. Let me start by saying do NOT break the bank by lining up the $10,000 time trial bike that you’ve always wanted. Make a start by getting the most of the equipment you already have, start by adding a pair of clip on Tri-bars to your road bike, see a professional bike fitter who will ensure you are as aero dynamic as possible on your bike. Exchanging traditional shoelaces for elastic laces. You will also need to be comfortable on race day, so it is best not to use band new equipment for the first time in a race. Nobody wants blisters from new shoes halfway around the run course.

4 – Strength sessions. Having been a strength coach for a long time before I began to focus on endurance sports I am a massive advocate of strength and power sessions for endurance athletes. Cyclists/Triathletes need to be flexible in the hips, shoulders and spine especially, all the muscles and joints of the lower limbs need to be strong, this will not only help prevent injury but it will also increase performance. You do not need to be lift heavy weight weight like a powerlifter. Rather, sets need to be higher in reps and lighter in weight, as a general rule. The muscles of the core need to be strengthened, as this will hold the body in a better position and alleviate excess energy expenditure.

5 – Sleep. I have deliberately put this one last as it often the hardest to control and do anything about. The average adult needs 6-8 hours sleep a night, this can increase with exercise. Our bodies go through the majority of recovery processes between 10pm-2am so being asleep between those hours is ideal.

I will be writing a separate post titled ‘Maximize your sleep for better recovery’




Max is a Strength & Conditioner and Sports Nutritionist based in Canary Wharf, London. He specialises in triathlon and endurance coaching, offering 1-to-1 sessions as well as online coaching. His website is www.maxcurle.co.uk. He has coached a number of athletes in a vast range of sports, from complete beginner to AG winners and ITU athletes.

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date: January 31, 2017

MCurle