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In Pursuit of Marginal Gains

Earlier this autumn, I listened to a couple episodes of the Marginal Gains podcast while exploring a nearby gulch here in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. While the podcast focuses on cycling rather than running, my mind raced among what sorts of marginal gains I might be able to employ as I head toward running the Hardrock 100 next July. Having put in solid training periods ahead of my prior Hardrock finishes, what gains am I still leaving on the table?

The view from the Brendel Gulch outing when I first started contemplating instituting marginal gains.

First of all, what exactly are marginal gains? Simply put, they’re small optimizations. While one might not have a noticeable effect, you can combine many of them at once or repeat one multiple times for more significant gains. Here’s a good overview on the concept from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits.

It’s my understanding that the concept was first intentionally brought to the sporting world via cycling, with British Cycling and Team Sky being early and visible proponents. There are a slew of marginal gains to be made in just the technical cycling world, such as drag from bike components, apparel, and body position; bike-component weight; chain and bearing friction; and many more. Although these factors are largely irrelevant in ultrarunning, even casual consideration has led me to a bonanza of marginal gains that might be applied to my own and, perhaps, to others’ running as well.

One concept from the podcast itself that I quickly picked up was avoiding illness. During recent trips to race in China and attend a trade show in Texas, I was much more diligent in hand washing and using hand sanitizer in hopes of not getting sick. Even a relatively minor illness can rule out meaningful training for the better part of a week. In situations like this, you’re not guaranteeing a marginal gain, but, rather, increasing the odds of a positive outcome. (Here, staying healthy and training more.)

Here are some of the areas I’m considering as I head into the new year:

  • Increase sleep quality. I generally get enough sleep these days, but it’s not always the best sleep. A few steps I can take to improve that would be to reduce afternoon and evening caffeine consumption, establish routine bedtimes and wake-up times, reduce evening alcohol consumption, and leave my phone outside of my bedroom.
  • Improve diet. I’ve long held that I don’t want to sacrifice some areas of my life to eke out improvement on the running end, or at least that’s how I justify my relatively crappy diet. In no way do I intend to adopt a restrictive diet or become a health-food fanatic. That said, I can cut down on simple carbohydrates and refined sugars, eat more vegetables, and improve my eating schedule to better fuel and recover from my runs.
  • Reduce stress and anxiety. I’m 100% behind an athlete being part of a holistic person. Training is one type of stress that’s only part of one’s overall stress load that includes work and relationship stress, money issues, illness, and more. Running a small business, various personal relationships, and my own tendencies definitely make me prone to anxiety and to generally handling stress poorly. Just looking at anxiety alone, this “ruins” in the ballpark of 10% of my runs throughout the year, maybe more. Both managing my stress and anxiety better and addressing my anxieties when it comes to running itself can only lead to better and more consistent training. To this end, I plan to read and reflect more about this concept, possibly find analytical proxies for overall stress/training load (Whoop?), and maybe even get some counseling.
  • Explore mental coaching. I’ve been running for 27-plus years now and playing sports for even longer. Despite that, I think I’ve received all of 15 minutes of mental coaching. (What gives?!) I’ve long been curious as to how a sports psychologist or similar might help my running.
  • Address lower-leg mobility and strength. With those 27 years of running, I think I’m now over 17 years into dealing with Achilles tendons problems. Before my first two Hardrocks, I aggressively rehabbed both of my Achilles, but did so nonchalantly ahead of my most recent go at the race. I believe it was during the second climb that year when physical therapist Nikki Kimball chimed in from behind with something to the effect of “so, you’ve got Achilles problems?” due to the fact I was way up on my toes while climbing. While both Achilles held up the entire race, my self-preservation strategies meant I wasn’t using my full kinetic chain and being up on my toes so much led to the balls of my feet getting mighty sore by race’s end. Being more vigilant with my lower-leg rehab should give me better mobility come next summer, while I hope that some hill sessions (of the actual running variety) will strengthen my too-often-babied calves to make me a more complete, stronger runner.
  • Reassess gear. In general, my trend and general take on gear while racing is that less is more, both in terms of number and weight of what I carry and wear. I can at least consider some additional gains in that direction, but I also think there are areas where “more might be more.” For example, whether from a sock or shoe, I could use a bit more cushioning in the forefoot for something as burly as Hardrock. Surely, being more comfortable can only help with running. I also want to dig into the science of compression gear and see if it’s strong enough to warrant ditching my split shorts for some short tights.
  • Stay altitude acclimated. I’ve spent a ton of time living above 9,000 feet the past nine months and it sure does make running at high elevations easier. It’s with this in mind that I’ll spend this winter based in Silverton, Colorado in hopes of carrying that deep acclimation through to next July.

