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Speed Cycling and Speed Reading

05 Sep 2018
Speed Cycling and Speed Reading

In this article I will explain how cycling can be used as an analogy to reading and how both follow a similar approach.

In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Great Britain came third in the medals table for cycling. The British track team won two golds, one silver and one bronze medal, their best performance since London 1908.

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games saw great improvement with seven track golds and one road race gold, four silvers and two bronzes.

In the 2012 Olympics in front of a home crowd in London, Britain had its most successful games ever finishing in overall third place behind China and the USA with 65 medals in total. The cycling team won eight gold medals, two silvers and two bronzes.

Most recently, in the 2016 Rio Olympics Britain took home six golds, four silvers and two bronzes.

This was a truly remarkable sustained transformation in performance with Britain now considered a dominant force in cycling. What's more, it can be attributed mostly to one man’s philosophy. From 2003 to 2014 Dave Brailsford held the post of performance director for British Cycling.

Brailsford was asked what his secret was. He gave a simple but enigmatic answer, “The Aggregation of Marginal Gains”. The team looked at every possible factor that could contribute to improved performance. This ranged from the obvious like aerodynamics, bio-mechanics, fitness, diet and sports psychology (under Steve Peters) to more outlandish elements such as athletes taking their own pillow when training away from home (so you get a better night's sleep) and learning to thoroughly wash their hands (giving better hygiene and less chance of illness or infection). The aim was to improve each factor giving a 1% gain. When you add these together they lead to massive improvement.

What has this got to do with reading? In a similar way, speed reading is not a single technique. It is the aggregation of a number of simple techniques each of which improve your speed. The main difference being that the gains are often much greater than 1%. For example, it takes the same time to recognise and assimilate two words as one. If you take in pairs of words you double your speed. With practice, it is possible to take in as many as six at a time, in a meaningful visual gulp. Because information is chunked together there is no loss of comprehension. In fact, comprehension and speed can both increase in tandem.

To register an image, be that a beautiful sunset or a word on a page, your eyes need to be still. Think about shaking a camera when taking a picture - you get a blurry image. When your eyes move, the brain edits out the motion blur. So although we experience a world in movement, in fact we're only absorbing a series of stills. These short pauses are called fixations and last from less than a quarter of the second to 1.5 seconds. If you reduce the duration of each fixation you make another big jump in speed.

One of the most common bad habits which slows down poor readers is regular back skipping or regression - re-reading part of a sentence due to fear that you missed something. A simple understanding that it is more fruitful to continue going forwards thereby accumulating more context, inspires greater confidence. Authors often repeat themselves so you'll catch the information second time around. If the problem is vocabulary, greater context allows you to often deduce the meaning of a word. Once back skipping is eliminated a reader’s speed can be dramatically improved. Once again much better than a 1% gain.

Other elements can deliver more modest improvements. For example, you read less effectively if you are lying in bed or slumped in a comfy chair. Sitting upright at a desk with your reading material at a slight angle, not only helps to maintain focus, but with correct posture leads to less chance of back or shoulder pain, tiredness and fatigue. This is based on the work of Australian actor and experimentalist Frederick Matthias Alexander, originator of the Alexander technique. Alexander was a Shakespearean orator who unfortunately suffered voice loss whilst public speaking. Seeking medical advice, his doctors found no physical cause. Thus he set about a program of self examination using a series of mirrors to observe his posture and investigated musculature and the skeletal system. His conclusions led to an approach of conscious control of movement and spatial awareness minimising unnecessary physical strain.

You can begin to see how each technique builds on the previous one to steadily improve. Unlike some less than reputable training, everything we teach is evidence based and makes logical sense. No weird techniques and claims of photographic memory which most scientists believe is a myth.