From The Straits Times    |
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Triathlete and content creator Cheryl Tay competing in a triathlon. Photo provided by Cheryl Tay

How far can you swim while holding your breath underwater? For freediver Patricia Paige Ong, it was a record-breaking 174m in a single breath with the use of bi-fins at the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA) Panglao Pool Championship Finale in the Philippines in April 2022. And just last December, the 33-year-old achieved another national record when she swam a distance of 200m with a monofin.

These personal bests came two years after Patricia started freediving, an interest she picked up from an encounter in Indonesia. “I was a newbie scuba diver exploring the waters off Gili Meno in Indonesia when I saw a man swim down to check out a turtle I was also looking at. Unlike me, he had no breathing apparatus,” she shares.

Patricia plans to continue training to test her body to “see how long, how far, and how deep I can go”. And she is not alone in her endeavour. There are others like pro cyclist Chelsie Tan, the first Singapore woman to earn a pro contract with an Australian team to race in Europe in 2021, and swimmer Li Ling Yung-Hryniewiecki, who swam 34km across the English Channel in under 13 hours.

These amazing feats of endurance prove that women are just as – if not more – capable than their male counterparts when it comes to extreme sports. For sports enthusiasts and beginners keen on following in the footsteps of Patricia, Chelsie and Li Ling, the first step to starting an endurance regime lies in (ironically) knowing your limits.

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Triathlete and content creator Cheryl Tay advises having an active exercise routine before picking up any form of endurance sports. Photo provided by: Cheryl Tay

Understanding your body and its limitations

It’s important to already have an active exercise routine before doubling down on improving your endurance. Take content creator and triathlete Cheryl Tay, for example. “Being someone who loves pushing herself just because it gives me greater purpose, I found the idea of triathlons to be very enticing,” she says. To date, the 36-year-old has completed 13 half Ironman races and one full Ironman.

However, she also recognises that while starting any training regime is easy, actually maintaining it without over-exerting your body over time is the real challenge – something that UFit’s senior physiotherapist Jade Sarsero has noticed. A passionate triathlete herself, Jade points out that the majority of her clients come to her because they have overtrained.

“Swim, cycle, run – if you do some of that or all of that without strength training, your risk of injury is high,” she says. Jade elaborates that for anyone starting any sporting regime, it’s extremely necessary to zoom in on essentials like core work, and training upper and lower body strength.

This is because when you do all of that, key parts that are prone to repetitive strain injury, such as your knees and back, are in a better condition to fully support your body as a whole as it pushes through the pain that naturally comes with endurance sports.

“Endurance sports are all about pain. Sure, you can’t prevent injuries 100 per cent, but you can reduce risks. Don’t ignore your body when it tells you about pain, including the seemingly small, persistent aches and pains. Put your body through different movements. Don’t just cycle or run intensely, focus on strength training too and mix it up. Get your foundation – your muscles and tissues – strong,” she advises.

Jade also adds that another big part of making sure you don’t overtrain is to have a structure in place, which is especially vital for those who are new to endurance sports.

“When you start to train, you should invest in getting a coach, or pay for an online programme where you have a coach… as long as you get a professional to look in, and assess you and your needs, because everyone is different. The chances of you overtraining or injuring yourself increases without a structured training plan.”

Record-breaking freediver, Patricia Paige Ong, prepares for her dive at the Panglao Pool Championship Finale in the Philippines. Photo provided by: Patricia Paige One

Letting go of (unrealistic) expectations

When it comes to beating one’s personal best, both athletes and non-athletes alike would have struggled with one of the biggest roadblocks at some point: overcoming the mental hurdle.

Cheryl recalls the lead-up to a 2017 half Ironman triathlon in Vietnam, as well as the preparation period before her first full Ironman in 2018, in Malaysia.

“Before the 2017 race, I prioritised training over other aspects of my life, like my career. And before my first full Ironman, there were times where I would work out excessively – between 15 to 20 hours a week. During work hours, I would struggle to stay awake and focus during meetings,” she recounts.

Even worse, it all came to naught, because all she racked up were injuries for her first full Ironman, and a poor race performance in Vietnam. Things took a turn for the better when Cheryl decided to change her approach with the age-old belief that “slow and steady wins the race”. Back then, Cheryl would participate in at least five races a year, but now she only does two annually.

She says she does this to avoid cramming multiple races in a year because “it’s no longer about taking home trophies”. Instead, the experience is really about better time management and enjoying the process.

“Participating in endurance sports shows me that I don’t need to be the skinniest or the fittest in the room. It’s about you doing you, as well as remaining consistent [in your progress]. Show up, be prepared to put in the hours and the hard work, and the results will show,” says Cheryl.

Patricia agrees. She explains how just before her victorious freediving performance in Panglao, she was constantly hitting a wall and unable to make it past the 100m mark during practice. A friend’s advice, that “the distance you hit isn’t a reflection of your worth”, lifted Patricia out of that rut. Since then, she has learnt to overcome her self-doubts and ego, and – just like Cheryl – release all expectations of herself, driving home the point that when it comes to physical endurance, it’s truly mind over matter.

Li Ling Yung-Hryniewiecki is the first Singaporean woman to swim across the English Channel. Photo provided by: Li Ling Yung-Hryniewiecki

Finding your tribe

One common tip from these women is the importance of joining a community of like-minded enthusiasts to train with.

Li Ling, who swam the English Channel to raise funds for a charity in Hong Kong where she is now based, firmly believes that this is how you stay committed to your sport of choice. “Many clubs are very welcoming of those new to the sport, and the best thing is that you can find people of all abilities, shapes and sizes. Members are usually more than happy to chat with you and give you great advice.

“Having a social group of like-minded people makes it easier to go back time and time again, and to take part in events. It’s easier to push yourself to go longer distances if you have others doing that with you,” shares the 37-year-old.

She adds that joining a club usually costs a fee, but there are groups on social media channels like Facebook that are free to join.

National cyclist Luo Yiwei says starting small is key to any endurance regime. Photo provided by: Luo Yiwei

No start is too small

Wherever you are in your fitness journey, the most important takeaway is that you just have to start small, and with intent. National cyclist Luo Yiwei believes that an endurance sport is only measured by how long you perceive it to be, and it can be 100km, 5km or even 3km. The 33-year-old stresses that setting small achievable goals helps you meet your bigger goal in the long run, and suggests starting with something simple like cycling around the block or exploring the local park connectors.

Another thing that helps is to create some sense of adventure as you embark on your journey. This can be as simple as cycling to another nearby neighbourhood to check out a new eatery, just so you can clock in more miles without it being a major workout.

“Before you know it, you’re yearning to explore longer routes on the road. Remember that no one chugs a whole plate of food in one mouthful. It’s easier for things to be bite-sized. Get started and let momentum lead you on,” she says.