Marginal Gains: 9 Ways To Level Up Your Running

The concept of marginal gains considers how by making small adjustments to your habits, you will eventually produce improvements in performance.

While in isolation the adjustment may not result in a noticeable difference but combining them all together and then repeating the process over time, should lead to significant gains.

In this article, coach Cathal Logue walks us through how any runner or athlete can apply the concept to their training.

Ready?

Let’s jump in.

marginal gains

What is the concept of marginal gains?

It is widely regarded that the term marginal gains was coined by the British Cycling and Team Sky during their period of cycling dominance from 2010-2019, winning 5 Tour de France titles with Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome leading the team.

According to an HBR article from October 2015, they applied the concept of marginal gains, aiming to find 1% improvements.  

Their concept of marginal gains involved looking for a range of 1% improvements.

Considering how technical the sport is, there are a number of these marginal gains possible: reduction of drag from using better bike components, tight-fitting clothing, and having a more aerodynamic body position.

They employed experts to study and analyze extensively all the different areas that have an impact on the cyclist’s performance. Sports scientists were an integral part of the background team and collected information on heart rate, blood samples, and how cyclists’ energy levels reacted to certain foods.

It was masterminded by Sir Dave Brailsford – and even people with doctorates in specific areas such as sleep were recruited (it was discovered that some of the cyclists needed to sleep in pitch black conditions to get the optimal quality of sleep).

Moreover, a doctor was brought in to teach the athletes how to properly wash their hands so they could avoid getting sick in both training and competition.

marginal gains

How To Employ Marginal Gains In Run Training

Even without the budget that Team Sky had, you can apply some of the principles of the marginal gains philosophy and identify things in your own running schedules that can help you better understand how to get the best out of yourself come race day.

In short, you want to identify several small opportunities for improvement (even as little as a 1% improvement) and stack them.

Here are our 9 tips to help you achieve some marginal gains in your training:

#1: Mental preparation

Dedicating some time each week to work on the mental side of training, you’ll be able to develop the mental toughness required to get you through bad patches in races and make you more resilient.

Visualization is used by a number of elite athletes to help them focus on positive outcomes.

Bradley Wiggins worked with the famous sports psychologist Dr. Steve Peters while at Team Sky and acknowledges how important it was to his success.

An advanced form of visualization is known as mental imagery.

It is a technique that challenges us to not only picture or see the positive outcome, but to bring all our senses into play. Try using this for your next race.

Here’s our full guide to Vizualisation For Runners

marginal gains

2.Doing drills at end of your runs

Running drills are great, and extremely effective if done at the end of a training riun.

If performed regularly, they can really improve your running technique.

They are a way of enhancing your ABCs (agility, balance, and coordination) and are also useful in helping you correct any muscle imbalances. Some of the drills considered the most effective are . . .

  • high-knees,
  • A-skips,
  • B-skips,
  • and bounding type exercises.

If you dedicate 10 minutes after 2 of your weekly runs to performing drills and do it consistently over a 3-6 month period, you’ll certainly notice the results.

Here are our Top 8 Running Drills!

3. Strides

Strides are a great way to finish your runs.

By spending that extra 5 to 10 minutes performing them after completing your run, you’ll give your body a real boost.

They provide a good dynamic stretch post-run and help you reinforce good running form.

Also, running the strides after your long aerobic runs will develop your body’s ability to switch from using predominately slow-twitch fibres to the fast-twitch fibres of anaerobic running.

Aim to run a series of 4-6 strides over a 50-80m distance on as flat a surface as possible.

Once you get used to perform these strides, you may wish to incorporate strides running downhill. There is evidence to suggest that this can increase your cadence and turnover which will ultimately develop your speed

marginal gains

4. Yoga & stretching

A lot of runners develop tightness in their hips.

Also, with more and more of us spending time sitting in the office all day, it’s only natural that our glutes, hamstrings, and hips will become less supple and flexible.

