In the quest to become better, should we more modest runners calculate the benefits from marginal gains?

Running provides many people with escapism, while to others it’s the joy of the competition. We all want to be good at it. In this quest many runners will have already adopted a marginal gain, even without necessarily knowing it – while elite runners may exploit them to their full effect. But should more modest runners be seeking them out?

A marginal gain is a small change that provides an identifiable, positive outcome. For example, small alterations to running techniques will provide specific results; a better understanding of gait, foot strike and cadence will improve speed and efficiency and reduce the likelihood of injury. This may be assisted by more appropriately fitting shoes or clothing. Admit it, a good pair of trainers and your favourite socks work wonders and help you go faster.

Every runner differs

We might look like a homogeneous bunch of hi-viz shufflers, but on closer inspection every runner differs: tailor-made training plans, scientifically fitted running shoes, a certain breakfast and only using a specific brand of energy gel. And that’s even before any exploration of busy family commitments, juggling working patterns or a lively social life. With information at our fingertips and choice on every shelf, do you take full advantage of the gains that are available? Beyond kit, training and diet, I like to have a bit of background knowledge – arriving early at a race, not rushing and adjusting to race conditions. Knowing where to park, what is required at registration, and allowing sufficient time to warm-up; even including a brief investigation of the closing 500 metres. After all a well-executed sprint finish, could be the difference between beating a rival or securing a personal best. This makes a difference to me and, in my head, provides me with a marginal gain. Other runners may be more relaxed and find my approach excessive for what is supposed to be recreational. But, we are all different.

Science and teamwork

In 2012, before the Tour de France, Sir Dave Brailsford announced that Team Sky would be incorporating a philosophy of marginal gains: sports scientists were employed to analyse ergonomics, nutrition, physiology and psychology. A popular anecdote was that each cyclist would be provided, at every stage finish, with their own mattress and pillows from home – this was considered innovative. Overall, perhaps the greatest focus was on attending to individual needs for the greater good. Brailsford believed that, “… if we applied science and teamwork we could take on the world”.

But was Team Sky’s approach really that innovative? This new approach was considered a radical change for elite sports in the UK. Similar changes had been established in other sports: the Australian swimming team, and more recently the GB women’s hockey team. Around the same time as Brailsford’s brainwave, Mo Farah started working with coach Alberto Salazar. Salazar made significant changes that would ultimately have Olympic rewards. Much is reported of the minor extension to the runner’s stride length. Less focus was possibly given to the need for strengthening Farah’s upper body although this would eventually underpin his now legendary sprint finish.

The trick for a runner is knowing, or learning, what works. Most gains are probably best attempted through trial and error. But then I reckon the true gems are discovered by accident. The key is identifying which ones are right for you.


Neil Wallace Is a blogger, writer, editor and runner, mostly on the fells and moors. Bearded and wears bobble hats – known to many as @Braveshorts