What is the marginal gains theory?
Sir David John Brailsford is renowned for his concept of ‘marginal gains’ in British cycling. Success at the Olympics and the Tour de France has been attributed to the marginal gains theory.
In this article, Dr Richard Dune defines marginal gains and discusses how this philosophy led to the success of British cycling teams. Dr Dune argues that marginal gains can be applied to any performance aspect, whether in sports, business, or everyday life.
What is the marginal gains theory?
The marginal gains philosophy is based on the idea that if you break down everything that goes into riding a bicycle and then improve it by 1% when you reassemble them, you will get a significant overall increase.
Brailsford's approach included constant monitoring of critical statistics such as the cyclists’ power output and targeted training interventions targeting specific weaknesses, such as Bradley Wiggins’ relative weakness in mountain racing. In addition to examining traditional aspects of an athlete’s success, such as physical fitness and tactics, it incorporated a more holistic approach, including technological developments, athlete psychology, and everyday life factors.
For example, are you aware of the proper methods for cleaning your hands without leaving bits between your fingers? Because you will be less likely to get sick if you know how to wash your hands properly. Even though they are small, grouping them can significantly impact your overall efforts.
Marginal gains philosophy: The 1% factor
During the mid-2010s, when Brailsford’s reputation was at its peak, the ‘marginal gains’ philosophy began to be discussed beyond the cycling community in the mainstream media in the United Kingdom. Brailsford’s ‘1% Factor’ was adopted worldwide in other sports and business circles.
A report by the Social Mobility Commission in 2014 argued that the improvement in academic performance of disadvantaged students in British schools could be compared to the success of the British cycling team, i.e., accumulation of marginal gains. In his analysis of the 2016 EU referendum, Tim Shipman cited “the philosophy of the Team Sky cycling team” in arguing that “tiny improvements” made by the Remain campaign may have changed the vote outcome.
Marginal gains: Great Britain Olympic cycling team
In the 2004 Beijing Olympic Games, Great Britain won two gold medals in cycling, their best performance since 1908. During Brailsford’s tenure as Performance Director, the team won numerous world championships in road, track, BMX, and mountain bike races. From 2003 to 2013, British cyclists won 59 World Championships across a wide range of disciplines, leading the medal table at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.
Marginal gains: Team Sky/Team Ineos
In 2010, Brailsford was named manager of Team Sky, a British professional cycling team. During 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 Tours de France, Brailsford was responsible for the victories of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, and Geraint Thomas.
In April 2014, he resigned from British Cycling to focus on Team Sky. In December 2021, he was appointed Director of Sport at INEOS after Team Sky changed sponsors. He still oversees various teams and disciplines with the UCI World Team Ineos Grenadiers.
Maasin City Cycling Club: A team inspired by marginal gains
In the summer of 2022, I had first-hand experience of significant marginal gains with Maasin City Cycling Club in the Philippines. This group of men have perfected the art of cycling in some of the most unforgiving terrains. To them, everything matters, including what you eat, how much sleep you get, what you wear daily, how much water you drink, how and when you change the gears etc., all add a bit more to your overall performance. For these guys, it’s all about identifying those little things that matter and then forming and consistently following habits that optimise performance.
It was impressive how this multi-generational team applied the same principles to their personal and professional lives. The founding members were highly disciplined, humble, and experienced. Some had travelled the world with work, bringing back ideas, equipment, and experiences. One could quickly tell how the younger generations were taking everything in, maintaining the same level of focus and discipline. The team ethic and ingenuity were terrific. No one was left behind.
In the marginal gains philosophy, if you improve everything about riding a bike by 1%, you will significantly gain when you put it all together. British Olympic Cycling and Sky/Ineos Grenadiers Tour de France teams credit this concept with their success. Marginal gains can also be applied to other sports, businesses, and personal lives.
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About Dr Richard Dune
Dr Richard Dune is a leading health and social care governance expert. Throughout his career, he has worked in various settings across the UK, including NHS Trusts, research and development, academic institutions, and private companies.
His work primarily focuses on developing, deploying and evaluating technologies, such as clinical decision support systems, educational technologies, workforce development and regulatory compliance solutions.
Dr Dune regularly writes about topical issues affecting the UK's health and social care sectors. Additionally, he speaks at conferences, stakeholder workshops, and professional forums. Dr Dune is also a research fellow at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire in the Research, Development and Innovation department. His other passions include content development, education, and coaching. Click here to read more articles by Dr Dune.
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References and resources
British Cycling (2023) - Great Britain Cycling Team.
HM Government (2014) - Cracking the code: how schools can improve social mobility.
Raise the Bar (2023) - Sir Dave Brailsford.
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