In Pursuit of Marginal Gains

A look at where marginal gains might add up in ultrarunning.

By on December 11, 2019 | Comments

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?

In Pursuit of Marginal Gains

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

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.