Three weeks ago I had a conversation with my friends Scott and Don on the “Trail Runner Nation” podcast. The conversation from the podcast revolved around a discussion I had with my friend, Mark Gainey, about an idea known as “the aggregation of marginal gains;” the concept revolves around placing the focus on making lots of small and seemingly insignificant changes instead of bigger, more noticeable changes when you’re seeking to improve at something. While out on a run, Mark and I were talking about the film “Kipchoge: The Last Milestone,” which followed professional marathoner Eliud Kipchoge and his 2019 attempt to become the first person to run a sub-two-hour marathon. When it came down to it, Kipchoge and his team were hyper focused on the nitty gritty details of the run and trying to create micro-advantages in every aspect of the attempt. That’s the essence of the aggregation of marginal gains: one change probably won’t make the difference, but several changes likely will. And it’s generally much easier to make minor improvements than to completely overhaul one individual aspect of something.
I’m particularly fascinated with this idea because it correlates so closely with what I do as a professional ultrarunner. In fact, during the podcast discussion we spoke about my most recent race, The Leadville Trail 100, and how this idea played out during my race. The first half of the race didn’t go particularly well for me, so I sort of unwittingly employed the aggregation of marginal gains to my race approach for the second half. I realized that in order to turn my race around (I ultimately moved up from 26th place at Mile 38 to 7th place when I crossed the finish line at Mile 100), it would require many micro decisions that worked together to make an impactful difference. Just like Kipchoge and his team did everything in their power to shave seconds off of his marathon time by creating an environment that suited faster running, I did everything in my power to reverse my fortunes and run a really strong second half of the race. During a 100-mile race, there’s typically a number of things that can have an impact on the outcome of the race. While it’s certainly possible that performing well in one category (e.g., nutrition, pacing, mental strength, etc.) can create a successful outcome, it’s more likely that focusing on marginally improving in many categories will give you the result you’re dreaming of. In my case, I had to modify my nutrition, hydrate more, change my mentality, and put a greater emphasis on body care. Collectively, all of these things worked in conjunction with one another and created the overarching change I hoped for. Had I gone all-in on any one of those four things and neglected the others, my guess is that the results wouldn’t have been the same.
Perhaps the most intriguing facet of this concept is that I believe it can apply to any discipline in life. Whether you’re trying to become a better person, working on getting more fit, or becoming more skilled and successful in your career, the aggregation of marginal gains has its place in that pursuit. I like to tell the athletes I coach that it’s important to keep the end goal in sight, while working on all the short-term goals that will make that end goal achievable. You can only reach Mile 100 by focusing on the mile that you’re in and taking it one mile, even one step at a time. So, the next time you’re looking for improvements in any aspect of life, consider this: start small. One slight change here or there will start to compound with interest over time.