Marginal gains. How to make the most of small details to bring about big results!

It’s been a tumultuous week for Team Sky. First the lead sponsor announced that they would be ending their partnership with the world’s foremost cycling team. Team Sky are loved and hated in equal measure for their attention to detail and methodical approach to winning Grand Tours.

Then one of their leading riders, Geraint Thomas, long-time steady improver and product of the team’s marginal gains strategy, rightly scooped the big prize at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Harry Kane, capping an incredible year for the Welshman. Thomas has been at Team Sky for 8 years, often playing understudy and domestique to the likes of Wiggins and Froome but this year he took centre stage winning the big one, the Tour de France.

Famously, much has been made of the British cycling team’s focus on ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’. Dave Brailsford, the team’s performance director says:

“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,” he said.

“There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are away and training in different places,” he continued.
“Do you really know how to clean your hands? Without leaving the bits between your fingers? If you do things like that properly, you will get ill a little bit less.
“They’re tiny things,” he concluded, “but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.”


How can we apply this concept to our lives and training or sporting activities?
For a start it’s encouraging to think that the small things, the seemingly insignificant decisions, and our attention to the tiny details, can add up to create something more significant than we’d realise.

Jeff Olson talks about ‘the slight edge’ principle. He suggests that life isn’t about waiting for the big lottery win – that moment when magically, somehow, everything in life just comes together. Instead, we make the break-through along the way – with the myriad small decisions we make every day.

The trouble is, he says, we can’t see the immediate results of most of our small decisions – so we are tempted, within the moment, not to choose well. We won’t see the results tomorrow of a hard choice – to go out running in the rain, perhaps, or to spend 10 minutes in stretching or silent meditation – so we put it off. On the other hand, we won’t see the immediate result tomorrow of a decision to hit the snack cupboard, or fiddle for half an hour with our phone when we could be playing with our kids … so we neglect the courageous path. It’ll be there tomorrow, after all.

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It’s only in a few weeks or months or years of making those tiny daily decisions that we realise, either way, where they have taken us. And the challenge for us all is to choose well, within each and every moment this day, in order to head in the right direction.

You might not make much of a ‘gain’ by taking your pillow on holiday with you but here’s some things to consider where you might aggregate some valuable improvement in your game, or your training or even in your life as a whole.
Rest, recovery, nutrition, progressive training, balanced training, sleep, the right kit (not necessarily the best or most expensive), developing a positive mentality, finding the right training partners / groups, healthy friendships and relationships, setting realistic but challenging goals.

And here’s three areas where potentially big gains can be made…

1) Ensuring good recovery and refuelling after hard exercise – cool down and stretch, take in carbs and protein within 20mins of stopping and again within hour or two, ice baths and compression if a hard session. Remember you don’t need to feel stiff with the dreaded “DOMS” (delayed onset muscle soreness) after a race / match or training hard and if you get it right you are more likely to be ready to go again the next day.

2) Make sure your training is balanced but progressive and challenging enough to break through plateaus and achieve adaptation, i.e. Using easy runs and intervals (make your easy sessions really easy and your hard sessions really hard! Lots of people do everything in the middle).

3) Getting the right balance between accumulation of skills required to do things better and more efficiently and actually doing the activity. In the pool for example don’t spend all your time doing drills, you need to spend some time actually swimming and training if you want to swim better.

Or better still think about it and look at three areas specific to you, where you could make a small gain over the next few months heading into the race season. Be diligent and consistent and apply the thinking. See if you too can reach for the sky!

based on an article written by Brian and Kevin Draper 2017

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