August 8, 2012 cburnham

British Cycling: Fostering a “Culture” Focused on Marginal Gains or Sport Psychology?

It is amazing how dominant that Team Sky and British cycling have been this year.  Going 1 – 2 at the Tour de France, first and third at the Olympics Time Trial, the women’s team pursuit team gold medal, the women’s track omnium gold medal, Women’s Keirin, Silver in Women’s Sprint, Men’s Team Pursuit Gold, Men’s Team Sprint Gold, Bronze in Men’s Omnium, Men’s Keirin Gold, and Gold in Men’s Sprint.  They have 12 cycling medals total in the Olympics so far compared to the next closest country, Australia’s 5 medals. What is even more impressive than their medal count is that they are doing it by setting world records and improving their times over their World Championship performances just 6 months earlier.  They have been dominating international cycling and shows what a well run focused program, with a fairly large budget, can do.


One aspect of the program talked about quite a bit this year is that their focus on getting every marginal gain possible from aerodynamic helmets and lightweight pieces of “kit” to utilizing the latest training and sports science techniques to maximize performance.  This extreme focus on equipment and athlete preparation has developed a culture of focus and determination with in their programs that has really pushed their athletes to another level.  A good example of what even a small dose of this “culture” can do can be seen in the US Women’s Team Pursuit team.  They went from being an outside chance at a medal (in my opinion) to the silver medal winner after a 2 month training camp in Mallorca before the Olympics.  There they used the same focus that British cycling and Team Sky have been using for the last few years, looked for any small advantage, and their hard work was shown in the results.

Even though the results British Cycling have been getting are huge, there has been some questioning whether or not it really is the technological advances that are making them faster, or the athletes thinking they have an advantage with the new technologies.  A good example is with the wheels the British teams are using.  Are they “special wheels” that really are lighter or faster, or are they just normal Mavic wheels that the athletes think have some advantage and the staff are trying to facilitate the notion they are better?  There are times that a sweet piece of new kit can help an athlete push a little harder and even if it doesn’t actually provide an advantage. For example I think everyone rides a little better on a sweet new bike..at least until the “newness” wears off. There is a lot of equipment in cycling that may be marginally better (asymmetrical chain-rings, aerodynamic jerseys ,etc.) that may or may not really have a benefit but if the athlete thinks it is better, it is.  You add up 2, 3, or more of those “technical advances” and you have a real advantage.

Outside of equipment, there is definitely a difference in training philosophy that we are seeing at the top of the sport that is completely rooted in science (more specificity in training) that absolutely works whether the athlete believes it will or not.  There are also recovery techniques that have been shown over and over again to work well (for example ice baths) despite how the athlete feels about them.  I mean really, who likes ice baths?!  But there are other techniques in sports science that are still questionable.  Compression gear is one in particular that seems to work a lot better if the athlete thinks it will work.  I personally feel that compression socks help with recovery but not during a race or ride.  However, if an athlete thinks compression socks allows them to ride even a little bit faster, than they do.  Bottom line, if it works OR the athlete thinks it works, than it works.  

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