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Apply The Marginal Gains Method To Running: Improve Each Element By 1%

Small improvements of 1% lead to significant progress over time.

No matter what we do, we want to do it better, and as runners, we are pretty much obsessed with improvement.

Getting faster, running longer, increasing our V02 max, improving our running form, eating better, and mastering our race strategy, just to name a few, we can always look for new ways to improve our running performance through endless day-to-day factors. 

Goals are goals, right? Whether they are social, personal, or work-related. So why not apply a successful business theory to running?

The business concept of marginal gains1Sugden, D. A. (2014). The aggregation of marginal gains in relation to ecological intervention and support for children with additional needs. Hilary Place Papers1(1). https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/207323/ suggests that making small, cumulative improvements in anything you do, in our case, running, when added up, can lead to significant overall progress.

Even a 1% improvement in any performance aspect can make a difference, especially when that 1% is applied across various elements. This can really result in significant improvement over time. That’s the power of marginal gains.

So, how can we apply the marginal gains theory to our running performance? Let me show you!

marginal gains

How Can Marginal gains Contribute to Competitive Sports?

In 2002, the British Cycling team2Harrell, E. (2015, October 30). How 1% Performance Improvements Led to Olympic Gold. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/10/how-1-performance-improvements-led-to-olympic-gold hired Sir Dave Brailsford, a former professional British cyclist, and MBA, to manage and improve the team’s poor results over the past several decades. 

Brailsford came up with the idea of applying the business concept of the Theory of Marginal Gains to this professional cycling team.

From working on their aerodynamics in a wind tunnel to hand-washing techniques to avoid illness, the aggregation of marginal gains helped the team get to the Olympic games and ultimately, the Olympic gold.

With these incremental improvements, they won seven out of ten gold medals in track cycling in the 2008 Olympics and again in 2012. They also went on to win the Tour de France three times.

If we apply the theory of marginal gains to our running, we can make small choices, that will lead to significant adjustments across the board.

As a coach, my job is to find where my athletes can afford to make adjustments, even in the most subtle aspects of their running, so they can focus on those details to lead them to results.

Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent aspects of running that we can work to improve on, one step at a time, through the marginal gains method.

marginal gains

How Can I Make Marginal Gains In Running?

#1: Follow A Training Plan

Following a well-balanced training plan that gradually builds up volume and intensity over time and includes proper recovery will ensure consistency in your training.

This consistency allows us to increase our volume as much as possible with a low risk of injury. 

Plan your events and races well in advance so your training cycles can be planned accordingly. This will also help to lower the odds of getting injured due to rushing into high volume or, in contrast, not stressing your body enough for sufficient progress. 

Minor adjustments in how you structure your training and recovery over time will generate massive gains in your overall fitness.

#2: Improve Your Running Technique

Improving your running technique and movement patterns are minor adjustments you can make to improve overall running efficiency and reduce your risk of injury.

A shorter ground contact time, compact arm swing, quick cadence, leaning into your run, breathing evenly, and adjusting your foot strike can all be factors you can alter slightly to make great progress at the end of the day. 

Improve your running form through drills such as A skips, B skips, and high knees, which are all great running form exercises to help you fine-tune your biomechanics.

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#3: Strength Train

Another way to improve your strength, power, and endurance is by lifting weights. If you don’t have access to a gym, you can use resistance bands or even your own body weight to make strength gains. 

Adding just a day or two a week of 20-30 minutes of resistance training will help you improve your posture, increase strength, and add that extra springiness to your stride that will make you run longer and more efficiently.  

#4: Add Plyometrics To Your Strength Training Plan

Another form of strength training that you can gradually incorporate into your program is plyometrics.

Plyometrics are exercises that involve high-intensity jumping.

Box jumps, single-leg hops, skipping, bounding, jump squats, and other explosive movements will help you become a more powerful runner and improve your agility.

#5: Take Care Of Your Wellbeing

Not everything we do to improve our running has to be physically demanding.

Your overall well-being will also help you be more consistent, train longer, recover faster, and feel better the next day to prepare you for your next training session.

