Marginal Gains In Training:
Inspiration Is Closer Than You Think

Have you ever hit a plateau and tried everything possible to get through it, but nothing seemed to be working? Are you trying to reach a specific milestone but cannot make the improvement in time, distance or seed that you need?  

Whether you are a seasoned runner, cyclist or swimmer, training for a race, or you love training in the gym; hitting a plateau and getting stuck in a rut can happen to any one of us.  

What do we do about it?

One interesting concept called ‘marginal gains theory’ can help you break through a plateau by improving random things that don’t seem to matter at first. Let’s talk about how you can apply this theory to your training and who you can learn from to achieve significant results. 

Team Training Together
Team Training Together

The theory of marginal gains: the background

This method was famously used by a newly-appointed coach of the British Cycling Team in 2003 who knew that if the team made 1% improvements in every aspect of their lives, from race tactics to dusting the floor of the team’s mechanic’s van, they would become unbeatable.  

He was right – the team went from being mediocre and underachieving to winning an incredible 20 gold medals across 3 Olympic Games and 6 Tour de France wins between 2012 and 2018. 

Team Sky2
Team Sky

You vs professional athletes

It can be tempting to compare ourselves with our sporting heros – they move better, their technique is spot-on, their shoes must be more comfortable, they have a bunch of health professionals working with them.. – the list can be endless. 

Chances are, if you are not going to compete in the Olympics or any other high-level competition, you won’t have a personal coach and a strong support network.  

It could become very frustrating and disheartening trying to replicate famous athletes. Instead, find someone closer to your level and identify what they are doing differently. A bit of comparison is good – it will help you find areas for improvement and level up by 1% within each.  

Find that person and study them 

Let’s say you and your friends participate in a charity cycling event every year where you get to cycle across the country alongside hundreds of people just like you. You remember that you’ve been struggling to get to the finish line for the past two years but can’t bail out because it’s a tradition. You want to feel good about yourself this year; hence you must train harder. 

Let’s apply the margin gains rule now. There are a few things you can do: 

  • Reach out to a friend who didn’t struggle as much and let them take you through their training plan for the even
  • If it’s a close friend, spend a day or two with them outside of training and observe what their life is like and what they do daily; interview them;
  • Hire a coach or someone more experienced than you – they will know how to meet you at your level without overwhelming you. 
Team Work
Team Work

It’s the little things that matter  

Once again, you shouldn’t be trying to compare yourself and then conclude that “they are better”; you want to understand what they do successfully that you can easily implement into your training. It must be something small.  

Once you have decided who you are going to learn from, you want to find answers to questions like: 

  • What they eat/drink before, during, and after training; 
  • What their diet is like on training vs non-training days; 
  • What they do for warmup and cooldown – mobility, flexibility work; 
  • Do they have race tactics? 
  • What they are wearing;  
  • Do they use fitness trackers?  
  • The make of their bike;  
  • Their body type and composition (e.g. a strong person will handle a 3-hr cycle better than someone who never stepped into a gym); 
  • How long they have been training – experience matters; 
  • Do they do any other cardio-based workouts, for example, HIIT; 
  • What their schedule looks like;  
  • Assess their mental state & stress levels; 
  • Support network. 
  • And anything that stands out to you.

Don’t overthink it and remember to have fun

Look at the details but don’t overthink it. Once you know roughly what sets them apart, list things you can improve in your training the next day or the next week. 

Keep making tiny changes until you get to the next level or start to see marginal improvements, and then look for the next person to “compare” yourself to.   

You want to look back and retrospectively identify milestones in your journey. Remember to try and record and track as much as you can. This can be done through training apps such as Strava or Garmin Connect; however, a traditional pen and paper will do!  

This approach can be applied to any sport, whether you are a new or experienced athlete. 

Good luck and remember, the most important thing – have fun!

Thank you for reading

Daniel Coughlan 
Team OnVenture

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