Cycling And Philosophy, Part 3 – The Law Of Diminishing Returns

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.

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10 thoughts on “Cycling And Philosophy, Part 3 – The Law Of Diminishing Returns

    • You’re certainly welcome. I often am surprised at where my mind turns while cycling. Sometimes it’s Greek philosophy; other times it’s economics.

  1. Or you can look at it from the point of view that you can have far more pleasure while doing the activity for a very small loss of self esteem after it is over. There comes a time in life when you know you are going to get worse at anything you were at all good at no matter how hard you try and then the trick is to maximise the pleasure from diminishing achievement.
    My view has always been that life requires a good number of losers to provide a very small number of winners in a competitive environment and I have always been happy to have been of use to winners in my own small way.

    • I can always count on you for an interersting alternative take, Tootlepedal! One hedge against doing worse with the advancement of age is to take up new activities, so you’re always setting personal records regardless of your advancing years. This is why I intend to take up roller blading when I am 90.

      • Good scheme. I found that increasing physical deficiencies forced me to take up new activities (one of which was cycling than goodness).

  2. Good article. I’ve actually found that at the top of the effort ladder I can improve a bit by doing less.

    I find when i’m a bit under flat out my times improve ever so slightly. Focusing on keeping things really smooth, having a nice low posture and maintaining a steady rhythm make me go [slightly] faster than mashing the pedals and foaming at the mouth flat out!

    • Good point. Economic Theory tells us that continued application of resources not only results in diminishing returns but sometimes can result in NEGATIVE returns, meaning you are actually less productive despite having applied more effort.

  3. I frequently face the diminishing returns scenario when I am running late on my commute to work. From now on, rather than chastising myself for sleeping in, I will congratulate myself for pursuing excellence. Thanks Steve!

  4. Your footnote that you’ve observed similar results when dieting is very interesting. I’m lucky that I’ve never needed to diet, but when I come back from a multi-week trek (having done say about 1400 miles, 85 miles per day) I am asked by many “did I lose weight”? The answer generally is: “Well, to be honest, no. I don’t think so”! Which has led me to question ‘why’?
    Well, I suspect that if you are already operating naturally at your operational/target weight, unless you literally starve yourself, you are not going to lose much (if any) weight, no matter what you do. The speed of losing any weight is in direct proportion to the amount of excess weight you are carrying. Hence, the seriously overweight will lose their excess weight very quickly when they diet, and will slow down as they approach their target weight.

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