Tales of a Triathlete #2 – How to not have “Grown Old”

Any day, Anywhere.

Benjamin Ooi – Often when the subject of sports comes up in formal conversation, much of it revolves around the values it is said to imbue — you know, ‘mental resilience, competitive spirit or achievement’. While I agree wholeheartedly, of late I have come to advocate exercise quite simply for its role in supporting a healthy and wholesome life. Most people recognise good health and its accompanying benefits as something we truly deem priceless, that is clear. Yet, whether arising from of a lack of awareness and knowledge or a simple lapse in focus, many of us are surprised subsequently to discover that our bodies have undeniably deteriorated or ‘grown old’.

I myself have a fear of losing any silver of my independence and mobility as time passes. I dread to have to second guess myself: can I get from A to B, will the stairs be too strenuous/painful; will I be able to continue to adventure with just one overloaded haversack? Or with bulky 20kg bike box in addition?; am I able to swim/bike/run whenever I wish?

‘Bike-Packing’ Trip to Oxford

I’ve learnt, keeping a conscious awareness of your physical condition and current state of capabilities is essential. I once met at gym, a family friend in her early 50s who was adamant about her fitness because she had been very active when she was younger. She wanted to experiment with weights again, but that day, she was astounded to she realise that she could no longer perform certain simple body weight exercises! This friend of mine had shifted her priorities heavily into her work and her kids, forgoing her physical fitness, eventually losing all track of herself in this respect. While aging takes a toll on our bodies, and that’s normal, we can take control if we are aware and actively put in the requisite effort to maintain ourselves.

Here’s where sports comes in handy. When athletes engage in a challenging physical activity, we inevitably have an encounter the limits of our current abilities. However, as we internalise that these are merely soft-limits we start to understand how to push our capabilities. Over this process, we get stronger, faster and better at the chosen discipline, but not merely that. As we worked on building strength, endurance and technique, we developed a better understanding of our bodies and an awareness of it that transfers into everyday life.

Take for example, when I go up a particularly long flight of stairs (say at Batu Caves), I consider the following: 

How does my aerobic system feel performing this task? Is it unusually strained?; 

Am I engaging my glutes or quadriceps appropriately; 

What about the form of my weaker leg?; 

How does my chronic knee feel? Am I moving too fast?

These instinctive considerations form a basis of benchmarking and continuous improvement for me, much like a routine time-trial is a measure of running performance. Attaining an aware mindset provides input that helps us to keep track of our physical capabilities in areas that matter to ourselves, and take the highlighted steps towards our goals. Then still, there are little intuitive skills that one picks up in sports, such as learning to fall safely and understanding good form/core engagement when lifting heavy objects. While these aren’t achievements we might share about at an interview, their benefits are inherent and far-reaching

You might think that as a triathlete I would have more than enough disciplines on my plate to perfect. It is true, but over the years I have also dabbled in other sports completely distant to the realms of water, running or endurance races. I feel I have emerged better for it. Attending yoga had me truly realise that my inflexibility was ultimately a result of insufficient attention paid to stretching, and that it had caused me unnecessary strain to attain efficient techniques in swimming and cycling. Starting dance lessons finally activated my calves to function more fully and symmetrically in a way no amount of calf raises seemed able to achieve.

On-going Battle with Flexibility

My point is this, we all know (or at least acknowledge during CNY) that health is something we treasure deeply. Many of us also probably spend long hours standing or seated at work, and hardly on activities that bode well for our bodies. Athletes or not, if we neglect physical activities long enough we are sure to lose a sensing of our own health and fitness which then perpetuates a misguided cycle. So, rather than be caught surprised by how we have ‘grown old’, get out there, try something new and challenging this month, keep active and keep aware!

Ben Ooi is an Ironman Triathlete and younger sibling to two national water polo sisters. He qualified to compete in the World Ironman – World Championships 2017 in Kona, Hawaii. The SMU alumnus is currently working in the private sector and would love a South American holiday, anytime.

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