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The Quest For Those Marginal Gains

In triathlon, we’re always on the quest for improvements. Whether that’s just getting fitter or stronger to complete a triathlon for the first time or increasing the distance from half ironman to Ironman for example. Others are in the quest for new personal bests and quicker times than previously.

One thing I’ve seen across all endurance sports, but especially for athletes preparing for middle to long distance triathlons or a marathon, is that many athletes repeat the same training as they've done previously with the attitude "I'm fitter then I was last time so if I do it again I will be better." This quite often ends up with a lot of disappointment as the result tends to be the same or ever slightly improved by a couple of minutes depending on your fitness levels at the beginning of training. Some don’t improve at all, some even get worse… For many athletes this can be extremely frustrating, and why wouldn't it be frustrating? You’ve just trained for this event for so long, placed a lot your time, money and effort into something to either get the same result or marginally improve. This is what’s known as “endurance plateau” and for many of us it can be devastating and disheartening. When honestly, it really doesn’t have to be…  first of all set backs are part of life, how we respond to them is what improves us, those that throw in the towel will never improve so recognising what you've done hasn't work is the first step.

“Failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be.”  ― Matthew SyedBlack Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes–But Some Do

Reflecting and analysing is such a powerful tool that not many of us ever do. Some of us do but how many of us actually do anything about it? Reflect, Analyse, Plan & execute the plan... If you're unsure during any of this process, a good coach will be able to help you here.

Another thing you may think is I’m training really hard here why am I not as quick as this person who's doing the same thing? First of all, everybody is different, that doesn't mean their training is appropriate for you to improve. But one thing to consider is what is your pain tolerance like? A top amateur/pro for example, what you’re doing they may find easy, or their levels of volume and intensity could be down in comparison. In order to prevent endurance plateau, we have to strive for more from ourselves and encourage adaptation in the muscles. If we’re always repeating the same training, the adaption that takes place is minimal (if any in some circumstances). We have to progressively increase the stress we put the body under to encourage adaption without causing a injury, a very good coach and athlete are able to track these figures through software such as Training Peaks using the TSS scores which come from the Power and Heart Rate Monitor devices that your GPS computers pick up.

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”  ― Matthew SyedBlack Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success

So how do we prevent this from happening I hear you asking?

  • Make changes… don’t repeat the same training as last time. I hear it so many times, “I’m just going to use my plan from last time.” If you aim to improve your time & performance, there are so many things that maybe required, an increase in volume & intensity or even a decrease for those who are overtraining. Like I mentioned earlier in the blog, discuss this with other top athletes or a well re-known coach who can help advise you on this. For too many athletes, an increase in volume maybe impossible with the hours they’re already training as well as dealing with everything we have in our personal life. QUALITY OVER QUANTITY...

By the way if you’re aim is to just complete the event you’ve entered and you know that plan will get you to the start line and finish line injury free, then perfect stick to it. Not everyone’s aim is to improve their time, their aim is to complete the challenge/event which still is an amazing accomplishment and I’ve nothing against, I’d just like to point out before continuing!!

  • Analysis… Reflection is a powerful tool that we very rarely ever use as mentioned above but during your training and racing season it’s worth spending time analyzing and thinking about where we are in our training/race season. Simple things such as writing down your thoughts, creating action plans, and referring back to them when planning or discussing your next block of training can help massively. Some athletes use what is known as a SWOT analysis, for those of you that don’t know what this is, it stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats. It helps you reflect on your own performances but also external factors which are limiting your training and racing.

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently” – Henry Ford

  • Consistency… The effect of being consistent throughout the year and not missing training is un-measurable, a good coach or training plan that has been individually set for you to progress appropriately, is set the way it is for a reason. If you’re able stick to it religiously this is where you’ll see the biggest gains in performance. Sometimes we have to miss training, and many times we have valid reasons for missing it but the fact is, you’ve still missed it meaning technically you’re still behind on your training…  Sometimes when we’re tired, had a bad day at work, or the weather isn’t pleasant outside, that’s when it can become easy to skip a session but sometimes you’ve got to ask yourself “how important is improving to me?” If the answer is very, you’ll make it happen even if it isn’t a great session, at least you’ve done it rather than nothing. Plus not every session will go perfectly... But those athletes who think “oh I’ll catch up tomorrow”, by doing that it can have a negative effect on your training with a build build up of fatigue, or even worse it may lead to an injury.

“When you look at people who are successful, you will find they aren’t the people who are motivated but have consistency in their motivation” – Arsene Wenger

  • And finally the 1% gains… The marginal gains can be massive when all added together. Sports science has revolutionized sport over the last 20 years and triathlon is no exception and we could talk about it solely in a blog of it’s own as there’s so much to it, but I won’t today, However to give you an idea of things, we all know the bike is the biggest section on the majority of triathlons and where the most time can be gained or lost in my opinion. Now we’d all love those bikes which we see the pros on which cost tens of thousands of £’s but for the majority of us, the reality is we can’t afford this, but for many of us on our bikes we still ruin the aerodynamics of it. We do this by fitting or sticking stuff to our frames with food bags or gels, some of us carry bottles in the wrong place too. This article is a good one regarding the effects of bottle placement My personal choice is a bottle between my tri bars and an aero bottle below with my gels in there, this allows me to try and stay as aero as possible over long course races as well as easy to change the bottle I have at the front at feed stations instead of refilling. Also aerodynamics is the clothes that we wear, finding the balance of comfort and tightness of a trisuit can be hard, but if it’s baggy and catching in the wind it’ll be causing drag and slowing you down slightly. A good quality trisuit will prevent this. Replace cycling jackets and gillets in races for skins or arm warmers, simple things will make a difference.

Dave Brailsford believed in a concept that he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He explained it as “the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement.

To sum things up, the only way to know as an athlete whether you’re current training is really enough to get faster is to spend some time to reflect and think about the points made in my blog. Make notes of areas you think you could improve on and how you’re going to do that. If you’re not sure, discuss this with other athletes or coaches.

Getting Faster isn’t easy, it’s hard work!!

Thank you for reading…any thoughts and feedback is welcome!

Matt Dewhurst

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