The Unseen Path

The title “Head of Marginal Gains” might not sound impressive, but on UK sports teams this is the guy whose attention to detail is what wins games, races, and medals. In the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics, the title belonged to Matt Parker, a then-32-year-old sports scientist with a reputation for never being satisfied. To shave crucial seconds off of race times — not only winning the British cycling team Olympic medals, but also helping them to break a total of eight world records during his four-year stint — Parker ran a team of 15 and set up a total of 28 performance-testing projects for the 2012 Olympic team in the two years leading up to the London Olympics. Meticulous in the planning, execution, and analysis of these experiments, Parker tested everything from sleep patterns to mattresses to the heated shorts the team eventually became known for. In addition to the famous “hotpants,” Parker got the team sleeping on hypoallergenic mattresses, consuming large quantities of fish oil and Montmorency cherries (their high antioxidant content helped muscles recover more quickly), and collecting both video and on-bike data.

One area of focus, what Parker termed “Project Golden Hour,” relied on key data from the 2008 Beijing Olympics: that there tended to be about one hour between the semi-finals and finals of cycling events. So Parker set about finding ways to maximize recovery time in that hour. The result? Cyclists on the 2012 British team were the only ones to log faster circuits in their finals than their semi-finals.

Parker’s results were so impressive that in 2013 the English rugby team recruited him. There, he’s been working his magic again — although the secrets of marginal gains are tightly kept, Parker has admitted to having the team train at night to be better prepared for evening games, partnering with a nearby pharmaceutical company (GlaxoSmithKline) to test supplements and energy drinks, and conducting a thorough evaluation of how Team England sweats, in order to optimize hydration and recovery during games. In the lead-up to the UK-hosted World Cup in 2015, Parker is intent on finding and tweaking the details that will make the difference between winning games and winning championships.