This is one of the most overlooked aspects of running, where gains are to be made. How you eat, sleep, handle stress, and rest are game changers when it comes to performance.

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#6: Watch Your Nutrition

Eating a well-balanced diet comprised of nutritious, whole foods will help you perform at your best and maintain high levels of energy and focus throughout the day.

Whether you speak with a sports nutritionist and follow a specific plan for your needs or just make healthier choices, you will improve your running.

Ensuring you eat enough calories and the proper macronutrient split will help you maintain your muscle mass or even improve your body composition by losing fat mass and replacing it with muscle mass.

Eating right aids your post-run recovery, so you feel rejuvenated and energized for the next day’s key speedwork or long run. 

#7: Keep Healthy Sleep Habits

Proper sleep has been shown to help us recover from our workouts more efficiently. In addition to sleeping seven to nine hours a night as an athlete, the quality of that sleep plays a crucial role in your recovery as well. 

Improve your sleep by ensuring you have a comfy pillow and mattress, earplugs to block out noise, an eye mask to block out light, and cooling/heating blankets to regulate temperature. Whatever you need for a pleasant experience.

All of these details will help you sleep better and deeper through the night without interruptions, resulting in a more energized start to the following day.

Also, set up a bedtime routine by turning off your electronic devices (phone, tablet, TV, etc.) a couple of hours in advance, and do something that will help you relax, such as reading a few pages from your current book or meditation.

These tips will help give you that extra edge to fall asleep faster.

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#8: Focus On Recovery

Eating and sleeping right help you recover faster, but there is more than that can help you feel better sooner. 

Depending on your budget, scheduling a few sports massages or therapy sessions throughout your training cycle will help you feel better before and/or after a race.

If therapy is not an option, light self-massage or foam rolling can help loosen tight muscles and get blood and nutrients flowing to sore or problematic areas.  

A post-run stretching routine will keep your body limber, help you maintain great mobility and flexibility, and loosen up tight muscles after a strenuous run. Just adding a few minutes a day of light stretching will help you recover and avoid unnecessary soreness.

#9: Use The Right Gear

One of the easiest ways to see slight gains or improvements in your running is to use appropriate gear. 

Proper clothing will significantly improve your performance. If you are cold while running, your body has to make an extra effort to keep itself warm and expend more energy. If you are too hot, your body needs an efficient way to cool off.

Deciding to wear gloves, a tank top with moisture-wicking fabric, thermal tights, ear muffs, or waterproof clothing can make you feel more comfortable throughout your run and help you clock into those desired paces.  

Back in 2016, Nike introduced their first super shoes, with a carbon-plated sole to help you propel forward. Nowadays, almost every major shoe brand has its version of shoes designed for racing that will launch you forward faster than ever.

Studies have shown3Joubert, D. P., Dominy, T. A., & Burns, G. T. (2023). Effects of Highly Cushioned and Resilient Racing Shoes on Running Economy at Slower Running Speeds. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2022-0227 that super shoes can contribute performance gains of 2.7-4.2%, as we have seen in events such as the INEOS 1:59 challenge and other world record breaking feats.

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Finally, there are tons of gadgets available that will help you gauge your effort, smartwatches that will measure your heart rate, power, and muscle oxygen saturation. Some even more recent devices measure your sweat rate and electrolyte loss. 

Access to and understanding how these tools work will give you that slight edge to improve your performance and help you push yourself to the next level. Using these metrics can help you adjust your training program to improve specific aspects of your running.

The bottom line is, regardless of any small adjustments or improvements you make to your lifestyle, training, nutrition, and recovery, it all adds up by the end of your training cycle into much more quantifiable gains.

Let’s get better with small changes, one step at a time.

To give you a jump start on your road to marginal gains, why not start with some running form technique? Check out our guide:

References

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Katelyn is an experienced ultra-marathoner and outdoor enthusiast with a passion for the trails. In the running community, she is known for her ear-to-ear smile, even under the toughest racing conditions. She is a UESCA-certified running coach and loves sharing her knowledge and experience to help people reach their goals and become the best runners they can be. Her biggest passion is to motivate others to hit the trails or road alongside her, have a blast, and run for fun!

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