Is a sub-2-hour marathon possible?

4 minute read

Inspired by Paula Radcliffe and her 2:15:25 world record I ran my first London Marathon in 2004, the same year of her first defence of that astonishing achievement. As she said her farewell to London yesterday many were still asking whether her womens’ record will ever be beaten. Here’s a thought…



You may not have heard of David Brailsford or the theory of aggregation of marginal gains but it’s quite likely that you will be aware of his success. Back in 2010 David Brailsford was Performance Director for Team Sky, Britain’s professional cycling team. His five year mission was simply to have a British cyclist win the Tour de France – a feat never achieved in the over 100 year history of the race.

Brailsford believed that by identifying every individual aspect of an athlete’s performance and then making just a 1% improvement in each area the overall performance can be significantly enhanced. It’s not new, in fact the theory dates to the Steinitz Accumulation Theory of the 1880s, used to improve chess strategy, but today it’s now commonly known as ‘the aggregation of marginal gains.’ It’s a powerful concept.

It’s widely reported how Brailsford looked at the obvious; training, endurance, nutrition, equipment, but nothing was exempt from scrutiny, from pillow softness for optimum rest to effective hand washing for improved infection avoidance. Just two years later, in 2012 Sir Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France and Team GB cycling, also coached by Brailsford using the same methods , dominated the Olympics winning 70% of the gold medals on offer.

So what can we learn?

Firstly, although the most high profile applications are often in activities like marathon running (some predictions are for a sub- 2-hour marathon in the next 5 years) or Formula 1 racing, the benefits of a marginal gains approach is not just limited to sports. In fact the same approach is used across a wide spectrum of personal and professional development programmes.

Secondly, looking for the big change, the big re-organisation, that one-step development that will catapult you or your business to the forefront is not always the most effective approach. Most established working systems are already naturally refined to some degree and are inherently complex. The ability to deconstruct such a system, identify opportunity and affect change at a component level is often much easier to understand, define and implement.

And thirdly, two important considerations. It’s a natural consequence that the more refined a process already is the harder it is to improve – the ‘law’ of diminishing returns. It also works in reverse – an aggregation of marginal losses. Over time, small, often unnoticed, decreases in specific areas progressively accumulate to create a significant overall performance or achievement decline. By the time the affect is noticeable the underlying causes can be deep seated into your operational process.

There’s an obvious parallel here to email marketing. The ability to effectively measure email performance is one of the key features of the technique. Like in the world of cycling (and running), it’s relatively easy to deconstruct the email marketing process and identify specific areas which are contributing to cause and effect, either positive or negative.

Try applying a 1% improvement target to each of the key areas you identify – and see what happens.