He used to be overweight and did not actively play sports. But a challenge to himself in 2004 to complete the Singapore Marathon has completely changed his lifestyle.
Today, Ashley Liew is one of Singapore’s top marathon runners and his personal best (PB) for the marathon is 2h 35min 40sec. Ashley has won a number of races in Singapore, including the Standard Chartered Marathon.
He is currently a student at the Sherman College of Chiropractic in South Carolina, in the USA.
I recently interviewed the 26-year-old chiropractic student and obtained some useful running tips. Read on, to find out what these are.
Ashley, when did you start running?
I started running in 2004 beginning with a self-challenge to complete the Singapore Marathon. I did not actively play sports until Junior College and I was overweight, so I looked to running as a way to lose weight and “look cool”. I continued to train without any structure or discipline, until I met Coach Rameshon (current holder of an 18-year-old local marathon record) in December 2008. Under his tutelage I rapidly transformed from leisure to competitive runner. Since then, running has been a way for me to push my limits to the best of my abilities.
Why do you like the marathon?
It just happened to be my first running event, and was something I continued annually from 2004 to 2008 in a bid to modestly progress my personal best (PB) times. I gravitated towards the long-distance endurance event because I neither had the opportunity of developing speed from shorter events during my younger school days, nor do I have fast-twitch muscle fibers. In the recent years of competitive marathoning, I’ve also realized that the marathon is a metaphor for life: the going can be long, tough, and unpredictable, but with determination you can finish the race strongly.
Share with us, your experience in this year’s 2013 July Gold Coast Marathon.
I ran it in 2h35m43s. What made my coach and I return to this race for our third consecutive time was the fantastic race experience offered. This year’s experience was no different with the great organization, competitive field, and good course support. I comfortably reached the halfway mark in 1h15m56s, and was confident of sustaining a similar effort for the second half. However, the heat had started building up unusually early into the race, to which I resorted to dousing myself with water at one point. What I was not prepared for, was the strong head wind after the final turnaround at 36.8km, which expended a lot of my mental and physical effort, ruining my plan of picking up the pace. I was disappointed that I came so close to breaking my PB of 2h35m40s which was set last year, but satisfied knowing that I gave my best, given the conditions.
I understand that you are training for the South East Asian (SEA) Games in December this year. What are the biggest obstacles to your training and preparation for this?
It would most likely be my studies. I would not be able to take time off my degree at this point, or else my graduation would be significantly delayed. I enjoy my studies at the chiropractic school, but it is not easy to juggle this on a daily basis with a twice-daily running routine. Still, I am a firm believer that it can be done, from what I have achieved in both athletics and school during the last eight months. Since this SEA Games would be my most important race to date, I would be dedicating more effort to training than before. I recognize that this may compromise my studies slightly for the next quarter, but I will have to alter the balance to cater to this priority.
What would you would say to someone who is interested to take up running?
Do not wait for tomorrow to start. Too many of us get caught up with our daily lives and keep procrastinating the incorporation of a healthy lifestyle change. However, the longer we wait, the more our health degenerates. Recreational running, even if just 20 minutes each time, promotes a multitude of physical and mental benefits. It can also change your life for the better, as it has done for me.
What types of food would you advise a runner to eat? Is there any special diet that you stick to, as a runner?
Have a balanced diet that includes complex carbohydrates for energy (e.g. spaghetti), proteins for recovery (e.g. tofu, lean-meat), and vitamins and minerals for proper functioning of all systems of the body (e.g. vegetables and fruits). Avoid processed foods (e.g. fast foods) because not only do they contain harmful preservatives, they also have depleted levels of essential micronutrients. While it is alright to indulge moderately now and then, you have to draw a line at what is considered excessive. In 2006 when I was most overweight, I actually thought consuming “Char Kway Teow” three times a week was considered eating in moderation. It was no wonder I continued to put on weight despite running frequently! This highlights that runners do not have the right to overeat, as excess intake gets converted to fat. I do not have a special diet, although I do avoid fried foods, and ensure I get plenty of servings of vegetables and fruits, and water. Before a marathon I also do some “carbo-loading”, but not in excessive amounts.
Any specific types of warm-up or cool-down exercises that you would recommend for runners?
