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Reading the press and social media throughout the Rio olympics, there are very mixed feelings and thoughts about the effectiveness of marginal gains. Two headlines that spring to mind are ‘RIP Marginal Gains’ and ‘Money? Detail? How did Team GB do it?’.
One thing is known for certain and that is team GB had a fantastic Olympic games in Rio finishing 2nd in the medal tables.
In sport everyone wants to win and marginal gains is a way of maximising the potential of an athlete, which team GB does fantastically well.
Finding those gains is not easy and that is why some say that marginal gains is dead. In cycling the technical arms race began in earnest by team GB ahead of Bejing, where Chris Boardman and the Secret Squirrel club, which TotalSim were part of, pushed R&D to the limits to deliver in the velodrome. Over the past 8 years, other teams have played catch up with the equipment to level the playing field to some extent, but some say the technical advantage that team GB have created is unfair.
With R&D, the first gains are often the easiest. The plot below show the aero development on a racecar, showing downforce gains against the number of design iterations tested. To start with the progress is linear but things do start to tail off after approximately 1000 iterations. This is when some think it is time to give up and why some think marginal gains is no longer important.
The motorsport industry thinks differently and that is why more than 700 people work at the Mercedes F1 team down the road in Brackley. The marginal gains are not easy to find but they are there if you have the time and resources to find them. The large gains are reduced, but the small gains can still add up to make a medal, when the margins are so small.
The British cycling team had a poor performance at the World Championships (by their standards) with only 5 gold medals. Fast forward to the Olympics and all of their athletes won a medal and in the last 3 Olympic cycles they have won 20 out of 30 Gold medals. Was this down to atheletes ‘peaking’ in time for the Olympics or was is down to marginal gains, as British Cycling and UKSport save their equipment for the Olympics?
Can money really buy success? In the pursuit for marginal gains money certainly does talk, there is no getting around it. Knowing where and how to spend the money is the tricky bit, to deliver the performance to track.
All about efficiency.
The marginal gains for the cycling team all come down to improving efficiency. The athlete can output a finite number of Watts, which can be improved with training. The role of marginal gains is to maximise the speed that the fixed power output can achieve. Whether these be mechanical or aerodynamic improvements, it always comes back to efficiency, but how do you measure it?
In track cycling, the biggest force to overcome is aerodynamic and measurement of aerodynamic drag is relatively easy. We have CFD and wind tunnels that can do the job to help us measure the gains, although even with these tools, measuring the small performance gains can be tricky.
The sports of rowing and sailing have huge potential for marginal gains to be a significant factor in maximising performance but measuring efficiency in these sports is hard and most give up before they begin… perhaps for Tokyo we will see the marginal gains and a technology race being applied to differing sports.
Interested in marginal gains? TotalSim are keen to hear from you.