Marginal Losses- How I Got Slower In a Year and a Half

The title of this post is a variation on “marginal gains”, the concept by which coach Dave Brailsford famously revolutionized British Cycling. It is discussed in various places including the book Atomic Habits, and there is an excerpt here. If you make multiple tiny improvements, say about 1% each, they can add up over time to a substantial gain (like compound interest rates). But I recently figured out that this happened to me in reverse in the last year and a half, multiple minor changes added up to a significant loss of speed on my bike. I noticed this when I did a Strava Segment that lasted just under an hour, at an average speed of 13.2 mph. And then I remembered that I had done a century ride in September of 2021, which was close to seven hours at an average speed of 14.8 mph. So back then I could go all day considerably faster than I could recently go for under an hour. What has changed?

I noticed that about a month after the century, I wrote a post on “time-restricted eating“. Because this appeared to have health benefits, I started following it, which for me meant not eating breakfast. Since I do my riding in the morning I was riding before eating. This caused the first significant loss in speed. Recently I tried the same Strava segment but after eating breakfast, and my time improved considerably, to 15 mph. That might account for most of the change. I looked for other marginal effects. I then found I had written a post “Recumbents Don’t Need Clip-in Pedals- Who Knew?” also about a month after the century. It is convenient and comfortable to use regular shoes and platform pedals while riding. Global Cycling Network did a video here that showed there is very little performance drop with platform pedals. But this is using stiff shoes designed for cycling with platform pedals. I was using my regular street shoes so I think this caused more of a performance hit. Finally, my century was in September with warmer weather, so I was wearing shorts and a tight-fitting jersey. Wearing more clothes in winter can slow you down if they are loose and cause more drag.

I put all these little effects together, first putting my clip-in pedals back on the bike and wearing the cycling-specific shoes that go with them (mine have Shimano spd cleats). I made sure I wore form-fitting clothes and ate breakfast before my ride. I then did a time trial of about an hour yesterday, averaging 15.2 mph, and it felt the effort was sustainable for much longer. It is reassuring to know that I haven’t gotten any slower in the past 18 months.

But it’s important to note that all of this matters only when I’m checking my time against a previous time, or trying to post a good time on Strava or the equivalent. For relaxed rides, I can still wear regular shoes and clothes. Fortunately, I have pedals that have a platform surface on one side and clip-in on the other, so I can use either type of shoe. I also still intend to do fasted rides and skip breakfast several days a week for the health benefits. But on a day when I’m testing my performance, I’ll eat breakfast and have my full cycling-specific “kit” on. Every little bit helps!

One thought on “Marginal Losses- How I Got Slower In a Year and a Half

  1. Interesting article analysing us old guys. I’m thinking of returning to my local velodrome so I can measure a set distance performance over time. However there are so many variables such as weather it’s hard to make a detailed comparison. The best I can hope for is to do a PB just to prove I’m still improving. I feel I’m faster on the MTB tracks but that has an impossible number of variables. Just keep doing it and enjoy the feeling of complete exhaustion when you have pushed yourself to the limit occasionally.


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