British Cycling’s pursuit of ‘marginal gains’ and the success they enjoyed at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games has been well documented. However, many of us can get caught up in the search for our own 'marginal gains' by agonising over the best choices of kit, tech and equipment.
Some are good choices, some are bad, and some merely fads.
My own questionable decision to race IRONMAN South Africa in 2006 in a full silver wetsuit whilst the other 2,000 competitors merely wore the conventional black (leaving me looking like a 6'3" fishing lure in the shark capital of the world) definitely falls into the 'fad' category.
In contrast, a prime example of an athlete who was ahead of the curve when it comes to technical innovation was Greg Lemond at the 1989 Tour De France, where his "early adopter" approach to using aerobars turned a 50-second deficit going into the final stage into an 8-second win. His adversary, Laurent Fignon, helmetless, riding bullhorn bars and ponytail flapping in the wind was probably physiologically every bit as strong as the American.
However, Lemond put Ludwig Prandtl in the driving seat, Boone Lennon at the bars and then let a few thousand hours of hard graft do the rest.
Looking ahead, researchers have claimed that any significant gains in competitive sport in the future will be as a result of technical innovation.
With all of this in mind, have you ever considered why you're using specific pieces of technology? Let’s take a look at a few current innovations and the science behind them to see if they can really give you a marginal gain (or whether they're best consigned to the scrap heap like my silver wetsuit)...
The modern distance running shoe
You may have seen a lot of press regarding Nike’s Vaporfly and Alphafly running shoes. When they first burst on to the scene, distance running records fell quickly.
In essence, these shoes utilise a clever combination of rubber and a composite spring in their sole that improves an athlete's running economy and, in broad terms, increase the runner's efficiency (meaning less of your effort is wasted). These shoes proposed a 4% improvement in performance.
Let’s be clear here, 4% is frankly enormous. In the right hands (or feet!), that’s somewhere in the region of a 2-4 minute improvement for a marathon.
A caveat is that these shoes may not be the magic bullet you think they are. Any technology has to be matched to the physiological and ergonomic characteristics of the specific athlete to get the best from it. Without that, you get what scientists term ‘low responders’.
In the case of these shoes, if the sprung response isn’t perfectly matched to your bodyweight and step frequency, you may see far less of that proposed gain. Nonetheless, other brands have been racing to catch up to ensure athletes can still be competitive in their shoes but the surface has only been scratched and for the next few years at least, what’s going on with your feet is going to be an arms war.
Whether you’re a triathlete or a cyclist, the clothing you wear has a massive bearing on how fast we move through the air. For example, if you’re cycling at around 30mph, 94% of the forces trying to slow you down is that of aerodynamic drag.
As a result, both triathlon and cycling have seen a major shift in the last few years in attempting to get air to flow more effectively over the human body through use of textured fabrics.
A commonly held misconception would be that bare skin is best as it’s so smooth but fabrics allow us to control and manipulate the air's turbulence around what is, at the end of the day, a pretty horrendous, non-aerodynamic shape.
To share an anecdote, a change I made in my skinsuit choice five years back saved me the equivalent of 50 seconds for a 40km bike leg and that’s hard to find from training improvements. Get the choice right and it essentially offers you "free speed".
However, our personal aerodynamics are unique and what works for one person may not work for another, so it’s crucial to ignore the marketing hype of product X or Y and test for yourself.
Wetsuits have come a long way from what many of us were wearing even as little as 10 years ago. Back in the day, you merely wore a thick suit, lathered it in Vaseline so you could get it off and maybe wore a long john if you felt you were a fast swimmer so you didn’t feel too restricted.
Now, wetsuits are cut and tailored to your swimming stroke, the level and position of your buoyancy is carefully considered, and textures are used to aid efficiency. Like other innovations, the benefits of a well-designed and well fitted wetsuit will vary based on the individual. However, in the few case studies that have been published, using a suit rather than just a swimming costume will mean you consume less energy due to more effective buoyancy, which is going to be crucial if you’re doing a long open water swim or if you’re trying to save as much energy as you can in events like an IRONMAN.
This might seem a less obvious choice but in the right hands data is one of the most powerful weapons you can lay your hands on. It informs your decision making, fine tunes your training and can guide your race strategy.
For example, for one of my important bike races I’m doing later this year, I’ve already ridden the course to optimise my gearing, modelled my predictive time and the qualities needed to achieve it, and used software so I can peak to be at the best of my (modest) ability on the day... and I did all of that without actually leaving my house.
Furthermore, software has also allowed me to practise my pacing over a virtual rendition of the course. The ability to know how hard to work (and when) is a fundamental cornerstone of producing the best possible performance.
As always though, data is only ever as good as the person interpreting it and it’s easy to make the wrong call with bad science or analysis. My advice is always to let the data inform you, not rule you, and ultimately be flexible to change.
Is using technology ethically right?
The only counterpoint to all of this is the ethics of what athletes choose to use. The other side of my research involves a discussion around whether something is right, fair or appropriate.
Going back to the Nike Vaporfly example earlier, their widespread adoption caused potentially damaging implications for the sport as only certain athletes associated with the brand could access or afford them, whilst everyone else was consigned to taking a knife to a metaphorical gun fight.
All in all, it’s a fine balance between maximising your advantages and minimising your moral and ethical questionability. If it’s a debate about whether to lie about your bodyweight on Zwift, the ethical debate is seemingly obvious.
However, when it comes to overpowering your opposition through financial expenditure or exploiting loopholes in poorly constructed rulebooks (and professionally I’ve engaged in both over the years), such choices are then not so clear cut. There’s a diagram I often use to explain this to people.
It's illustrated with the line of the rules that an athlete should be working right up to (but not over) seemingly being impeded by the internal ethical debate that they should be having.
Even so, it can still be as clear as mud. The use of illegal performance enhancing drugs is obviously well over the line, the use of altitude tents (seemingly achieving the same thing) is within acceptable boundaries as most rules stand.
I published a journal paper that discussed the variety of problems that exist when we implement new sports technology. When we introduce technology, it can create issues relating to the cost, safety, access or fairness in a sport as well as changing how the sport is perceived and played. It can create unforeseen problems known as ‘revenge effects’ too.
To give you an example, when helmets were initially introduced in American Football, they were intended to protect the players. However, due to this extra protection they then evolved their style of play to utilise themselves as battering rams, thereby creating different and more serious kinds of injuries to themselves that the equipment was intended to help prevent in the first place. Ethics are subjective, relative and at best, shades of grey.
All in all, the key is to always remain sensitive to new technology, review it free of fashion or bias, learn how to harness it, and be mindful of the implications when doing so.
My advice to athletes is always that “equipment can’t turn a donkey into a racehorse but it can turn a racehorse into a donkey”.