In 2002, British cycling had won just one gold medal in 76 years. By the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the British cycling team finished with seven of the ten available gold medals. They would repeat this amazing feat four years later at the 2012 London Olympics.

What led to this incredible turnaround? 

Also, how can we achieve the same transformation in our lives?

Sir Dave Brailsford, a former professional cycler, is the architect behind the success of British cycling. Sir Dave is also an MBA holder, and it was his management strategies of accumulating tiny improvements that boosted the team’s overall performance.

Here are some of the changes he implemented:

  • trained in a wind tunnel to improve aerodynamics
  • hired a surgeon who introduced proper hygiene protocols and helped the team avoid illnesses 
  • precise food preparation
  • athletes use their own pillows and mattresses during competition so they can sleep in the same posture

Whether you’re a business professional, athlete, or just a regular person trying to progress in life, you can benefit from applying the theory of marginal gains to your own situation.

Older fans probably know me as a former UFC athlete and champion. Like Sir Dave, I hope to apply what I’ve learned from competition to help others improve their lives.

It’s why I can appreciate Sir Dave blending his own personal experience with management expertise.

Small choice, big gain

My days as an athlete has taught me that the smallest of changes – the odd tweak – to your routines or process can compound to generate huge returns.

Take nutrition as an example. I’m fastidious about what I consume. Right down to how it’s sourced or prepared. 

Because they were fuel for my body, my dietary choices were integral to performance in training and on match day.

My nutritionist and team rightfully determined that daily performance improvements were crucial to building me up to become match fit as we inched closer towards the fight week.

I kept count of my macronutrients and calorie intake. Who would’ve imagined that being a math teacher would work in my favor as a professional fighter?

Nowadays, I’ve stopped calculating my nutrition. Not because I don’t want to, but because I don’t have to.

Routines generate returns

I’ve built routines such that I know approximately the quality of food I’m eating and how its nutritional value meets my dietary goals.

Making nutrition a keystone habit might have been one of the best decisions in my life.

It spawned a series of positive actions and behaviors that continue to support the healthy mind and body that I carry today.

Just like the marginal improvements from Sir Dave’s strategies, nutrition is a series of small choices throughout the day. 

But when taken over the course of years, stretching into decades, you’ve literally figured out the recipe to a long and healthy life.

The best routines let you get through the day, week, month or year. But most of all, they set you up for success. 

You may not win every day, but routines generate positive returns over time that, when accrued, can benefit your life in different ways.

Gaining every advantage

At the highest levels of competition, in any sport or profession, the margin for error is miniscule. 

Champions strive to seize every advantage. It’s a ruthless obsession at trying to find every single edge – out-think, out-prepare and out-train – just to beat your opponent.

But that’s the game. And if you want to win, you’ll need to focus on understanding yourself.

When I competed, there were two areas we examined closely.

  1. Critical success factors
  2. Performance gaps

In the UFC, I was frequently matched against some of the best middleweights in the world. 

My team needed to understand what were the critical success factors that enabled me to challenge, compete and retain the world title consistently.

Once we identified those factors, they formed the foundation of our work in training. 

For the next step, I needed to understand what and where were my performance gaps.

What actions or thoughts can get me where I need to be to effectively win the match? 

To do that effectively requires a degree of self-awareness to evaluate and assess your potential shortcomings.

Then, it was a matter of implementing strategies to force improvements in those areas, which became the focus of our work at fight camp.

Source: ChaelSonnenOfficial

We trained under various conditions with a heart rate monitor so much so that I knew at different points in a fight how exhausted I would become. 

Those minor adjustments I made to my technique and VO2 conditioning – so I could adjust and control the tempo – they mattered during the actual fight.

The food I ate gave me energy and didn’t interrupt my sleep. This ensured I was sufficiently rested and alert. Individual elements reinforced each other, almost like a positive feedback cycle.

Learn to view every improvement, no matter how small, as progress.

Because adding up the smallest improvements can become your margin for victory.