The term marginal gains gets thrown around a lot nowadays (even by us) and has become quite attractive to athletes; going out and seeking the small percentage methods, habits, and behaviours that will elevate performance.
It isn’t really a new strategy in sports, but as athletes get faster and the pressure to succeed increases (whilst the margins for error decrease) coaches and athletes will look for whatever they can to improve (which unfortunately leads to undesirable decision making…*cough cough, tainted steak).
We have said time and time again, that you need mastery (not just competence) of the fundamentals before you throw your time, energy and money at the marginal gains.
That doesn’t mean that those gains are not important – they certainly are. The more you want to podium, make it to a World Championship event etc, the more you will need to address certain marginal gains.
If you are newish to long course racing then more time and effort and dedication needs to be focused on mastering control of those fundamentals.
It’s very athlete specific. And depends on a lot of circumstances.
Because there are so many things you could focus on, doesn’t mean that they are all relevant to you or even at all useful. Sure a sleep monitoring device might look and sound cool, but if your sleep patterns are good (I know very few people who maintain this with consistency) then do you need it?
Do you need that watch more than simply using discipline to get to bed earlier?
Conversely, if you are having issues with say a high sweat rate and sodium loss, then chasing that rabbit down the hole is a good idea as you can use the information to better your performance.
But we can only chase so many rabbits. It becomes a matter of priorities.
The way I like to think of this is like a glass jar (yeah I am borrowing this analogy from elsewhere, so what?).
You need to fill that glass jar to be a complete athlete. You are going to fill that jar with fundamentals (rocks) and marginal gains (sand).
The order in which you do so matters. A lot.
If you fill that glass jar with as many marginal gains as you can, then you need a lot of sand. This takes time and effort, but also, it isn’t a very robust structure is it? There isn’t anything solid about it.
If you just fill your glass with rocks, you’ll have a whole lot of empty space, gaps in between and stones rattling around. Loading up with rocks is a far better use of time management, but – the jar is not quite full yet.
When you fill your glass up first with rocks (fundamentals), then you are able to develop a foundation; a more solid and intact structure. When you then pour in your marginal gains, the sand spills around and between the rocks and everything becomes a very firm, very strong and very solid structure.
Now, you have a full jar, with the fundamentals taking up a lot of space.
If you capped that jar and shook it around, nothing would move. It is solid, complete and that is reassuring. We gain confidence in knowing that the jar is full.
Your priorities as an athlete are to fill that jar with the fundamentals first. These are the rocks of not only your athletic ability, but your athletic responsibility and discipline.
Those fundamentals need to go in first, and only then can you start to fill your jar with the marginal gains.
And you know what, people say this isn’t the sexy stuff. Personally I don’t care. It’s the stuff that HAS to get done, regardless of appeal. What I love about the rocks, is they are solid, you pick them up and they feel good in your hand. There is security in the sensation. You know that whilst not overly exciting, that rock is going nowhere. And that is a good thing.
Keep filling that jar with as many rocks as needed and you could say that once full, you have mastered those fundamentals.
Now…..you can look at that sexy sand, and work on filling those gaps.
I like the sexy stuff. Who doesn’t? I love tech and enjoy data. I like thinking about what aspects of an athletes preparation can be manipulated for a better outcome. None of these are any use if the fundamentals aren’t in place.
Sometimes I hear athletes say things like: boring, too easy, not ‘challenging’ enough. I generally translate that to not prepared to understand the importance of the fundamentals first.
Training isn’t about a smash-fest. That’s what racing is for.
Yes, you need to continually push the envelope of development. But recovery (oh hey did I mention that is fundamental??) adds far more value than throwing yourself at the wall each session.
With every athlete we work with, our goal is to create a complete athlete using sustainable and life specific methods. We help the athlete fill the jar with the fundamentals first. This requireS focus and an outcome based focus: the rocks go first, not halfway through, not last.Once we have achieved this, then we look for the relevant marginal gains to add.
Racing is about turning up in the best possible condition and racing to your true ability. You can’t do this with a half empty jar, or a jar filled with more sand than rocks.