Marginal Gains Explained

16 Jan / James Eastham

Imagine, the year is 2008, the place is the Laoshan Velodrome in Beijing. It’s the 2008 Olympic games and the Great British team are about to change the UK’s standing in the world of cycling. Pure dominance ensued, with the British team bringing home 8 golds, 4 silvers and 2 bronze medals. The Paralympics team performed even better, winning a total of 20 medals from 23 events entered. 19 of which were gold! An incredible achievement from a nation who, historically, hadn’t exactly set the cycling world alight.

Fast-forward 4 years and Bradley Wiggins becomes the first Britain to win the Tour de France, cyclings most prestigious race. That same year, the British Olympic team won 8 golds, 2 silvers and 2 bronzes. Comfortable topping the medal table again.

I’m sure by now you can guess how the 2016 Olympics went…

So where did this sudden bout of winning come from? One man can be attributed to the huge achievements of British Cycling (and Team Sky for that matter), and that man is Sir Dave Brailsford. A champion of the law of marginal gains.



The Law of Marginal Gains

To summarise marginal gains, I’ll let Sir Dave tell you in his own words

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
Dave Brailsford (2012)

Simple, right? The whole philosophy of marginal gains is to analyze every detail, no matter how small, and looking at how that could be improved. In the beginning, they analyzed the things you would expect from a cycling team. Aerodynamics, the mechanics of the bike itself, training programs, nutrition etc.

However, he did not stop there! He took the 1% approach to all aspects of his cyclist’s lives. They looked at what kind of pillow they slept best on and ensure this exact pillow was taken to the hotels. They taught riders about health, even showing them the best kind of hand gel to use after washing their hands. It’s even rumored, one of the riders used to carry his own espresso machine around to ensure he got the perfect cup of coffee.

That may seem a little excessive, but if you think about it just for a moment it makes a whole bunch of sense. Sportsmen at the top of their game, broadly speaking, will be equally as fit and have similar training programs. Races are normally decided by fractions of seconds, by the tiniest margins. What Sir Dave realized is that if his cyclists had a perfect nights sleep and the perfect cup of coffee when they woke up, that tiny change could be the difference when it comes to race time.

There is no single game-changing moment with British cycling, but tiny improvements compounded over a long period of time lead to drastic changes.

So how does an Olympic athlete help me?

Good question, I’m glad you asked. Let’s talk about a person setting a new years resolution to eat healthier, in homage I’m going to call him Dave. Dave sets out on the 1st of January to improve his eating habits. Now Dave has 2 options

Go 100% into a strict diet plan

Let’s use the Atkins diet as an example. The 1st January comes around and he’s following the diet plan, eating well and his carb count is low. Woo! He’s smashing it. He makes it through January with very little in the way of hiccups but then Feb comes around.

By this time he’s been ‘carb-free’ for a whole month but is really fed up of eating almond thin and crispy pizza crusts.  He’s craving ‘proper’ pizza. So he breaks! Before he knows it he’s demolished a large Dominos’ meat feast pizza with sides and…….





Sorry, got a tad distracted there. Where was I. Ahh yes, so he’s succumbed to the craving. That one moment then leads to the carb habits creeping back in and before he knows it it’s May and he’s back to how he was in December. Eating all the carbs he wants and not reaching his goals.

That’s an extremely slippery slope argument, but you get the idea. The vast majority of diet plans fail because people believe once they have lost the weight they want they fall back into their old ways. For healthier eating habits to stick, there needs to be a lifestyle change.

So what’s Dave’s second option?

Applying the law of marginal gains

The next year, Dave approaches things differently. Running up to the 1st January he starts to monitor exactly what he consumes day to day. He realizes that Monday – Friday his diet is fantastic. It’s the weekends where he has trouble being ‘good’. Friday and Saturday nights he goes to the pub and has between 4-6 drinks, both nights he tends to wander home past the local kebab shop and due being ‘a bit pissed’ he doesn’t want to cook when he gets home and picks up a takeaway.

So where could the 1% rule apply? There are so many small tweaks that could be made. Dave could decide only to go to the pub once a week. He could only take the cash with him to purchase 2 drinks. He could even take a different route home so that he doesn’t walk directly past the takeaway. None of the options sound good? He could prep a meal before walking down to the pub so that food is waiting for him at home.

Now after month 1, he has cut down his pub visits to once a week, but those pesky Saturday nights are still causing him a problem. So he decides to shave off another 1%. He decides to start taking a different route back to his house. It takes him 5 minutes longer, but the trigger has gone. This isn’t so hard he thinks.

By month 6, Dave wanders down to the pub once a week with £10 in his pocket. Has 2 pints of beer and then takes the longer route home. He is eating healthier, his bank balance is looking rosier and he’s in better shape. All from stacking up tiny changes to his lifestyle over a long period of time.

Option 1 vs Option 2 – The likely winner

Now let’s compare his two options and the chances of success. The first option 1 relies on Dave completely cutting out certain portions of his diet and, if he was to keep this up, never eat them ever again. Option 2, relies on him making some really small habitual changes to help nudge him towards a healthier lifestyle.

Option 2 definitely requires more time and a lot more thought. It also requires quite a lot of introspection and honesty to really drill down on where the 1% gains can be made. That said, it is so much more sustainable over the long term. His lifestyle has successfully been altered so that he meets his goal to eat healthier, but the changes have also affected his finances and his fitness.

So where do I start?

The fundamental starting point of applying marginal gains to everyday life is having a goal. The goal can be nice and broad like I want to improve my finances. Let’s run through how I would apply marginal gains here:

  1. Set the goal – I want to improve my finances 
  2. Work out how you can monitor all aspects that are affecting you reaching your goals – I can start budgeting and tracking all the money I am spending 
  3. Once you have the stats, take an honest look and decide where you can make a really small win – I’m spending £40 a month on a phone contract
  4. Make a small tweak alleviate this one small sticking point – I’m going to set a reminder in my calendar that when renewal time comes around I make sure I lower my tariffs or switch providers. I have found some deals and I will be able to get a new contract for £30 
  5. Rinse and repeat

Now the £10 saved in that example may not seem like much, but if you can find 10 lots of £10 savings in your budget suddenly you have £100 a month spare.

If I’d said to you straight away you need to save £100 from your budget you wouldn’t even know where to start, £100 is a lot of money to save. 10 lots of £10… Not so difficult.

This is where Uppd comes in, I’ve started this business to help people find their 1%. To help people find the tweaks they can make to reach their goals. To give you actionable steps, life hacks and tweaks across all aspects of your life. These gains will radically change the person you are and before you know it, you will have smashed through your goals and be ready to set the next challenge.

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