Productive Club Helping you follow your dream
Marginal Gains – How To Improve 1% At A Time

This article will cover how Dave Brailsford applied the marginal gains technique to take a team from no medals to over 150 Gold medals.

Wouldn’t you be shell shocked if a country who never lifted the trophy before, dominated the Football World Cup multiple times in the next decade? You would least expect that because such drastic changes rarely happen. But that’s exactly what this coach did.

Until early 2000, British cycling had only won one gold medal in over 100 years. The sole gold medal they won dated way back to the year 1908. Winning a gold medal was never even an expectation from the team. The occasional silver seemed like a huge feather in the cap.

In fact, the performance of the team was so poor that one bike manufacturer was hesitant to sell their product to the British cycling team. The seller believed it might impact their sales due to the negative impression.

But, in a turn of events, from the year 2008, the same team went on to dominate world cycling. Not only did they bag the most gold medals but they also went on to shatter Olympic and World records. They even won the coveted Tour De France like it was a piece of cake.

Marginal gains method

How did a team with no past success suddenly transform into a champion team in a decade? Here is the story of the man and his technique which led to making the impossible possible.

In 2003, Dave Brailsford took over as the performance director of British cycling. At that point, little did anyone know that this man would take world cycling by the storm in the years to come.

The coach had a simple strategy, “If you break down every little aspect of cycling and improve each by 1%, the final result would be significantly different.” As simple as the technique sounds, the difference was in how Brailsford introduced improvements.

The marginal gains the British team worked on

Any new coach brings in changes for improvement. Brailsford was neither the first nor will be the last in that regard. The simple changes included better seats, better grip on the tires and the measurement of individual performance of the riders.

Most coaches would stop at that and hope for a big change in results while looking at the stopwatch. For positive results, everyone raises their hands in jubilation and if poor results follow, team members pull their hair in despair.

British Cycling

But Brailsford had bigger things in mind. He urged the whole team to keep looking for incremental gains. As a result, the team experimented some more.

The cyclists used indoor suits for outdoor races because the lighter weight improved aerodynamics. The physios measured how well each team member was responding to a workout.

Like the gladiator who refused to stop, Brailsford and the team kept prodding ahead.

  • They tried a wide range of massage gels for the best muscle recovery.
  • They hired a surgeon to teach the sportsmen how to wash their hands to avoid a cold.
  • They handpicked pillows and mattresses for optimal sleep.
  • The chef had to account for the ingredients used while cooking.
  • The coach had the floor painted white to notice any specks of dust which could hamper bike maintenance.

The team analyzed the power with which the prior winning teams took off the line. The best member to achieve or beat this benchmark trained specifically for giving the perfect start.

The performance crew measured the statistics of each member and tabulated the values against the numbers expected. The team had to replace a few team members who could not meet the desired result. Brailsford mentioned, they made tough decisions as compassionate as possible.

These changes did not start yielding results right-away. Though the team won a few medals in the 2004 Olympics, the difference was too subtle to deserve any major applause. A few years passed by and other countries noticed Britain improving but no one could predict what the team was about to achieve.

In 2008, Britain won 8 Gold medals while France at second could manage only 2. The brits won 8 Gold medals again in the 2012 Olympics when no other country could bag more than one gold. If that was not considered bossing over the rest, they also went on clock 7 world records and 9 Olympic records.

The juggernaut kept rolling. No British cyclist had ever won a Tour De France before. In 2012, the team changed history by prevailing as the winners. By 2018, the team won the title 5 out of 6 times.

In a decade, a team that was written off before any cycling event was on an unstoppable record-breaking and championship-winning spree.

How Dave Brailsford applied the marginal gains method

The coach created history by taking his time to incorporate the 1% better method, also called the marginal gains technique. The procedure is simple on paper. You just have to do a little better with time.

The 1% does not state a precise number measured as a figure. All it means is, you must focus on doing something better than what you did before. In other cultures, the same technique is called continuous improvement or Kaizen, a Sino-Japanese word for improvement.

How most people try to achieve results

The wrong way of learning

You might have a habit of expecting results as per the sequence above. You try your hand at something, wait for results, try some more, notice no results and give up. But the British cycling team kept improving even when they saw no results. That is where the key difference lies – continuous improvement even the results do not show up.

How Dave Brailsford tried to achieve results

The marginal gains method of improvement

Brailsford was well aware that the results would take time to arrive. All his team needed to do was persist until the power of tiny gains showed up with flying colors.

As per 1% better technique, you must keep improving without expecting results. Over time, the improvement produces a compound effect placing you in a different league altogether.

But the normal tendency is to overlook the simple improvements as insignificant. You presume the change or action to be too simple to make an impact.

But what is simple to do is simpler to not do. And that is what usually happens with most.

