In 2010 Sir Dave Brailsford was appointed the new General Manager and Performance Director of Team Sky. He was charged with developing the team so that a British rider could win the Tour de France in five years. Bradley Wiggins won the Tour just three years later!
Brailsford believes in a concept that he calls the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He 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.” (Coach Fred Matheny focused on this concept in outlining a number of possible “rec rider” marginal gains in his eArticle Marginal Gains for Overall Performance Improvement.)
Brailsford and Team Sky optimized what you’d expect: the weekly training programs, the nutrition of the riders, the ergonomics of the bike seat, the weight of the tires, etc. They also optimized “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.
“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 but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.” (Slater, 2012)
Brailsford’s basic problem was how to take riders who were already very, very good and make them the best in the world. When a rider is that good, more and harder training will only yield a little improvement, which may not be enough to win consistently.
So Brailsford looked at every aspect that goes into peak performance. And his methods proved to be wildly successful. He didn’t just produce Tour de France winners in 2012, 2013 and 2015 (ahead of schedule, and beyond his loftiest hopes), Team Britain won seven out of 10 track cycling gold medals at the London Olympics in 2012.
Real World Client Success at Paris-Brest-Paris
The aggregation of marginal gains is a powerful approach that I also use with my clients. The coaching problem is similar to Brailsford’s. My clients aren’t young athletes and have limited time available to prepare for events. Given these constraints, how can I guide them to achieve peak performances?
As I write this, five of my clients attempted Paris-Brest-Paris, the quadrennial 1200K (750-mile) event that must be completed in less than 90 hours, including all time off the bike (sleep breaks, too!).
All five were rookies, and all five finished!
The 2015 stats aren’t available yet, but at the last event in 2011, 16% of the Americans who started the event didn’t finish.
How did my riders all reach their goal? By preparing every aspect that contributes to success: training, nutrition, strategy and tactics, and most importantly, mental skills.
I’m working on my next eArticle right now that will feature tips from pros on training, nutrition, strategy and tactics, and mental preparation to help you become a stronger rider! It will include – but not focus on – marginal gains as among the more than 20 useful tips from the pros to help you do it. Look for the new eArticle within the next few weeks.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.