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Aggregation of Marginal Gains for the Rest of Us

Is the Aggregation of Marginal Gains concept useful or just a distraction? For most athletes, it's a way to look for shortcuts instead of doing the work.

Introduction

In simple language: “Small things add up to to make a big difference."

Way back in the early “Noughties”, Dave Brailsford at British Cycling coined what has now become a famous phrase to describe the GB Cycling team's approach to finding the milliseconds that win medals. His phrase was “the aggregation of marginal gains.”

This idea has been picked up by coaches of amateur athletes all over the place and “applied" to their coaching programmes. There are magazine adverts everywhere that tout the benefits of the latest, greatest product. It’s great that they’ve done this, but I reckon they’ve missed the point.

How the Model is Usually Applied

This is how it’s usually done:

  • "This wheelset is x seconds faster over 10 miles than that wheelset.”
  • "An aero helmet will save you x seconds as compared to wearing a standard helmet."
  • "Let’s get you in a wind tunnel & refine your riding position and equipment, so you can find a minute over 25 miles."
  • "Use this energy drink/gel on your next ultra run and run 10 minutes faster."

Can you spot what all these things have in common? Money, and large amounts of it. Money, I would contend, that is being spent unnecessarily and often without the desired outcome.

In the case of the GB Cycling team, building the most aerodynamic track frame, using the most aerodynamic wheels, helmet etc and developing the fastest skin suit in the world was money well spent. There was nowhere else to find the performance gains, making the marginal gains concept a valuable, world-beating one. In the case of the average age group athlete, it’s usually money wasted. And here’s why...

What You Should Do Instead

There are so many small lifestyle areas where you can find huge gains without spending a penny. The GB cycling guys have these sorted, most amateur and age-group athletes don’t.

So save your money for now & try adding some of these habits to your life:

  • Drink more water.
  • Do daily mobility work.
  • Cook and eat real food.
  • Walk every day
  • Lift weights.
  • Get enough quality sleep

None of these things need to cost a penny, but they will all do more for most peoples’ training than all the aero-gizmos your credit card can buy. And then when they’re all consistently in place, knock yourself out and go on that spending spree.

Summary

The classic aggregation of marginal gains approach requires that you are already at or near the best you can be. It works well for professional and elite athletes but is often a distraction for us lesser mortals. Instead of looking for little gains that cost a lot of money, you'll find far more benefit from working on the basics that most people miss. 

Do you have any more suggestion of lifestyle areas where you have made gains? I'd love it if you'd add them to the comments below.

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Will Newton


In over twenty years of coaching, Will has coached everyone from absolute beginners to world champions. His interest in getting the best results for athletes who compete for the love of the sport, rather than as professionals, drives him to find the most effective ways to get results.

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