There are plenty of articles out there talking about the benefits of marginal gains as they’ve been popularised by the Team Sky procycling team. I’ve written myself about the subject a number of times here and here and I think that although the biggest part of getting fast comes from just doing the hard work there are lots of smaller additional gains to be made by looking after the smaller details.

These are very much the “one percenters” but if you add enough of them together along with the big gains made from training (the 90%) they can sometimes be the difference between a podium, hitting a time target or a Kona slot.

But at what point does chasing these small gains become ridiculous or even a liability?

When I first decided to chase a Kona slot backs at Ironman UK in 2011 I made the decision that if I was going to put in all of the work and investment required to put myself in contention for a slot I wasn’t then going to miss it by one or two minutes because I hadn’t also invested in the best equipment. So I bought the fast bike, the fast wheels and made sure to research which tyres and tubes were also going to make a difference in speed on the day. I also made sure to tick as many of the other boxes as possible, wetsuit, aero helmet, race kit and more. In the end I did miss a slot that day by only 2 minutes but I was satisfied that there was very little more I could have done in the way of kit or preparation to qualify that day. I was beaten by better athletes, not just by better kit. The onus now rested with me to get fitter, faster, stronger. Not to go and try to buy even smaller gains with the equipment but I was close enough that I knew that I could do it.

When I decided to male a return to competeive Ironman racing and try to get back to Kona in 2016, I again made sure to tick all of the “Marginal gains” boxes. Ironman Mallorca was to be the race where I went to qualify I ultimately missed the slot by a whopping 40 minutes. This in part was because when I got off the bike I knew I was already off target and needed a bit of a miracle on the run. I decided to roll the dice and chase a run time that was unrealistic on the day. I hoped that I might fluke a fast marathon but of course I just blew up instead.

Related: Ironman Mallorca race report 

If I’m honest even with the best performance I could have hoped for on the day I might possibly have moved to within 20 minutes of the last qualifying slot. I was never really in good enough shape to qualify that time. Afterwards when analysing why I was so far off one of the thoughts that kept returning to me was how futile and stupid it was to chase all of the small gains when the big one wasn’t in place. For any of the smaller gains to be effective I would have to be a lot fitter. A fast chain, tyres, or even wheels were never going to bridge a 40 or even 20 minute gap.

Related: Ironman Mallorca analysis

So which is it, are marginal gains worth chasing or not? I think they need to be balanced in a couple of ways.

Cost v’s potential gains

This is in a lot of ways a simple enough equation to work out. If I spend €1 how much faster will I go and is the cost worth the gain? Lets look at one of the big and in some ways easy choice first.

Tri bike v’s road bike

Trek Factory Racing, Trek Speed Concept (Pic: Trek Factory Racing)

Trek Factory Racing, Trek Speed Concept (Pic: Trek Factory Racing)

I guess this isn’t really a marginal gain, it’s potentially a very big one but it will serve to illustrate the point. It’s fairly well accepted that a tri bike is considerably faster than a road bike. A typical gain we see going from a road bike in a standard road position without tri bars to a well fitted tri bike with race wheels would be between 5-10 minutes over 40k. If you work that out over the 180k of an Ironman then you are potentially gaining a whopping 20-45 minutes on the bike leg alone.

For anyone looking to be competitive then this sort of gain is a no brainer. There are very few athletes who can afford to give up that sort of time on the biggest portion of the race and still be in contention.

The downside is that in cash terms it’s the most expensive one. A fairly entry level tri bike and carbon race wheels might start at €2500-3000. In a way it’s a relatively easy decision because the benefits are so big. It’s just a matter of asking yourself is the gain worth it and can you afford it?

Diminishing returns

Unfortunately doubling or even trebling your bike budget doesn’t double or treble your gain on the race course. The law of diminishing returns starts to play a part here. As you move from entry level tri bike and even going all the way to a top of the range “Superbike” the gains become more modest. The biggest gain is the initial one of going from regular road bike and position to a tri bike and the position change that it entails. There are definitely gains to be made by moving up to a top of the range bike but those minutes gained start to get very expensive.

These choices start to become harder to make. If I gain 1 minute extra over 40k by spending another €3000 is that worth it? Of course this is a purely individual question. Blowing 10k on a bike might be one persons weekly discretionary spending but it might be six months salary to someone else.

Questionable returns

There comes a point where the gains start to be a little bit questionable. I remember talking to the current Irish Ironman record holder Bryan Mc Crystal a couple of years ago about switching to oval chain rings. I asked Bryan if he thought they were of any benefit and I thought his answer was quite interesting. He said that if they weren’t costing him anything in energy or time and there was a potential gain and they weren’t too expensive then they were probably worth having.

I think a lot of potential “marginal gains” fall into this category. These are the small things you can do that may or may not help but doing them doesn’t really come with a penalty. If there is a potential gain and no downside then there isn’t any reason to not maximize everything we can.

Risk v’s reward

Then we get to the type of marginal gains that need to be looked at relative to their risk. There comes a point when chasing the “one percenters” is not just an exercise in the ridiculous but it can actually harm your race. At what point is reducing rolling resistance by going for lighter and lighter tyres with less puncture protection more of a liability than a gain? If going from a fast and safe choice of tyre to a faster option but one without any puncture protection gains you a potential 2-3 minutes over an Ironman, is the increased risk of puncturing and losing a 5-10 minutes at the side of the road worth it?

If one aero helmet is claimed to be faster than another but has much less ventilation and your race is in a hot climate does the potential gain outweigh the risk of overheating, dehydration and ultimately slowing down?

If switching your derailleur to oversized pulleys has a claimed saving of 2, 3 or 4 watts which might equate to a gain of a couple of minutes over an Ironman. Is the resulting degradation in shifting and the risk of dropping a chain as a result worth it?

oversized pulleys

Does the “faster” upgrade come with a risk? If so you need to ask yourself is the potential reward big enough for me to risk a race for the promised improvement?

Nutritional magic bullets

beetshot

Potential marginal gains aren’t just limited to the bike. I was at Ironman UK a number of years ago and was sucked in by the promises of increased Vo2 max and the resulting gains I would see if I “Beet loaded” Beetroot juice and concentrated beet shots were being touted as the next nutritional magic bullet. One ten minute sales pitch later and I was sold. I bought a full box of 12 shots two days before the race on the assurance that if I loaded up in the remaining time I would “definitely” go faster.

Once we out of the charged atmosphere of the expo the craziness started to dissipate and I realised that there was no way that I would risk the preceding six months of training and build up by trying out a new nutritional supplement that may help but could also backfire in the last couple of days.

In a sport as technical as triathlon with all of the promises of free speed made by product manufacturers we need to stop and question not just whether a product will deliver any gain but perhaps more importantly whether it will harm our race.

Marginal gains are all well and good. That is until they become marginal losses.