It’s my intention to report back to you at some point next year to let you know if and how I was successful in addressing the above and other points in pursuit of marginal gains. If I manage to best my previous efforts at Hardrock in 2020, I’ll not know which attempts at marginal gains were responsible for what portion of the improvement… or if a particular attempt had any benefit at all. Still, I hold out hope that addressing a variety of areas outside of the volume, intensity, and periodicity of training can, on the whole, benefit me as a runner and as a person.

Call for Comments

  • Where have you successfully made marginal gains that have helped your running? Do you have positive examples from other areas of your life?
  • What are some areas and examples of where you might be able to make marginal gains with your running?
Bryon Powell: is the Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar.com, which he founded more than 10 years ago. Having spent more than 15 years as an ultrarunner and 25 years as a trail runner, he's also written Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and co-wrote Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running. These days he calls Moab, Utah and its trails home.

View Comments (15)

  • @Gregorgy Loomis “ I would argue its not things to be done to "gain" but things done to PRESERVE. Everyday now in your 40's you are getting tighter, weaker, sleeping poorer, and have more on your plate to worry about.”

    Man your 40s sound horrible. I would argue a lot of that is not true. Do you have anything scientific to back that up?

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    • Absolutely: In my graduate work in exercise physiology, and in my career as an Army soldier and physical therapist I have learned scientifically, personally, and anecdotally all of what I said is true.
      The amount of elastin protein (that allows elasticity in tendons/ligaments) is reduced as you age. Think of an 8yo, 48yo and 78yo. its impossible for someone age 80 to be as flexible as an 8 year old. Our body composition of elastin protein reduces. The amount of circulating Growth Hormone and Testosterone in men starts to decline 1-2% per year at age 25. a 75yo male has less testosterone than a young girl.... and individuals self report poorer quality sleep every decade after age 50. As an ultra runner myself for the last 22 years and runner for 33 I certainly "feel" tighter and weaker these days then 20 years ago. Doesn't everyone?? Lastly, in my practice with our nations elite war fighters I can say with certainty that the 20 year old vs. 30 vs. 40 year old has reductions in strength and flexibility. Not everyone of course, but it definitely takes more more to maintain as one ages. Certainly career and family business duties peak in ones 30-50's time frame for the majority of us.
      The important thing to remember is what you do everyday matters. We can combat these physiologic changes and can become leaner, and fitter selves. Especially someone who comes to running later in life. They will see gains in performance with uninterrupted training no mater what age they begin at.
      My point was to remind folks to really work on these things. To improve in their running but mainly in their HEALTH. We only get one shot at it after all.

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  • Do you have access to better quality food living in Silverton? Compression gear is a gimmick.

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    • I can certainly increase the healthfulness of bulk/stock foods I store in Silverton as well as being more diligent in buying fruits and vegetables when I based through Durango or the like. Frozen fruits and veggies retain plenty (often more) of their nutrition when frozen, so I'll make sure to bank those for longer periods between trips to the city.

      I don't have an opinion either way on compression gear at the moment, which is why I want to look into the actual science. I lean toward skeptical, but could imagine potential benefit via energy gains from reduced muscle vibration. I'm looking forward to poking around the research.

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  • Bryon, indeed putting some focus into basic things like better sleep, more mobility, increased strength, and less stress could also be simply life goals to slow the dreaded age decline. I would argue its not things to be done to "gain" but things done to PRESERVE. Everyday now in your 40's you are getting tighter, weaker, sleeping poorer, and have more on your plate to worry about. Lets all focus on this key things. A toast to HEALTH my brother. See you in Silverton!

