Aggregation of Marginal Gains
Applying the concept of “Aggregation of Marginal Gains”
Anyone who has done an XTERRA falls in love with it because of the family atmosphere and it’s fun, laid back approach. I’ve often heard athletes say it’s everything a road triathlon is not and that’s why they love it! It’s gritty and tough, but competitors that battle it out in the race socialize afterwards and are in many cases actually friends.
Even though it’s more laid back and the community supports one another it doesn’t mean that we’re not each looking to squeeze every second out of our race. If you follow cycling at all you know that British cycling has been unstoppable in recent years. They have dominated the cycling medals at the Olympics and have been on top of the Tour de France with Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. This didn’t just happen. When Sir Dave Brailsford became the head of British Cycling in 2002 the team hadn’t won an Olympic gold medal in cycling in 76 years. The team broke down everything that goes into cycling and tried to improve each aspect by 1%. Brailsford thought that improvement in each area would lead to aggregated gains in overall cycling performance. This is called the Aggregation of Marginal Gains where you try to improve every single aspect of your sport, business etc. by 1%.
They paid attention to every minute detail that surrounded cycling from which pillow was the best for an athlete to use to which massage gel was the best, and even the best way to wash your hands so athletes don’t get sick and miss training. Now how does this translate to XTERRA, a sport many of us do because it is not made up of people concerned with these types of things? By finding the things in each of our races that will lead to the biggest improvement.
Focus on the big things first
In the case of the British cyclists, they first maximized the gains that could be made in their training programming, nutrition and equipment before they started to look at every other little thing. Have a little patience and perspective and don’t expect changes overnight. Shaving a few grams off from bike parts may be the last place you need to look for marginal gains. Consider what changes will make the biggest difference first. Athletes are individuals and solutions are not the same for everyone. Also consider the special needs of XTERRA. XTERRA racers spend roughly 65% of their total race time on the mountain bike. In some cases, your limiter is not actually where you can make up the most time in a race. Look over some past race results and see where the biggest time gaps are (and don’t forget to look at transitions).
Find free speed
Biomechanical efficiency in swimming, biking, and running result in faster speeds without more energy cost. Instead of mindlessly swimming laps, consider private instruction, swim stroke analysis, and engage in purposeful practice. Mountain biking has a highly technical component so make technical elements part of your training and learn the proper way to rail a corner or navigate rocky terrain. Improving technical ability is about finding the optimal challenge and not getting on terrain that is way over your head. Running economy is also a discriminating performance component, so holding proper form, performing running drills and strides, and running frequency can all impact running economy.
Knowing what you should be doing and actually doing it are two different things. I always say that a training plan looks easier on paper. Some people can hold themselves accountable, but most could use some outside assistance. It could be as simple as contacting a training partner, joining a masters swim group, or setting your running shoes next to your alarm clock at night. Have your training planned out in advance either by yourself or a coach and make sure to log what you actually accomplish.
Track as many metrics and you can
Basic metrics such as distance, time, average speed, and rating of perceived exertion can be very easily tracked. Other metrics such as heart rate, power, pace, elevation gain, etc. are becoming more and more accessible and easier to analyze. The relationship between these metrics can tell you a lot about your current form and can be used to quantify training load. In order to figure out how to improve in a certain area it is important to be able to quantify past and current training loads and fitness markers.
All those little things
Consider all of those little things as a conscious choice that can make that one percent difference on a daily basis. Start by creating good habits first around your exercise and with nutrition. Maybe you can’t bank 9 hours of sleep per night, but maybe you can have consistent go-to-sleep and wakeup times that will improve your biorhythms with 7 hours per night. Become better at time management. Plan your day in advance and schedule your training like you would a business meeting and make it a priority. Nail your nutrition before, during and after exercise and approach each workout with a purpose.
It may seem overwhelming or selfish to eek out marginal gains in every area of your life, so keep some perspective. Focus on changes that also have a positive influence on those around you and not the things that have a negative impact on others. Some of those things can be reserved for different periods of the year where you really buckle down and do everything right. That might mean achieving a goal weight during the off-season, or having a limiter focus in the late fall for a 10k pr. During my most important blocks of heavy training, recovery becomes as important as the work so you can get the most out of your hard work. Heading into the most important race of the season it means dialing in your equipment, knowing the course, planning your race/nutrition strategy, and arriving at the starting line with the perfect combination of freshness, fitness, and form.