Decoding Trendy Topics and Marginal Gains

April 17, 2018

Running expert Nate shares how to make a real difference in your training

We live in a world where we are bombarded with marketing for the new, next best thing. The running and fitness community has seen impressive advancements over the years — but also plenty of items and ideas that were pure gimmicks. From technology to nutrition and performance-based concepts, sometimes we are given only half-truths about the real effect on our running. 

Of course, we as runners look for every little advantage. But we may spend too much time looking for the next best thing instead of sticking with what has always worked well. This concept has been labeled the “marginal gains” theory of running: things you buy, use or do that allow you to train more or run faster — but at the end of the day they’ll make maybe a one percent difference overall. Basically, you’re trying to get the tiniest bit better from a lot of small areas of training.

Here are some examples:

• Wearing a lighter shoe will improve running economy and overall pace. This is true, but what people forget is that a proper training plan, including strength training and plyometric training, will have a much greater effect on your racing than a lighter shoe. If you haven’t trained much and you’re counting on lighter shoes to run fast, you may be disappointed with the result.
• Breathe Right strips were worn by just about every athlete a decade ago, but no longer. Ever wonder why? Because there was minimal to no advantage to using them.
• Drinking beet juice, wearing compression sleeves, listening to fast-paced music, spaghetti dinners, HIIT training, Cross Fit, aerodynamic tape — and a lot more. All of these have a place within training and recovery, but you have to ask yourself: “how much is it helping the bottom line?”

So where should a person focus his or her time? It depends on the goal at hand. The rule of specificity applies here. If your goal is to run fast, you should spend more time running and working the aerobic system. There are many ways to do this, and a coach can help create a program that fits with your life and goals. Personalized programs tend to boost performance, along with minimizing injury.

Now for the flip side. If you are training well and doing all the big things right, then come race day feel free to wear your light shoes, drink your beet juice, blast your favorite music. But rest assured that it was the hard work you put in — not the tiny, trendy tweaks — that got you your new Personal Best.

Always running,

Nate Vandervest