Making the best of marginal gains

A lot of my work overlaps with quality improvement processes. The most common question we look at: what small changes can we make to get better results?

Image shows two handsholding a red analog clock. Photo by Malvestida on Unsplash

Lately, I have been thinking about this concept in relation to another concept — tiny habits — which we have chatted about here on the blog. If you work in the business sector, you might know this idea as marginal gains.

It’s an idea that comes up in lots of training programs for elite athletes. When I first took up running, my goal was about speed. I started slow and kept being slow. Yes, my overall fitness got better — lung capacity improved, for example — but I didn’t make any significant changes in my speed. Long after my knees gave up the ghost and told me to try something else, I realized I had been chasing after the wrong goal.

Rather than speed, my focus should have been on recognizing the significant gains I had made on endurance and recovery. I might not have been the speediest, but by the time I stopped running, I could go on a 10k run and finish feeling pretty good physically (except for my knees; they hated it).

When I decided to make fitness a key component of my life vs an end goal, I didn’t set out to apply a QI approach to my training. In thinking back on various blog posts I have written about focusing one issue or another, I’ve come to realize that I was applying the concept of marginal gains to my fitness work.

I’ve taken on tiny habits to increase activity, sleep training, hydration, tracking, and active rest. When I look back at the past five years, there is a difference. I’m eating less meat and more legumes and grains (thanks Meatless Mondays!), I’m drinking more water, I notice when I fall off my sleep training wagon so I get back on more quickly), and I am doing more to reduce stress and have fun.

The biggest gain came with consistency. All these tiny changes done regularly have made a significant difference. Is there still more to do and improve? Yes. Most definitely. And I will keep on, one tiny change at a time.

MarthaFitat55 lives and works on the east coast of Canada.

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