A few days ago, I went for a 30-mile ride on a route I normally reserve for time trials. Normally, when I ride this route, I am pushing myself as hard as I can to beat my previous best effort. On this ride, I did something different – I still worked hard, but not my absolute best. I was working at about 90% of my max effort.
My personal best time on this course is one hour and 45 minutes. At the end, I am completely spent and usually need a couple of hours to begin to feel like myself again. I was curious to see how terrible my time would be without this maximum effort and was surprised to see the difference was a mere four minutes. Additionally, when I finished the ride I felt remarkably fresh, at least in a relative sense. I clearly felt like I had been exercising but still had plenty of spring in my step.
I got to thinking about those four minutes and the tremendous amount of energy needed to improve my time only slightly. Clearly, the Law of Diminishing Returns was in effect:
In all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant, will at some point yield lower per-unit returns.
In English, the law states that as you put more effort into something, the increase in productivity decreases until you finally reach a point where incredible amounts of effort result in very small increases in productivity. From an economics perspective, this is a cautionary rule which warns against putting excessive resources against production as it will not be profitable. A businessman needs to find the point where returns begin to diminish significantly and stop adding resources at that spot. This maximizes profits and profits are good.
But as I looked at my Garmin data, a thought occurred to me. Although the Law of Diminishing Returns clearly was in effect for my ride times, it does not define the point where increased effort is no longer appropriate. Rather, the exact opposite is true – it defines the point where average ability ends and excellence begins.
Pushing yourself to the limit is hard. Really hard. Intuitively, we know this will only benefit us slightly. As we reach the limits of our abilities, very small improvements (average speed, for example) are achieved only through exceptional effort. It is these “diminishing returns” that separate the average from the good and the good from the great. Many people aren’t willing to push themselves at maximum effort for only incremental improvements in ability. After all, an improvement in only a few minutes over 50 or 100 miles may not be “worth it” to most. Yet, it is precisely those small differences that separate the winners from the als0-rans. Therefore, when an athlete finds that his “returns are diminishing,” he/she can take solace in the fact that he/she has reached the point where greatness begins and should continue to push hard in training and in competition.
Incidentally, I have observed a similar phenomenon while dieting.