March 17, 2020

Athlete performance: What’s next for marginal gains?

The application of marginal gains for sporting performance has been around for a while now. In 2002 it was revolutionary. Now it underpins training, strategy and performance across all sports. Has it become so commonplace, the theory has lost its aura or are there still areas where marginal gains can be sought?  

The success of British Cycling

When Sir Dave Brailsford became head of British Cycling in 2002, there was little success around British cycling with just one gold medal in 76 years. That soon changed, with the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Team GB Cycling took home seven out of 10 gold medals available in track cycling. The same achievement was matched four years later at London 2012. Sir Dave has now taken this success to Team Sky in road cycling. Formed in 2009 they began with the vision of winning the Tour de France in five years. They did so for the first time in 2012, taking five of the next seven titles.

The theory of marginal gains

Underpinning this success was the theory of marginal gains. The team focused on every potential factor that could affect cycling performance. If each element could be improved by 1% they would achieve a significant aggregated increase in performance.

Changes brought in included precision in relation to food preparation, transporting mattresses and pillows to events to ensure athletes maintained the same posture while sleeping, not lifting suitcases and bags when travelling to avoid injury, and proper hand washing to fend off potential illness.

Success on the bike proved the viability of the theory.

The concept of marginal gains in the world of British Cycling centred on finding those miniscule improvements in unexpected areas. Performance data was a crucial part of their training, but it was all about enhancing unthought of elements that wouldn’t even be considered by the competition.

It clearly worked at the time. Now the approach is commonplace for sporting teams across the world, but the question is what’s next?

Marginal gains did again hit the headlines recently with talk of British athletes being schooled in the proper technique for hand washing to avoid illness before Tokyo 2020. Clearly athlete health is something that seems even more important in today’s climate, but how can health and performance be managed pre-emptively?

Looking internally at the athlete

British Cycling and Team Sky looked at what they could control whether tailored training plans for each cyclist based on individual performance data, removing dust from the wind tunnel during training, and maintaining maximum comfort and recovery while travelling.

Each of these elements was external to each athlete. External factors are much easier to spot and therefore control.

The internal side of athlete performance is much more complicated. How can issues like stress, problems at home or an illness that’s yet to show any symptoms be controlled?

Wearable tech creates the opportunity to monitor and manage factors that can indicate this. Currently we’re seeing the likes of Catapult being used in NFL and ShotTracker in NBA for example, with the crucial factor being the ability to tailor this insight pre-emptively to prevent future issues.

Factors like an increased heart rate, heavier breathing, increased body temperature can all be symptomatic of a wider problem with that athlete.

By continually tracking and analysing this data, these issues will be illustrated pre-emptively. Even before the individual notices it themselves. Athlete performance can therefore be improved by changing and tweaking approaches to combat an internal issue that hasn’t yet materialised. The continued use of wearable tech and associated health data for sports teams is essential to achieve this level of health insight.

Enhancing marginal gains through health insights in this manner feeds into the ripple effect of performance. Those teams that understand and apply this data will push ahead for success.

Cognitive insights and marginal gains

The mental health of elite athletes is just as important when it comes to marginal gains. By nurturing the mental condition of athletes as well as the physical there is the potential to enhance and sustain their success in both the short and long-term.

When this is potentially ignored it can have a big impact on sporting performance. Two Brazilian footballers are cases in point. For many, it was the pressure and stress that affected Ronaldo in the run up to the 1998 World Cup Final that caused him to collapse before the game, whilst the long-term impact of depression curtailed the career of Adriano at the height of the game a few years later.

Being able to measure, interpret and apply learnings from athlete data in relation to physiological status and mental alertness is key to ensuring athletes are at their peak condition mentally. Mentality plays a huge role in elite performance. It needs to be nurtured and enhanced.

The key challenge is being able to bring all this data and information together to create custom insights and actionable plans for each individual athlete. Tracking, measuring and interpreting cognitive data is essential for this.

That’s when individual treatment plans and training programmes can be implemented that consider every potential factor that can impact performance.

When this is done on a bespoke level for each member of a team, athletes are kept healthy and fit. Most importantly, by continuing to analyse and learn from the insights those small edges, advantages and marginal gains can still be found.  

The future for marginal gains

The hype in the media around marginal gains may have died down, but that hasn’t changed the desire for athletes, coaches and sports team to continue to search for that competitive edge.

Alongside hand washing techniques, we’re soon likely to see genetic profiling, virtual reality training and revolutionary sports kit. All of this will be underpinned by bespoke and custom insights for every individual athlete.