The British Cycling team spent many decades being completely underwhelming, barely even registering any notable performances. From 1924 through 1988, Britain won precisely zero gold medals in any Olympic cycling events. Then seemingly from nowhere burst into a formidable force across several cycling disciplines in recent years, culminating in world class performances in their home Summer Olympics in 2012. Britain achieved 12 Cycling medals in London 2012, twice as many as any other nation. Moreover, two separate Brits won the Tour de France in 2012 and 2013.
How did they do it? It wasn’t stumbling across some hidden genetic freaks in the British population nor finding some secret nutritional enhancer, but through collaboration of smart scientists, coaches, and athletes to develop innovative approaches to figuring out the game of cycling. Their approach to building performance excellence is sound and capable of being applied to sport and life. David Brailsford was the Performance Director of the British Cycling program and adopted the phrase “performance by the aggregation of marginal gains” as the program’s driving philosophy which is detailed in Richard Moore’s book Heroes, Villians, and Velodromes.
The philosophy demands review of every facet of one’s activity with the driving focus of seeking some modest improvement in each. Writer Robin Sharma refers to this type of approach to improvement as seeking small daily improvements over time which leads to stunning results. One’s goal should be to achieve small gains repeated over time which will inevitably lead to great outcomes. One doesn’t need to seek immediate, large improvements, but chip away modestly day after day. Progress follows a patiently applied process with commitment to small advancements made repeatedly.
British Cycling was so committed to the aggregation of marginal gains approach that they created a job position called Head of Marginal Gains which was staffed by a sports scientist responsible for a team of fifteen. The team ruthlessly analyzed every aspect of each performance factor pertinent to their sport. Not only were technical and tactical performance factors rigorously analyzed, but more exotic adjustments were embraced. For example, even environmental factors like packing personal pillows for athletes during their travels with the goal to minimize neck soreness that followed from using unfamiliar ones was pursued as a performance enhancer. Any road warriors stuck shifting from hotel bed to hotel bed knows the curse of different hotel chain pillows relative to old faithful on your bed at home. Thanks COVID for the comforts of home. Even our Power Point presentations can benefit from a better night’s sleep. Moreover, Brailsford’s Marginal Gains Group also discovered that coating bike tires with alcohol prior to the start in short track races provided better adhesion to the velodrome surface which resulted in small, but significant performance benefits.
For a sport with many experts, a respectable budget, and high stakes, ensuring athletes had proper pillows in place was likely a pretty trivial item. The cost to do this relative to shipping bikes and people is quite small as would be the effort to manage. Yet, the positive impact to performance enhancement was not trivial. Whoop is a player in the fitness wearables marketplace. They led a study with Major League Baseball where a number of players used their device for a season. The device tracks all kinds of metrics that connect with performance. Several big ones include measurement of sleep cycles and heart rate variability. They found that a key difference between home teams and away teams related to quality and quantity of sleep. Players at home would experience on average an hour more of better quality sleep relative to those on the road. Part of the home team advantage wasn’t the noisy fans helping out, but the comfort and familiarity of sleeping on one’s own bed. Trying, as our British Cycling team has, to make athlete travel experiences as close to home as possible helps sleep which spurs performance. Sleep has become the super drug for many sports.
In the hustle and bustle of our days, what little things are we overlooking? What opportunities for improvement are shuffled to the side because of our focus on the big picture? Our answers are likely to be different for each of us. We likely don’t have a Brailsford on our team devoted to finding things for us to implement. However, there must be a few small things here and there you’ve been thinking of implementing that have sat on the sidelines. Todd Henry writes in his book, Die Empty, “What do you know you should be doing, but have been ignoring? These are forgotten battlefronts. They are things that have been weighing on your mind for a while now, and things that you care deeply about, but you’ve been ignoring because either (a) you fear that you won’t have time for them or (b) you haven’t defined them enough to know your next steps.”
For myself, there are a couple of areas I have had on my radar for a while which I have wanted to try. One is taking a cold shower. Cold therapy has been an established part of high performance athlete recovery programs for years. This became more interesting to me when I learned about a Dutch character, Wim Hof.
Wim swears by a combination of cold exposure and breath control as a miracle cure for many ailments. His extreme feats of doing this combined with some scientific support has led to quite a following. He holds multiple world records which have earned him the moniker of The Iceman. His records include having the longest underwater swim where the water is covered in ice as well as the longest time spent with full body contact with ice. He has also run a half marathon with his bare feet on a snow and ice surface. Hof is an interesting character with a remarkable story doing some wild things. Hof believes that a cost of the creature comforts most of us are surrounded with is our bodies have lost touch with nature. They no longer know what it is like to be cold. Certain built in protections have been, effectively, turned off as a result. Technology and advancement have separated us from our natural environment. This, according to Hof, has consequences to our biology.
