Big Gain Hunting

British Cycling’s plan to cover all possible bases in the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ was first mooted by head of cycling Sir David Brailsford four years before the London Olympics. It’s a tenet he’s grown tired of being asked about, but the basic idea – that you can improve a tiny amount across many different areas that add up to a considerable improvement over the opposition – has reaped huge rewards. The philosophy isn’t one solely for professional riders either. Cyclists of all abilities can use the ‘best practice’ of specialists and sports scientists to raise their game too.

Sleep your way to the top

When put on the spot to list some of the much-vaunted marginal gains, Brailsford threw pillows into the mix, explaining that having your own pillow when staying in strange hotel beds helps with sleeping patterns. Nick Littlehales, a rest and recovery specialist (, helped Team GB identify simple ways to improve the quality of a cyclist’s shut-eye.

“Maintain a constant waking-up time during the week and at weekends,” he says. “Athletes who follow natural circadian rhythms – such as waking at around sunrise – also have fewer sleep problems and recover quicker from exercise.”

Use the last three hours before bed as recovery time. “Eat your last snack no later than one hour prior to sleep to avoid sleep hunger,” says Littlehales. And write down any anxieties that pop into your head – stress can reduce deep, quality sleep by up to 60 per cent.

Get a consistent seven-and-a-half to eight-hours’ kip every night “If you don’t, you’ll suffer sleep debt (fatigue), which requires two to three consistent nights’ sleep to reset the balance,” he says.

Oil Checks

Nigel Mitchell, nutritionist for Team GB and Sky, is keen to emphasise the impact of the right kinds of dietary fats and the integral role they play in maintaining optimal function during rides and at rest. “Cutting too much dietary fat can sap performance,” says Mitchell. “We encourage team members to take ‘good’ fats in the shape of fish-oil supplements because most daily diets don’t contain enough”

Research suggests the omega-3 found in oily fish enhances muscle restructure after exercise. “They counter the stresses on the body from tough rides and help you recover faster,” he adds.

Slimline Tonic

“Advances in aerodynamics are something any rider can take advantage of,” says Simon Smart, aerodynamics specialist with

“Switching from standard helmet to enclosed aero-type and ensuring the tail of the helmet fits so it reduces turbulence can have an impact,” he says. “Working with people in the Drag2Zero wind tunnel, we regularly see riders making gains of at least 10W by using the right aero helmet (that’s one second per kilometer).

“The helmet has to be right in terms of shape but also, importantly, how it fits the rider.

Eat to win

“With so many amateur riders, it’s meal planning that lets them down,” explains Mitchell. To balance busy lives, fitness levels and weight control, the nutritionist advises cyclists to structure their meals and snacks.

“Team GB riders will bring leftovers into training,” he says. They’re made the night before, by cooking more than they need and putting it in the fridge. “It ensures you don’t skip meals because you’re too busy to leave the desk and by one.”

Keep a training diary and meal diary too. “You’ll identify foods that may cause upsets and have a useful record of missed meals.”

Sweat the small stuff

“If you’re trying to hydrate people, don’t give them water to drink, give them flavoured water,” says Brailsford, when explaining marginal gains philosophy. “It tastes better, so they’ll drink more.”

Levels of fluid intake can result in much more than marginal gains. “In some competitions it can make the difference between finishing and not finishing,” says Asker Jeukendrup, Professor of Exercise Metabolism at the University of Birmingham. “It’s important to determine sweat losses too so that these can be predicted and you can more accurately judge your required intake. But this is highly individual and people’s sweat rates vary from 500ml to more than two litres an hour.”

You can work out your sweat rate as follows. Start by weighing yourself in your underwear before training. After you’ve trained, weigh yourself again in your underwear. The weight of any food/fluid you’ve consumed should then be added to the calculated change in body mass – before estimated urine losses are subtracted.

Cherry on top

Montmorency cherry juice was reportedly a tipple of choice among many athletes at the London Games and was prescribed by the Team GB nutritionists in response to research linking it with increased melatonin production in the body – a hormone that helps regulate sleep and may aid muscle recovery.

It’s high in antioxidants and flavonoids. “But with cherry juice you would improve less over time,” says Jeukendrup, “so maybe it should be used when there is little time in between events, not during training periods.”

Bar Code

“It’s you, the rider, and your position in and out of the saddle that makes the biggest contribution to drag,” says Smart. Shaving your legs and trimming up loose bar tape can affect the drag and finishing times of some cyclists, but optimising your riding position is crucial.

In wind-tunnel trials, a competitive cyclist who changed to a lower body position, used a rear disc wheel and wore a body suit reduced effective drag from 3.15kg to nearly 2.7kg.

Keep Your Cool

Regulating your body temperature – especially on hot days – can, according to a study in the journal Experimental Physiology, mean a difference of up to five minutes in a 25-mile time trial.

“Before Beijing we were looking into fabrics for the indoor riders and my mentioned how one in particular would get heavy when wet,” explains Chris Boardman, former head of British Cycling research and development. “At first I thought it wouldn’t be an issue – it doesn’t rain indoors! But of course cyclists sweat buckets and that in turn adds weight to the ride.”

Look for clothing that wicks sweat from the body to reduce the additional weight and discomfort that comes with ‘overheating’. Boardman suggests you seek out jerseys that have the lightest material around the hottest areas of your torso – down the back, across the chest and under the arms – or go for one with a full zip for ventilation on the hotter climbs.

Big Breakfast

“Breakfast remains one of the basics that a lot of athletes fall down on,” says Mitchell. “If you’re cycling to work and don’t fancy doing it on a full stomach, take an instant porridge mix to have when you get there.”

“One of the mistakes we all make is going too long without eating, craving foods and then overfeeding on quickly absorbed carbohydrates.”

The right breakfast extinguishes the temptation to snack on biscuits. Mitchell’s cyclists’ diet is based on six or seven small meals a day with porridge a key component, often followed by a mid-morning glass of milk and a banana.

Scrub Up Well

“Do you really know how to clean your hands – without leaving the bits between your fingers?” Brailsford responded to one reporter when highlighting how lifestyle changes could influence performance and training. “If you do things like that properly, you’ll get ill a little bit less.”

Dr Val Curtis, director at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, suggests cyclists carry hand-sanitising wipes in their kit bags and ensure they wash their hands with soap after visiting the loo. A cursory rinse isn’t enough: “You need to use soap to lift the dirt and germs off the skin.”