Marginal Gains For Rowing – The Simple Science Behind it

In this article, I’ll be going over how making small changes to your every day habits can improve your overall performance both on and off the water by using marginal gains. I will be basing this article on the book Atomic Habits written by James Clear.

“When nothing seems to help. I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it – but all that had gone before.”

James Clear – Atomic Habits

Implementation of Marginal Gains

When you first start rowing you’ll likely notice, like me, that everyone around you who has been rowing for years is much better at it than you. Don’t. Give. Up! The last thing you want to do is compare yourself, a complete novice, to anyone else around you who has been rowing even a day longer than you.

After about 6 months you will be far more confident on the water than you could have ever imagined. But confidence on the water isn’t the only thing that you’ll have to take into account if you want to take it further.

In 2003 Dave Brailsford took over as the performance director of the Great Britain cycling team. He thought that by making small marginal gains to every aspect of the cycling process, you could make an overall improvement to your performance. And he was right!

Since 1908 the British cycling team had taken only 1 gold medal home at the Olympic Games. In the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the British cycling team took home around 60% of the available gold medals. 5 years! 5 years is all it took for one man to completely turn around the lives of every single member of that team. Small changes are all that it takes to make 1% of improvement happen.

What are those changes you may ask? Things like redesigning bike seats to make them more comfortable. rubbing alcohol on their tires to make them grip better. Specially designed shorts to maintain peak muscle temperature. Even small things like picking the perfect mattress and pillow for a perfect night’s sleep. All of these things and hundreds more added up to make a huge overall improvement.

1% a day. That’s all it takes to make an overall improvement. James says that by making a 1% improvement every day you’ll be looking at an overall increase in performance of around 37 times.

One of my favourite home cook channels, Alex ‘French guy cooking’ explains marginal gains perfectly. You can watch his video below if you like. He starts talking about it at the 2:42 mark but I think the whole video is worth a watch though

Alex French Guy Cooking

Things to note

You aren’t going to see an immediate improvement. Increasing something by 1% is hardly noticeable immediately. It’s the sum of all of those improvements that are going to add up to make it noticeable. This is what Dave Brailsford calls “the aggregation of marginal gains”.

It’s like losing weight. At first, you may see a loss of a couple of pounds, look at yourself in the mirror, and think “Well, I don’t look like I’ve lost any weight” but you have! Fast forward a couple of months when you’ve lost 2 pounds every week and you’ll have lost over 16lbs. That’s over a stone! And you will most likely see the results of all your hard work by them.

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”

James Clear – Atomic Habits

Whilst I’m not going to go over exactly how you should improve in this article (I’ll save that for the future) I will attempt to explain the science behind it.

When Dave Brailsford was explaining “the aggregation of marginal gains” he wasn’t talking about how you should try to implement these into your everyday life. He was talking about how you NEED to implement these into your everyday life. Whilst, yes some things may slip here or there it’s the other things you’ve mastered that will help.

The Science Behind Marginal Gains

Let’s say you’ve purchased a new boat because the one you regularly use had a hole in it and had been repaired. You’ll likely find that the new one performs better because it’s more hydrodynamic. That’s your 1%. Need new oars because the old ones are chipped. That’s another 1%.

All of a sudden you’ve improved 2% without even having to change anything about your technique. This is what I would call a passive change. Something that you don’t even have to think about because it’s something you don’t have to do.

Now let’s say you’re slouching in the boat. You need a straight back to perform better, so the next time you get in a boat you have to physically remind yourself to keep a straight back. That’s 1%. Are you bending your wrists to spin the oar? Try using your fingers instead. This reduces fatigue on the wrists and allows for more control of the oar. That’s 1%.

Now you’ve got two things you’re changing physically to add up to your 2% This is what I would call an active change. Something that you have to remind yourself to do in order to perform better. That’s the power of marginal gains!

That’s a 4% change in a very small amount of time. Remember that your active changes can become passive changes. I recently got back in a boat after not stepping foot in one for about 5 years and it was like riding a bike. You just never forget the important things that have been ingrained in you. My back was straight, my fingers coiled around the oar and I just rowed like I was in a boat yesterday.

It’s important to remember that whilst some things can change from active to passive you’ll never stop learning. It took me a long time to realise that not 1 person knows everything there is to know about a subject. Everybody learns, and everybody can improve.

It’s time to start aggregating your marginal gains and improving for the better. What are you going to do to improve? Let us know below and try to mark each change whether passive or active.

What are marginal gains in the context of rowing?

Marginal gains refer to the concept of making small, incremental improvements in any process to yield a significant overall performance boost over time. In rowing, this could mean enhancing techniques, optimizing equipment, or even improving physical conditioning and mental preparation.

How can I apply the principle of marginal gains to my rowing practice?

Start by analyzing every aspect of your rowing – from your technique and stamina to your equipment and diet. Each area offers opportunities for small improvements. For instance, you could tweak your stroke technique for more efficiency or adjust your diet for better energy levels during training.

Why are marginal gains important in rowing?

Rowing is a sport where fractions of a second can determine the outcome of a race. Therefore, any slight improvement—whether in technique, strength, endurance, or equipment—can lead to a considerable advantage over competitors. It’s the cumulative effect of these tiny gains that can lead to significant progress over time.

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