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They talk about marginal gains. We’ve all heard the expression, we’ve all looked to beat our PBs and see a notable improvement in performance. In fact we’ve probably all achieved it, and it’s a great feeling. But there are some disconcerting questions lurking in the depths of your mind… we don’t talk about this stuff so much. What if I plateau? What if I get WORSE? That just can’t happen, so we train harder, we train more. But we can’t keep doing that forever. So what is the key?

Running the Snowdon race in 2012 - marginal gains indeed...

I’m sorry if you’ve started reading this thinking you might get answers! I don’t have a magic solution, for the simple reason that I haven’t got a clue. But I’m learning and discovering all the time. Of course it helps that I’m working with one of the best coaches around, and I see him around three times a week. But I’m three weeks into working with Rick Kiddle and the emphasis on marginal gains is very apparent….

I think everyone will know how it feels to constantly monitor, assess and reassess your performance in everything you do; from easy training sessions right through to racing.

This marginal gains things has been a really key theme over the past week, and I can actually quite neatly split it into three disciplines. This is purely coincidental and hasn’t been engineered, in fact, I hadn’t even realised this until I started writing…!

The track - dark moments of self discovery...

After having an endless pool session in the dark with torches with Rick at the start of my training programme, he hasn’t seen me swim much since. However, he has reduced the duration of my swim sessions and increased the frequency and intensity. “Every single swim session needs to be hard”, he says. “Time everything, even your warm up.”

As a total non-swimmer at the beginning of last year, I think swimming is the area I am most proud of. I’m not great, but I’m definitely not bad. But in order to improve, there is a need to constantly analyse your stroke, after all, we all know that swimming is pretty much all technique. Oh, and swim almost every single day…

I am not allowed to swim in club sessions anymore. This has been quite a surprise, but the principles are admirable. I need to be focusing what I need to work on, not what 20 other people are doing. So predominantly solo swimming it is then. 

Oh god, here we go. One dreaded expression: tumble turns. Last night I swam with Rick in a one-o-one session. This was awesome, because it’s one thing having a coach stand on the poolside giving you sets and telling you to move your hands or arms or legs a bit differently, but having someone who is an indisputably amazing swimmer swim with you, mimicking your stroke then demonstrating how it should look, is priceless! 
So Rick told me I need to learn to tumble turn. “We’re not looking to make you a triathlete, we’re looking to make you a swimmer. Because real swimmers make good triathletes.” I knew this would inevitably involve copious amounts of chlorine up my nose, and, shock horror, this is exactly what happened. I felt about 10 years old as I was somersaulting in the water and getting it wrong. Triathlon training is ridiculously glamorous, especially with chlorine nasal burn and watery eyes.
I have now been instructed to never ever again swim by turning normally at the ends of the pool. In two weeks it will feel like I’ve been doing it forever, apparently. We’ll see! I have a suspicion it will be unpleasant for a while before I’m a tumble turning master…
This will revolutionise my swim. Along with the other list of things I need to improve on with my stroke. Rick told me it’s all about seconds. We’re looking to take only seconds off my swim times, so focus on getting the times down every day. I have t report my times back to him. Relentless.

Last year I was turbo-ing a couple of times a week and one long ride at the weekend. This is another frequency thing. I am on my turbo/powerbike/bike almost every day. Again, vastly increased frequency and intensity. Two power bike classes a week with Rick, where your heart rate is monitored and projected on a wall for everyone else to see (no hiding here!) is a revolutionary way of running a spinning class! 
A power threshold test every few weeks to ensure there are marginal gains, even if it’s only a few watts improvement, a few heart rate beats down, a slightly higher cadence. It’s monitoring, assessing and reassessing.

This is just a no brainer. I’m working in carefully constructed heart rate zones to maximise efficiency and it’s definitely paying off. I hate power threshold tests when I’m in the middle of one but I kind of like them, I feel amazing afterwards. And everyone will be able to relate to the ‘being competitive with your own statistics’ concept! Must. Beat. Last. Week’s. Time….
So I did. In just three weeks of the new coaching programme I have improved my power threshold test by 20 watts. Doesn’t sound like much,  but in a short space of time, it’s a very satisfying figure!

I’m not actually doing that much running to be honest. Unusual for me as I come from a running background (ish, if you can call that after only a few years). But again, strict HR zone orders and some running off the bike (in Winter I hear you cry!? Yes, apparently so!).

Anyway, I have ‘Park Run’ in my programme. Never been to one before, but I knew the concept. In fact I have no idea last time I even ran a timed 5k – I’ve spent a year training for Ironman, this could be interesting! But with my new found love for pushing hard (I won’t say going fast as it won’t be entirely accurate…), I was quite up for this.

No pressure, it’s not a race. Why do I feel nervous then? Because I want to get a good time. Yes but it’s just training. I don’t care, I want to come in the top three. Oh god, here we go.

I was struggling after about 5 minutes but that’s the name of the game in short stuff! A few laps of the park and an absolute mission to run two women ahead of me down (as in overtake, not actually run them down), and I was over the line. 21:50. I was third female and felt quite pleased with that.

One day later, text from Rick: “21:50 – we need to get that down to below 20 minutes by March!”. I hadn’t even told him my result. Why monitor yourself when you’re being monitored!? I like his approach though, I have to say…

So, the point of my ramblings. Well, all of this is about marginal gains, all of it. And when I can see progress, in some shape or form, in just a few weeks with working with someone new – this is what it is all about. Because right now, it’s only December, and I still have months before the season starts.

I am relishing this sensation of monitoring and assessing. I used to just smash out mileage – quantity not quality – and I’m truly recognising the importance of performance analysis. All. The. Time. I’m ready for gains, not losses…..