motivation · training · triathalon

Getting There with Marginal Gains

From James Clear's blog, a graphic depicting how marginal gains and losses work.  Inspired by a graphic in The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson.
From James Clear’s blog, a graphic depicting how marginal gains and losses work. Inspired by a graphic in The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson.

Have you ever had a goal that seemed unreachable?  Not too long ago, I would never have said I’d be training for an Olympic distance triathlon. But now, it’s coming into focus, realistically in my reach.  I’ve even got the event in my calendar (the Bracebridge Triathlon on August 9th).  How did I get so close to my seemingly unreachable goal?  I undertook what you could call a process of achieving “marginal gains.”

I’ve blogged about similar in the past.  See my post “Teeny Tiny Habits, One at a Time.” They’re micro-movements, if we’re following Sark’s lingo.  But the idea of small steps can be applied a bit differently to focus on outcomes.  This idea showed up this week in an article about the amazing success of the British cycling team in the Tour de France.

The post on James Clear’s blog is called, “This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1% and Here’s What Happened.” Coach Dave Bailsford took the British team from never having won the Tour de France to winning it within three years. And then they won it again. His approach?

Brailsford believed in a concept that he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He explained it as “the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement.

What’s cool is that they started with the obvious (nutrition, training, seat ergonomics) but then turned to things not so obvious — like the kind of pillow that would give riders the best sleep. They took their pillows with them when they traveled.

They searched for 1 percent improvements in tiny areas that were overlooked by almost everyone else: discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels, testing for the most effective type of massage gel, and teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection. They searched for 1 percent improvements everywhere.Brailsford believed that if they could successfully execute this strategy, then Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years time.

He was wrong. They won it in three years.

The author points out that it can go the other way too. If small, almost imperceptible changes can take you towards your goal, little slides back can take you away:

In the beginning, there is basically no difference between making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse. (In other words, it won’t impact you very much today.) But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you suddenly find a very big gap between people who make slightly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don’t. This is why small choices … don’t make much of a difference at the time, but add up over the long-term.

This post came to my attention on my Precision Nutrition Team’s Facebook group.  This idea of marginal gains and small decisions is one of the main principles behind the Lean Eating program.  And it’s working for me.

When I say it’s working, I mean I feel good about what I’m doing. I haven’t seen dramatic changes since January, but I do feel more comfortable with my workouts and I’m achieving what I wanted to achieve food-wise–intuitive eating with a few tweaks on the nutrition front.

This approach also works for me in other areas of my life. If I have a stack of grading, it’s much easier on me to approach it a few papers at a time rather than in a marathon grading session.  If I have writing to do, I can produce better pages in shorter order if I set aside 20-30 minutes a day to write than if I wait until I find that elusive stretch of uninterrupted time in my calendar.

With my running, I’ve increased my distance with the marginal gains idea.  In January I hadn’t ever covered more than 6K.  Now, 6K is a short run. I’ve gone as far as 13K at one time.  Maybe not yet a half marathon, but 3K more than I need to be able to do for the running portion of my Olympic distance triathlon.  I’ve also improved my swim times over the past few months by just showing up at the pool for the group training.

This approach feels almost effortless, which is why I like it so much.  And it’s a good reminder that things can get better as marginal gains accumulate, or worse as marginal losses add up.

Where can you make a marginal gain today?