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  • I like this article but I can't help but cringe severely when reading, in the same sentence, the word "Sky" and "cycling".

    "with British Cycling and Team Sky being early and visible proponents."

    Yeah, I would bet that Sky also had a lot of "invisible" proponents too!

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  • Really enjoyed this article. A "more-than-marginal" gain I stumbled upon (no pun intended) is a 800 Lumen light belt! My night pace by headlamp is excruciatingly slower than my day pace. The light belt changed all that. I now see the rocks, logs and roots much more clearly and trip, like, almost never. To conserve battery life, I still use the headlamp only while climbing (unless it's extremely technical) and the light belt for when I'm running. Easily cuts an hour off my 100-miler times.

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  • This is great advice. Not getting injured or sick is crucial in order to maintain continuity in training. Continuity in training might even be the single most important pillar of success. So apart from washing one‘s hands regularly, getting the flu shot is a good idea. And if you happen to fall sick anyway, give yourself enough rest before you resume your training. You don‘t want a common cold to morph into pneumonia or even endocarditis, do you?

    Improving one‘s diet and getting enough quality sleep are plain common sense whether you‘re an athlete or not.

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  • Many moons ago I listened to an audio (before podcasts were a thing) a climber who did exactly this to reduce the time it took to climb so rock. I am scant on details but have a feeling he was Scandinavian, climbed a wall in the USA. He shaved days off this climb by taking a second off here, and a second off there. All added up. Sorry I am scant on details. It was incredible what he did. I applied it to hanging out washing. Saved me about 30% in time just by taking the shortest walking path possible and be efficient with every peg

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  • Great article! But I cannot believe there is nothing here explaining the marginal gains enjoyed by those of us who train exclusively fueled by Little Debbies Cosmic Brownies. Are you trying to keep that training tidbit secret? See you later this month in Silverton!

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    • I second the Cosmic Brownies fueling plan - maybe sub in the Fudge Brownies instead (the ones with the nuts on top instead of the little candies) ;). Oh boy...now I want one...

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  • I think I'm 10ish (or so?) years in front of you, and about a decade back I started to really notice what a toll stress takes over the long haul, making it go away, or reducing it as much as possible, has been my primary focus ever since (once you get the hang of it, it's incredible how many things simply do not matter or aren't nearly as important or serious as we're encouraged to believe) and the return on this investment has far exceeded whatever I imagined, if I'm less committed to habitual good eating/sleeping/cross-training/sobriety/etc., well, it doesn't seem to matter nearly as much? It's free advice, feel free not to take it...

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  • On the diet aspect Iam always suprised at how badly some ultrarunners eat. In other sports the diet is monitored in a very disciplined way whereas in this sport there is often flagrant disregard to eating healthy. How you eat now will have a significant effect not only on performance but also on longevity.
    If you are running 100 miles and competing and training at that level then surely how you treat and fuel your body is much more than just a marginal gain...

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  • the original 'marginal gains' story from Sky was always suspect - many of the things they claimed as the source of these gains were already being addressed by other teams, and the suggestion of laziness and lack of scientific approach by other teams was both insulting and not generally true. Sky itself did not execute consistently on its metrics - Froome didn't get tested in a wind tunnel until 2013, no records kept of his day to day weight, etc. The Sky team performance edge is more likely to be from pushing the boundaries of legality, much as Salazar seems to do.
    See story linked from my name..

    That said, all of the things you mention can be helpful, I'd just prefer not to think of them as marginal gains. Sleep and stress management in particular aren't even marginal, these are basic components of a training plan, though much neglected..

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  • I've got to fully commit to a dynamic stretching/mobility routine with strength training adapted to compliment. It's becoming clear that ignoring these areas limits the return on investment with the time/energy spent running 50-70 miles per week. In mathematical terms, these "marginal gain" opportunities, when done in partnership with a dedicated running routine, act as exponents who multiply the gains from the base training. Thanks Bryon!

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