People end up hunting for huge gains in one go while ignoring the minor tweaks which would produce results over time. The marginal gains technique approaches improvement like a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not about running with all your energy in a short burst but having the patience and stamina to keep going for the long haul.

Forget about perfection; focus on progression and compound the improvement. They’re tiny things but if you clump them together, they make a big difference.

Dave Brailsford

The returns from marginal gains follow a trajectory like shown below. Assume you improve a little every day while your friend adds a little to his laziness at the same pace. Initially, the changes seem like nothing.

All your effort looks to be going down the drain. You might consider is the effort even worth it because the other person seems no different than you.

Difference in results of marginal gains

But wait for it, the effect of the tiny improvements will arrive outstandingly. Sure, it can take a year or two but when you’ll know when you get there. The difference will widen if the other person worsens a little each day.

The technique works for any area in life like education, career, sales, programming, leadership, financial returns or anything under the sun.

How to apply marginal gains in your life – Examples

You can apply the same concept of marginal improvement by 1% each day in various areas of your life

1. Working out

Working out

When you hit the gym with intense cardio one day, the weighing machine will refuse to budge. A week later, you might notice half a pound of weight reduction. But your coworkers might still consider you overweight because you look the same.

You can quit now because no one saw the change or you can persist with your routine. If you choose to give up, you will go back to your old shape. However, if you make sure you exercise 3-4 times a week, you would have lost a ton of weight in a year.

A friend who did not meet you in that span will ask you, “How did you lose so much weight and gain this physique?”

2. Improving skills

improving skills

Once an employee finds a job, he relies on everyday work for skill improvement. A lot of people end up with a monotonous job and end up stagnating in their career growth. The job takes the blame but the problem does not lie in the mindset of the person who failed to learn.

Learning new skills is easier than ever now. Amazon has a cartload of books on any area while sites like Udemy have courses on almost domains. Whether you want to program like a code ninja, strum the guitar like a rockstar or hone your skills at writing, the internet has you covered. You can find a way to learn while sitting at your desk.

30 minutes of deliberate learning won’t take significant time off your schedule. But one year later, your skills would have grown far superior to the people who relied on the learning from work alone.

3. Saving Money

Saving money

Everyone wants to have a million dollars to their name. One way to get there is by hitting the jackpot. The other option is to save money each month.

But in the quest for a million, saving 1000$ every month seems too meager an amount to reach your goal. Buying a fancy watch and a pair of shoes appears to be the easy choice.

But 1000$ dollars every month compounds to a million dollars in 30 years. Saving a little every month is better than saving nothing at all.

4. Providing better service

Providing better service

When an entrepreneur starts a business, he places his focus on providing a good experience to his customers. He maintains a good rapport, asks for feedback, acts on complaints and makes the best attempt at providing good service.

Over time, he sticks to the same routine and the customers get used to the usual pleasantries. In some cases, with the increase of customers, the owner fails to maintain the same level of service. Eventually, a new business manages to attract all his customers leading to failure.

The focus on improving service must turn into a process of continuous improvement. Finding new ways of making customers happy keeps your audience loyal. A small toffee, a free piece of cake for a birthday and thanking the customers while they step out might seem nothing individually. Club them all together and you have a fan base who will remain with you forever.

5. Being a better partner

Be a better partner

You take your partner for granted and assume your love to speak for itself. Therefore you do not make an effort to make your partner happy.

How about buying a small gift or a rose each week? Or maybe a sincere compliment and a hug. When you put an effort week by week, every month, your partner will experience a great amount of happiness and consider herself lucky to be with you.

6. Study smart and score better

Study smart and score better

Students look at putting in more hours of study to score better. But knowing how the body works will help you achieve better grades. For example, sleeping for 7 hours helps in better retention of the material you read.

Carrying water to the exam helps you stay hydrated which makes your brain function better. Having chocolate or a banana maintains a better sugar level which improves decision making.

Students consider reading more and intelligence as the only factors which determine the score. Various other aspects can 1 improvement each totaling to a final high score.


No matter where you are and no matter what you do, every day you have an opportunity to do better in your core area by applying the aggregation of marginal gains method. But most people ignore it on purpose or without awareness. Do not wait for a problem to arise and jump into fixing it. Look at what you can do to improve so that problems never arise.

Maybe you do not have to coach a sports team to a championship, but you can improve yourself to scale great heights. You do not need to be first, you just have to be better. One day, you will turn into the best too.

Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.

Jim Rohn
personal motivation marginal gains

My goal is to help people 1 million people pursue their dreams. Share the article and help me with this mission.

You don't need a reward to join the Productive Club, do you?

Plain and simple. Did you find what you just read useful? Great, then get more of such tips to sky rocket your productivity. Join the Productive Club.

Join the discussion

Productive Club

The website has been created to inspire, influence and infect people with positivity and help people begin their journey of chasing their dream goals. The target is to help 1 million people pursue their dream while having a full time job. Will you be one among them?