Bottle necks vs Marginal Gains

The following post is an excerpt from ESP Tipcast 51, below.

Listeners may remember my discussion with Allen Lim on marginal gains. Allen made the point that many athletes become hyper focused on certain areas that yield very little return. We can consider this the 1% margin. However, this focus on the 1% often comes at the cost of eliminating a bottle neck (BN) which also hold us back. In the world of elite racing, marginal gains (MG) are often where races are won and lost. But for the majority of us, our bottle necks are what is truly hold us back. The first part of the process, however, is identifying what your major bottlenecks are, as well as if your training objectives are addressing those, or if they are targeting marginal gains.


Assess your strengths and weaknesses first.

In the most basic terms, a marginal gain often falls under the domain of a strength. If you’re a good climber and you continuously work to refine that strength, your gains will be small, or marginal. In contrast, if you cannot make it over even the smallest hill to use your great sprint because you’re 10 lbs overweight, then your bottleneck is climbing likely related in large part to your weight. Initially, you may want to maintain your speed work and interval training, and drop the 10 lbs. If your climbing still needs work, you then tackle a different aspect.


Focus on one thing and go for the low hanging fruit.

Here a few examples that I ran through from the Tipcast:

  • Your run times are not progressing the way you like. A gait analysis shows that you’re a heel striker, you slouch and have a slow cadence.

FIX YOUR TECHNIQUE (BN) before you consider the foot strike (MG). The improved technique may actually reduce your injury risk too!

  • You want to improve your triathlon or time trial times. A bike fit suggests that you could get lower and more aero on the bike, but you complain you’re too inflexible or its uncomfortable.

IMPROVE YOUR POSITION/FLEXIBILITY (BN) then consider a new bike (MG) if its a clunker.

*As a side note, I knew a rider years ago that purchased a nice TT bike but failed to address his awful upright TT position. I would reckon the bike did little for him.

  • You are completely empty near the end of races, and you recognize that you are not fueling properly, but your friends are raving about the great new supplement drink their using that increases VO2 max.

YOU CAN EASILY FIX YOUR FUELING and save yourself money by skipping that new drink.

  • Your sprint/power is terrible, but you love to hit those big mile rides with your local group on the weekends, while your interval rides tend to be more tempo sessions because you tend to ride too much on recovery days. You’ve heard that adding plyometrics to your training could help your sprint.

Take responsibility for your situation and DO YOUR INTERVALS.


Analyzing races and race-like training sessions is a good place to find your answers. Usually race outcomes are due to just a small number of factors. Choose the two most important and address one for FOUR WEEKS. If you have no weaknesses or flaws, then look to a MG.


One of the most common BN/MG’s is volume. On one hand, an athlete may truly need to train more to be the best. Its a given, that in order to be a pro-triathlete or cyclist you probably need to devote at least 20 hrs of actual training time each week, plus another 10 to recovery (these are ballparks). If you cannot do this, then its unlikely you will succeed at the highest level. Thus, if your life doesn’t permit that level of training, you will not be able to adequately address that BN. On the flip-side, many athletes and too many coaches see training more as a cure all to everything. In fact, more often than not increased training volume is a MG. An extra 25% training volume may only lead to a 1%-5% gain in performance, but also an increased risk for illness or injury. In contrast, a well-periodized plan could easily lead to similar improvement in performance in the short-term, with virtually no risk for increased injury. Which is a better option for an age-grouper? You tell me! Leave your comments below.

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