The concept of ‘marginal gains’ is a training philosophy coined by the former performance director of British Cycling, Sir David Brailsford. He believed that concentrating on minutiae detail and making aggregated small gains in many areas was far more important than looking at the bigger picture.
Brailsford made adjustments to every aspect of his team’s training regime. Some adjustments were expected, like redesigning their bike seats, and changing the material of their racing suits. But some were unprecedented. He went as far as handpicking the right pillow for each of his riders, and hired a doctor to teach the riders how to best wash their hands to avoid illnesses. His training theory captured the sporting world’s attention when Team GB cycling won a record eight gold medals at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
So, what is the thinking behind the idea of marginal gains, and what are the benefits? In an appearance on BBC Breakfast during the Games, Sir David Brailsford said:
“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%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together. Put simply, how small improvements in a number of different aspects of what we do can have a huge impact on the performance of the team”
Keeps motivation high
Achieving greatness in any sport (or any skill for that matter!) should be a marathon, not a sprint. Just focussing on your end goal can be overwhelming and demotivating. Breaking your training programme down into tiny regular goals makes the journey a lot more palatable and helps you to track progress. It’s a lot gentler psychologically and physically too.
Let’s say your aim is to complete a 120kg squat. Instead of pushing each week for the full 120kg, perhaps forget the 120kg figure and add just 3-5kg to the bar each week. Why not take a more lateral approach and switch up your goals altogether – see what getting a full 10 hours sleep, or quitting alcohol can do for your performance.
As we said before, incorporating marginal gains into your training programme can be a lot kinder to your body physically. Small, continuous improvements allow you to maintain good technique and recovery meaning you’re able to achieve better consistency in your training.
The theory can be adopted outside of sport too
Although developed with elite sportspeople in mind, the marginal gains theory can actually be applied to any aspect of life where you are working towards a goal. Whether it’s building a successful business, getting a book published, or travelling the world, there is power in making small improvements and slow gains. Making 1% progress might not be noticeable in the short-term, but the difference it can make in the long run is astounding.
What 1% improvement can you make today?