Known benefits of what’s now its own field of sports science, cryotherapy or cold exposure training, include release of hormones like norepinephrine and dopamine which both heighten one’s alertness and makes one feel good. Cold therapy can activate BAT or Brown Adipose Tissue which is a type of fat that is metabolically superior to most of the fat we have. Increasing our BAT is a recognized method of weight management. Related to BAT production is the increase of metabolic rate that accompanies cold therapy. Other physiological benefits related to enhancing mitochondrial production and bolstering our immune systems. From Iceman Wim Hof’s perspective, building our immune systems is one of the most important benefits of cold therapy.
Finally, stress management and mental resilience strengthens from cold exposure. There’s even science suggesting that cold exposure slows dementia as a result of catalyzing the creation of a “cold shock” protein. In short, who cares why, but some form of cold therapy has known physical and mental benefits. At worst, you feel better post a cold shower than you did before. You become more alert. This in a work from home environment could be done more than once a day. One could derive these benefits two or three times daily. One’s work productivity and utility is sure to improve.
Turning down the hot water and keeping the shower flowing cold implies zero cost. There’s no financial burden to try this trick out. I’m taking showers regardless, so there’s little disruption or additional effort required. Moreover, the performance benefits aren’t zero. It’s well established by both science and anecdotal supporting evidence that people are benefitting from this practice.
Yet, it’s something I’ve had no success in implementing to date. Why? What’s holding me back? For the cold shower, there are two factors or excuses to which I’ve been clinging. First, it seems trivial. I have bigger fish to fry. My attention is monopolized by the big picture of goals and today’s to do list. All of the tasks and objectives that are piled up in front of me are where I’m driving my efforts. Occasionally, I look up at the rear view mirror and see these other opportunities but they seem like distractions. They remain in the rear view. Another reason the cold shower tactic has not been implemented is a view that it would be uncomfortable. This would be the activity’s cost. A reason to not undertake it is because the initial times will be met with discomfort.
Angel investor, Naval Ravikant, has become a proponent of cold showers. He had avoided doing it himself for years. Finally, he recognized that most of the suffering came more from avoidance than the activity itself. In response to a question on a podcast on this topic, Navikant offered, “Most of the suffering from a cold shower is the tip-toeing your way in. Once you’re in, you’re in. It’s not suffering. It’s just cold. Your body saying it’s cold is different than your mind saying it’s cold. Acknowledge your body saying it’s cold. Look at it. Deal with it. Accept it, but don’t mentally suffer from it. Taking a cold shower for two minutes isn’t going to kill you.”
Comedian, Adam Carolla, throws his support behind cold exposure in his book, I’m Your Emotional Support Animal, where he writes “For over three years, I have been dunking myself in that pool daily, often before dawn. Naked. It’s stimulating. The number-one response people give me when I tell them to do this is, “But it’s so cold. I don’t want to do that.” Exactly. The answer is in the answer. You don’t want to do that. But you should. When you get out of that freezing pool, you are completely woke, and not bullshit Brooklyn hipster “woke.” It stops you from sleepwalking around all morning in a bathrobe followed by an afternoon crash. You’ll tingle all day. You put yourself in harm’s way intentionally and get the benefit of pushing past your comfort zone. If you have the means, I highly recommend it. If not, do what I do in the summer—take a nice icy-cold shower. I’ll leave it to a scientist to tell you the health benefits of this. All I know is you’ll never feel more alive.”
The short term discomfort is the only deterrent and that’s mostly in our mind related to anticipation. Taking a cold shower costs nothing and ample evidence supports that it changes to our physiology result immediately which result in a burst of energy. It oxygenates our bodies which promotes mental sharpness. Whom amongst us couldn’t use a bit more sharpness?
It may seem like this note has been a hard sell for shivering showers. However, the only person I’m trying to convince of this is myself. I am, though, inviting you to consider trying something small that is a new experience that could benefit you.
Cold showers are one of those little things that can make a big difference. What are some little things you would like to commit to making a part of your daily routine in 2021? How about taking a nap? How about taking a day away from screens, computers, smartphones, TVs once a week (or once a month)? How about spending ten minutes a day concentrating on slow, deep breaths? All or any of these little things may add real value to our days. Any of these are a sharp contrast to our typical approach to seeking solutions. We’re too often drawn by those promising massive improvements and that are expensive to implement. Little things get shuffled to the side. No need to dare to want it all. Instead, focus on what’s small.
Let’s lead off 2021 with something little.