By committing to a daily stretching programme, we’ll be not only helping us prevent injuries but will be giving us a better chance of running some personal bests.

Try and commit to 10-15 minutes of stretching after your runs (especially after hard training sessions) and I’m sure you’ll start feeling the benefits and your body will appreciate it.

Also, if you feel like you would benefit from a yoga class, look to incorporate it in one day a week. In addition to the gains in your flexibility, you can also use it as a relaxation tool to help your body recover from the constant training load.

Yoga for Runners – Our Complete Guide

5.Quality vs quantity

A lot of us think that the only way to improve in something is to do more of it.

However, at times by reducing the focus on one thing and prioritising another, it can surprisingly lead to increased performance.

So, if you aim to reduce your weekly aerobic running by 10% and then replace that with quality workouts such as intervals, this will lead to improvements.

High-intensity workouts include fartlek, long repetitions, tempo runs, and short speed intervals.

Remember that the stress you put your body under during these tough sessions should not be underestimated and therefore it is recommended you allow at least 48 hours before performing the next hard session so that your body has sufficient time to rest and recover

marginal gains

6. Increase sleep or have a nap

The quality and quantity of your sleep will have an impact on your potential performance.

You should aim to get as close to 8 hours every night and if possible, you could incorporate in a 30-minute nap during the day to help you feel refreshed and ready for the big training sessions you have planned.

Moreover, there are a few things you can do to help you improve the quality of your sleep: reduce afternoon and evening consumption of caffeine, establish routines for sleep and getting up times, and leave your phone out of the bedroom.

7.Pilates

Consider trying a Pilates class.

It is a great way of improving your core stability and will help reduce the impact that your legs, lower back and hips feel from each stride.

According to Pilates teacher Emily Wilson : “Core strength gained through Pilates helps distribute the force more effectively throughout your body, helping to avoid potential injuries, reduce post-exercise muscle soreness and give you greater muscle endurance.”

marginal gains

8.Faster shoes

There.s been a lot of talk around the use of shoes with tech like carbon fiber plates, like the new Vaporflys and theres evidence to suggest that they can give you an edge.

In the laboratory, the Vaporfly 4% have been tested and proven to make runners more biomechanically efficient and on average 4% more economical while running.

In effect, the outcome is that your body will use 4% less oxygen at any given speed, making you more economical. However, as the structure of the shoe is different to conventional trainers, they will take a little bit of time to get used to, so we recommend you only wear them for shorter runs initially and to allow your body time to get used to the new sensations and feel of the shoe.

Also, they are not cheap, so maybe it would be best to consider the other marginal gains listed here first and keep this as a final booster.

9. Hills for strength

Hill running can build specific leg strength and make an athlete a much more efficient as their running economy is enhanced.

There’s a number of different types of hill session that you can do. For instance, find a long hill of between 80-120m with a moderate gradient, and run a series of 8-10 repetitions, with a job back recovery.

Remember it is not a race to the top, and the main purpose of this session is to improve your running form by exaggerating the knee lift. Therefore, relax, focus on your knee lift and maintain an upright upper body posture.

Another way of building hills into your schedule is to include a hilly run where you’ll encounter hills of various lengths and gradients.

marginal gains

Consistency is key

So, there you have it. A list of 9 things that can give you that extra 1%. When these all add up and are accumulated, they can result in a noticeable gain in your performance.

However, it is imperative that you are able to maintain consistency in your training.

The key to success is your ability to train regularly and not pick up injuries. So, we recommend you only change one thing at a time or incorporate one of the marginal gains, test it out for a period, and then add another.

Cathal Logue

Cathal Logue

Cathal Logue is an avid runner and coach. After competing against Sir Mo Farah aged 16, he suffered several injuries throughout his 20s. Despite not reaching the same heights as some of his contemporaries, he still holds impressive PBs of 9.09 for 3k, 15.36 for 5k, and 33.36 for 10k. His goal now is to help runners of all abilities reach their potential and likes exploring the mountains north of his current home, Madrid, Spain.

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