When Sir Dave Brailsford needed one of the world's elite teams of endurance athletes to compete at its highest-ever level, he turned to a powerful new technology: soap and water.

As performance director of the British national cycling team from 2002 through 2014, Brailsford was always looking for ways to make his riders' grueling training programs more efficient. During the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Brailsford and his coaching staff were feeling supremely confident in their team's fitness level--so confident, it made them a little paranoid. "We thought, 'OK, the only thing that's going to stop us is, we can't get ill,'" Brailsford, who now directs the professional Team Sky, says.

A cyclist's training regimen is mapped out months ahead of time with an eye to peaking at just the right moment, so losing even a few days to the flu can be a huge setback. Worse, teams live and train in close quarters, making it hard to keep outbreaks contained. "If someone gets ill, everyone gets ill," Brailsford says.  

So, with Beijing looming, Brailsford brought in a surgeon to demonstrate proper hand-washing technique. Unlike those of us who don't work in sterile environments, surgeons know to scour the places germs hide out (the nail beds and the webbing of the fingers, in case you're curious). Once the team was installed in upper-story lodgings in the Olympic village, Brailsford made sure there was always someone on hand to sanitize the elevator buttons before any riders touched them.

"Now, in itself, that's not going to win you anything," Brailsford says of the OCD-level hygiene procedures he put in place. "But it reduced our illness, so you could argue by doing that we were able to train for a longer period of time, and I'm sure that did have a benefit." That's fair to say: British Cycling led all nations, with eight gold medals in Beijing.

In its small way, this story captures the essence of Brailsford's coaching strategy, which is built on a foundation of "the aggregation of marginal gains." Because the human body has inherent physiological limits, improvements in speed and endurance tend to come in ever-smaller increments as the theoretical boundary approaches. Brailsford's method seeks to stack those micro-increments into meaningful ones--as he puts it, "trying to get 1 percent improvement from absolutely everything that impacts on cycling performance, rather than trying to look for these big step changes that you rarely see in elite performance."

Yet the marginal-gains strategy can yield step-function results, if you're looking through the right lens. Before Brailsford signed on as an adviser in 1997, British Cycling had taken home exactly three Olympic medals in the sport in the previous 76 years. In the subsequent four Summer Games, it nabbed 34.

I met Brailsford during a recent visit he made to San Francisco. He was in town to meet with fitness-tech companies in hopes of finding new products that might give his riders an edge. At the same time, he said, tech companies like to pick his brain to find out how to tailor their gear to the needs of elite athletes. In a city full of obsessive cyclists and biohackers, there's a lot of interest in what he knows.

There should be. The insights arising from Brailsford's work carry over to any area of endeavor. The central challenge of his work: "How do you take a human being and get the most out of him? If you can get close to 100 percent optimization of a given talent, that's a very, very powerful thing."

For entrepreneurs looking to optimize their own performance or get the most out of their employees, here are four of Brailsford's key insights from his years at the apex of competitive cycling:

1. Measure the wrong thing, get the wrong results.

"Big data's a challenge for all of us," Brailsford says. "It's an area where everybody's trying to steal a march on each other." Fitness trackers and other tools of the "quantified self" movement can be enormously motivational, but they can also mislead. In cycling, it helps to have low total body weight, but it's the power-to-mass ratio that really determines performance. A rider who focuses only on cutting weight is liable to under-hydrate or drop muscle mass. By the same token, if you're using an app to measure how much of your day is spent being "productive," you may be depriving yourself of the unstructured time and daydreaming that's key to creative problem solving.

2. Don't confuse goals with targets.

Brailsford works closely with Team Sky's psychiatrist, Steve Peters, and Fran Millar, whose title is "head of winning behaviors." The three make a point of stressing the difference between goals, which can and should be lofty and aspirational, and targets, which should be specific and attainable. It's the difference between "I want to be the best in the world" and "I want to shave 15 seconds off my mile this week." Confusing the two leads to a sense of frustration and unfulfillment, while a properly designed program of escalating targets creates a sense of satisfying momentum and positive reinforcement.

3. There's no such thing as commitment without suffering.

Having properly aligned goals and targets does riders no good if they don't have a realistic understanding of the pain and deprivation required to achieve them. The coaches do their best to lay out all the obstacles ahead, big and small, and use what they call a "hunger index" to gauge how serious riders are about following through. "In our sport, you're going to be hungry," he explains. "You're going to have to get down to unsustainable levels of body composition. You can't lose weight without being hungry."

4. Hierarchy is your enemy.  

One of the most important changes Brailsford made at British Cycling was upending the perceived pecking order. The "dictate and control management" he found when he arrived discouraged riders from taking ownership for their performance. "We took the crown, if you like, off the coach's head and put it on the rider's head," he says. "We told them, 'You're the king or queen. You're the one who's going to get the medal. All these people around you are basically there as expert advisers or supporters." The effect, he says, was almost instantaneous. "Some of the riders who were maybe less motivated, they flipped over and they were on fire."

Brailsford also put this philosophy into place for the team's support staff. Since massage therapists and mechanics often are the ones talking to riders the most, they're frequently the ones who spot solutions first. The team instituted an "idea of the month" contest to capture them. "Ideas have value, they don't have rank," Brailsford likes to say.

Published on: Mar 18, 2015