Marginal gains theory proposes that small changes can yield big improvements over time. Popularized by Dave Brailsford, it was applied with great success in his role as performance director of British Cycling and Team Sky. The problem with the marginal gains approach, however, is that it only makes sense for athletes who have already mastered the fundamentals, and in my experience, most recreational athletes have not.
“Start with the things that make up the minutes,” said Norwegian triathlon coach Olav Bu in an interview for triathlete.com, “then the seconds, then the tenths of a second.” All too often, though, athletes adopt sophisticated elite practices before they’ve addressed basic flaws in their training or diet. For example, an athlete might start practicing “double threshold” sessions (i.e., completing two lactate threshold workouts in one day), having learned that Olympic and world champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen does so. But at best this method will save a few seconds on race day, whereas correcting the almost universal error of going too fast on “easy” days would yield minutes, if not tens of minutes.
To maximize your rate of improvement as an athlete, be sure to master the fundamentals before you go searching for marginal gains. In particular, try 1) training slower, 2) training more, and 3) eating more first, then consider incorporating double threshold sessions and the like. Here’s why:
Elite endurance athletes in all disciplines—from cross-country skiing to running to rowing—spend about 80 percent of their weekly training time at low intensity. Meanwhile, the average recreational runner does less than half of their training at low intensity and most of the rest at moderate intensity. Studies have shown that when athletes break out of the so-called moderate-intensity rut and adhere to the same 80/20 intensity balance as the pros, they get fitter and perform better.
Scientists place the dividing line between low and moderate intensity at the first ventilatory threshold (VT1), which falls between 77 and 81 percent of maximum heart rate for most athletes. Laboratory testing is required to determine an individual athlete’s VT1 with precision, however it aligns closely with the highest effort an athlete can sustain comfortably while breathing through the nose, a rough-and-ready field test you can easily conduct on your own. As counterintuitive as it may seem, staying below this threshold throughout all of your designated “easy” training sessions will boost your fitness and performance more than any other change you might make in your training.
There’s no getting around the fact that training a lot is essential to maximizing endurance performance. For proof, look no further than a 2020 study conducted by heart rate monitor manufacturer Polar, which found that, within a population of more than 14,000 runners, those who ran the most performed the best in races, while those who increased their mileage the most showed the greatest improvement.
Granted, most non-elite runners couldn’t handle 100-plus miles of running per week, as the pros do, but it’s been my observation that very few run as much as they could or would need to in order to reach their full potential. If you find the prospect of increasing your weekly training load daunting, it’s likely because you’re caught in the moderate-intensity rut. I’m willing to bet that if you make slowing down your first priority, running more suddenly seem more doable.
To maximize your rate of improvement as an athlete, be sure to master the fundamentals before you go searching for marginal gains.
Just be sure to do so cautiously. For example, if you’ve never run more than five times per week, don’t jump straight to seven runs. Add a sixth run, get used to it, and then progress to everyday running (except for as-needed rest days).
We live in a society where overeating and its consequences are all too common. But among endurance athletes, undereating is even more common. Scientists use the term low energy availability to refer to a state where an athlete’s diet is not supplying enough energy to fully meet their body’s needs. A recent study found that nearly one in five female runners were at risk of the low energy availability, which is also prevalent in male athletes. Consequences of low energy availability include fatigue, poor recovery, slower fitness gains, underperformance, reduced metabolism, and increased injury risk.
It’s important to understand that most athletes who eat too little do not have full-blown eating disorders. Even if you get enough calories over the course of a day, falling behind on your energy needs by skipping breakfast or lunch and then “making up” for the missed meal with a huge dinner still exposes you to low energy availability at critical periods and will have negative effects. The way out of this pattern is to 1) eat on a fixed schedule that is based on three square meals a day, 2) calculate your body’s daily calorie needs and calorie intake, and 3) eat intuitively (i.e., listen to your body). And don’t be afraid to schedule a consultation with a sports dietitian for help in establishing healthy patterns.
First Things First
There’s nothing wrong with adopting advanced training and fueling methods in search of marginal gains in fitness an performance. However, these things can and should wait until you’ve squeezed all the improvement you can possibly get out of basic fixes such as training slower, training more, and eating more.