The law of diminishing returns vs. the aggregation of marginal gains.

Today I ran a personal best at the Reading half marathon (hooray)… by 20 seconds (oh) which equates to just over a second a mile (erm…) and that has made me think about running, diminishing returns and what it takes to continue to improve.

A couple of weeks ago a compatriot and training partner ran his first race after months of injury and set a new personal best. However when he replied to my text asking how the race had gone, he did so without mentioning the new benchmark (which of course I knew, but I was hoping he’d mention it). And he said he was a bit disappointed. I must admit that I felt like sending an admonishing text back saying that he should be bloody pleased with a PB, but I think I knew, deep in my heart, what was going on. I will explain.

In really simple terms (‘cause I’m a simple guy) the law of diminishing returns states that if you continue to add more resources to a process there will be an initial increasing return that, as more resources is added, will start to tail off. That is not to say that the addition of resources will result in a fall in output (that is known as negative returns) but the rate of returns will start to flatten. A common example given is that of people building a car – add more people to the process and you’ll get more cars. But continue to add more people and you will still get more cars, but not at a proportional rate.

If you apply this to running, it means (to me anyway) that if you add more training you should continue to get faster but at a decreasing rate. Most novice runners – me included – take massive chunks of time off every time they race. This could due to be a number of factors:

  • fitness increases
  • experience increases
  • running economy increases
  • etc

However as the runner races more, each beneficial factor has a less magnificent impact until we are scrabbling around for seconds here and there.

Now I recognise that almost every factor in racing is non-linear – we are not machines after all – and that it is impossible to apply this type of model to human behaviour, the effect of the weather, the impact of illness, etc but I believe that every runner will acknowledge that running is like ‘bungee running’…

Bungee running? I hear you ask. Last year at a festival in central London, my fiancée and I saw a bungee running sideshow – an inflatable tunnel where people are tied to a bungee cord at the open end and try to run up the tunnel to snatch a prize at the other end. The initial few meters are easy (in a running analogy this is the first few races that a novice enters) with little resistance to forward momentum but as the bungee runner reaches the furthest extent of the cord, the effort needed to go further (in our running analogy to achieve a personal best) increases… until they are flung backwards to the open end of the tunnel, exhausted and defeated. Nice.

But there is something on our side. Something that started being discussed in the GB cycling squad and (surprise, surprise after their results in the Beijing Olympics) made it into the lexicon of the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown; the aggregation of marginal gains. It is beautifully described here and essentially is the process whereby everything that could possibly have an impact on an outcome is systematically questioned and improved, if only by 1%. This, my friends, is where we find out improvement.

So what do I think this means?

I think it means making sure every training session is a close to perfect as possible (note I do not mean as fast as possible, or as long as possible. I mean as perfect as possible).
It means getting a massage.
It means stretching for a minute more or one more muscle than before.
It means going to bed 30 minutes earlier and making sure there are no distractions in the bedroom (well, apart from that obviously).
It means laying out your breakfast stuff the morning before an early run or a race.
It means thinking about everything that one can do that might have an impact in your A-race.

And where does that leave me? Well, I’m quite a long way up the bungee tunnel and the rope is quite tight. But I am not quite ready to slip back, not yet. I know that to get a little further up the tunnel I will have to work harder. But I am also going to work smarter. And I am going to accept that my days of 15 minute PBs are over and that from now on – if I am improving, I am improving and that is all I want.

Go hard, or go home – you decide.

Recently my friend and, dare I say it, sometime mentor Charlie Dark mentioned to me a motto he has adopted: ‘go hard, or go home’. Now I have been thinking about this quite a bit and I have come to realise that it means many things. But one thing in particular about this phrase has embedded itself in my mind. That is the implicit idea that we all have the opportunity to make a decision about our running within a framework – we decide to either go hard or go home. There is no option in this phrase for trying to go hard. Or going a bit hard. There is only ‘go hard’ or ‘go home’.

It has been well documented that the last 30 years have seen a rather spectacular decline in the standards of British male marathon running. In 1985, 102 British male runners ran under 2 hours 20 minutes for the marathon, only 5 managed this same feat in 2005. In the same period there has been an incredible surge in the number of runners from east Africa, especially from Kenya and Ethiopia and more specifically from around the Iten Valley.

This is not the place that I am going to go into a long-winded discussion of why western runners have fallen so spectacularly from grace or why, almost at the same time, African runners have come to dominate the sport. But one thing is for certain – genetics do not play any part at all in either process. Quite simply the genetics of a population change over vastly long periods of time and it is absolutely certain that European runners are not now any less genetically capable of running fast marathons. So the only possible reason for the drop in standards I can see is that we have decided to get worse at running. We decided to ‘go home’.

Last night I was at a friend’s birthday party. It was a typically drunken affair but with my focus on my training and my goals, I elected to stick to fruit juice. Of course someone noticed and it soon started a conversation about running and marathons and inevitably about the people at the party who knew someone who had run a marathon and then – finally – to my times for the marathon. The response to me saying that my PB is 2:40 was verging on hysterical. One of the guests at the party turned to the girl opposite her and screeched “Oh my God, that is fucking amazing. That is like totally elite. I can’t believe it” and I felt angry.

Why did I feel angry? Because 2:40 is good – in fact I am very proud of it – but it is not “fucking amazing” or anywhere near “totally elite” and the overreaction is a damning comment on the state of running in this country. In today’s east Africa a similar time might get me a pat on the back, nothing more. In this country in the ‘70s and ‘80s I would be considered a reasonable club runner.

Today in the UK an ex-smoker and former junk-food eating, heavy drinker who has only been running for 5 years is considered to have done something extraordinary with a 2:40 PB. I think this state of affairs is wrong and I really want to find a way to correct it. I firmly believe that sports (or the lack thereof) in the school system is failing our children and has been for 20 years or more and that has contributed to the decline in middle and long distance running. I also think that the totally disproportionate rewards enjoyed by certain sport-people versus others is another crucial factor. But let me be clear here – the population of the United Kingdom today is genetically identical to that during the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. There is no reason – save for opportunity and motivation – why we shouldn’t be producing runners at least as good, if not better, than in our golden period of marathoning. So this is my agenda and declaration – I want to understand why the decline has happened, what can be done to reverse it and then I want to do something about it. I want to contribute to returning to a situation where runners, quite simply decide that they are going to ‘go hard’. Simple, eh?