Are Marginal Gains Dangerous for You?

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Everybody is after “marginal gains” these days. It’s been the buzzphrase for the past few years, with top pro teams using new technologies and increasingly intricate methods to pursue every possible avenue for improved performance. And it’s working, at least at the top level of the sport, so amateur athletes are eager to get in on the action. Should you?

Marginal vs Fundamental

I have had the pleasure of spending a lot of hours riding beside basketball legend Bill Walton. In his prime he was one of the best passing centers in basketball, and to this day he is considered one of the best players to have played the game; not because of game-winning shots or backboard-rattling dunks, but because he was one of the best at the least exciting aspect of the game: passing. If you ever played team sports, you undoubtedly had a coach who drilled you on the fundamental skills of the game, doing the boring stuff over and over until it was second nature. In cycling the fundamentals are things like aerobic development, a neutral cycling position, and basic hydration and fueling. They are not as sexy as altitude training, heat acclimatization, personalized sports drinks, and bespoke cycling apparel; but the unflinching truth is that the vast majority of cyclists have more to gain from the fundamentals before anything in the marginal areas is going to make much of a difference.

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Top pro teams pursue marginal gains because athletes at that level have already maximized their fundamental performance capacities. Their VO2 max values are about as high as they can achieve through training and genetics. Their weights are about as low as they can get without losing power and getting sick. Where an amateur athlete may be able to achieve 10-15% improvement in power at lactate threshold this season, top pros are fighting to squeeze out an additional .5%. It’s also important to realize that it’s not one thing that will yield that improvement for top pros, but rather a constellation of tiny gains that might add up to a measurable improvement in performance.

I’ve had the “marginal gains” conversation with a lot of athletes. If I was having it with you, here’s what I’d tell you:

You Haven’t Reached the Margins Yet

Many amateurs get enticed by marginal gains when they are preparing for events at altitude, in hot environments, or with a lot of climbing. They want to sleep in an altitude tent, train in a sauna, or buy hyperlight mesh jerseys. But the reality is fundamental training for greater aerobic endurance, more power at lactate threshold, and a higher VO2 max will still improve performance in those environments more than tents, saunas, and mesh jerseys.

The best example of this can be seen with events at altitude. Sleeping in an altitude tent might yield a 5% improvement in lactate threshold power at 6,000 feet above sea level. And that’s only if everything goes right, you spend enough time in the tent, you respond well to the stimulus, etc. But the tent can also compromise your training because it’s harder to recover while sleeping at simulated (or real) altitude. There’s a reasonable chance you won’t see an improvement from the tent, that the disrupted recovery will diminish the effectiveness of your training, and that you’ll gain nothing.

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Meanwhile, you could achieve that same 5% improvement in LT at 6,000 feet by increasing your LT power 10% through boring and effective interval training at your home altitude. Yes, you will lose some of that power when you go to altitude, but by far the best and most practical strategy for amateur athletes traveling to altitude is to arrive with the best possible fitness. Altitude tents are useful for some athletes and some scenarios, but they can’t take the place of effective training.

Lose 5-10 Pounds, Then Worry About Lighter Bike Parts

There’s nothing wrong with buying super light bikes and components if that’s what you want. In the pursuit of performance, they certainly won’t hurt. But nothing you put on or take off your bike will change your performance more than dropping 5-10 pounds off your bodyweight and training to improve sustainable power by 10%. Nothing.

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Optimize the 90% Before Focusing on the 10%

No supernutrient will improve your performance if the rest of your diet is junk, you’re not sleeping enough, you’re not hydrating well, or you’re not eating adequate energy to support your training load. Most amateur athletes don’t need supplements; you need to make good food and lifestyle choices. What we actually see from dietary recalls is that a focus on supplementation often correlates with decreased quality in food choices. Even with supplements, your normal diet provides more than 90% of your calories and nutrients. Optimize the 90% first!
The idea of marginal gains is a good one. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to optimize every detail of your equipment, training techniques, and nutrition. What I encourage you to do is keep marginal gains in perspective. Don’t let the pursuit of the hard-to-get 1% take your eye off the simple-to-achieve 20%. Build a bigger engine before worrying about tuning. Learn to pass before focusing on your dunk.


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Comments 5

  1. Very well said and sobering reminder. I was chuckling because a lot of us want “maximal” gain with marginal effort. That’s why buying a lighter bike is sooooo much easier.

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