It is critical to do both of these whether you are a new or professional runner – without which the likelihood of injuries skyrocket. Keep the warm-up exercises dynamic, beginning with a least a five minute slow jog or even a brisk walk to increase heart rate and stimulate blood flow to muscles, followed by some exercises like hip flexor swings and ankle rotation. The first thing after a run is not to immediately sit or lie down as blood would pool in your legs, so walk for a couple minutes for your body to clear lactate from your muscles into your liver. Follow this with static stretches for a bare minimum of 10s per stretch, for instance on your calves, quadriceps, gluteus, iliotibial band, and the upper body.
What do you think of cross training (i.e. biking, swimming, lifting weights) to complement running?
Cross training is a good complement to running. Firstly, it breaks up the monotony of running every single session especially for new runners, serving as a form of recovery. Secondly, exercises like swimming, elliptical, and biking continue to boost cardiovascular fitness on a non-impact platform, allowing your joints to successfully adapt to the stress of previous pounding on the road. Thirdly, engaging in strength and conditioning exercises at least once a week is critical to maintaining strong core muscles, balanced running form, and preventing injuries.
As a leading marathoner, what is one tip you can give to readers for endurance running and why?
Be consistent with your running routine. Endurance running involves a committment of time, which you must be prepared to incorporate. Of course you have to be flexible sometimes if other matters crop up, but without consistency in terms of training, you would be taking one step back for every two steps forward. There are many examples of runners who start training late in life, but because of their discipline in maintaining a daily routine they can still become world-class. However, do not expect results to come overnight. Why you see Kenyans winning races is neither because they are genetically born fast, nor are they naturally talented. It is because they have spent the previous 10 years building that endurance base.
How would you advise someone who wants to improve their timing for a race?
Ensure your training programme is structured. When I began training on my own, I did not plan my runs and just ran according to how I felt. All this changed once I met my coach, who instilled in me the need for the following on a weekly basis: one or at most two hard workouts (e.g. track intervals, “fartleks”, steady runs), one long run (depends on race distance but I keep it at between 30 to 35 km leading up to a marathon), and at least one strength and conditioning workout. The rest of the sessions in a week are occupied by runs (or cross-training) at an effort that is comfortable. Increasing the run mileage is key for timing improvement especially for new runners, but keep it progressive (i.e. increase weekly mileage no more than 10%).
How would you cope if you are feeling fatigued during a long race, such as a marathon?
Everybody feels fatigued when giving 100% during a marathon, even though Kenyans running sub-2h5m make it look easy on the outside. Inside they are experiencing a world of pain, but the trick is they do not focus on it. Instead, their mind focuses on the present moment. Physically, this includes checking running form, taking the shortest line possible during a turn, and ensuring deep breaths are taken. Mentally, this includes positive mantras and positive self-talk that specifically work for you (e.g. I often repeat the phrase “I’ve got this”). I do not think about what has happened (e.g. I ran too fast for the first 5km), nor what can possibly happen (e.g. I am going to be in pain at 40km), but only what is in the present moment.
What would you recommend if someone suffers from cramps while running?
Slow down your pace slightly to let it ease up. If it continues, walk or even stretch it out if you have to. In the worse-case scenario of it being so serious that your running gait is radically altered, pull out of the race to avoid sustaining an injury. A way to possibly avoid
cramps is by consuming fluids with electrolytes along the course in frequent, small portions.
What do you think of runners listening to music, to reduce boredom?
For a new runner, this might be a good strategy to distract yourself, in the hope of it extrinsically motivating you. However as you progress, I suggest running without music. You need to be aware of how your body is responding at each point of time, so listening to music might prevent you from recognizing cues (e.g. not being aware of your hard breathing effort and the need to slow down). Again, you want to be focusing on the present moment, so music would distract you from concentrating on the race proper.
For training, do you recommend trail or ground running?
I would recommend trail running. There is less stress on the joints because of the softer landing impact, which can be a nice change instead of continually pounding from the road or track. Kenyans log hundreds of kilometers weekly on dirt paths, not roads. The potential for a sudden aggravated injury is diminished. There is also the opportunity to breathe in fresh air and appreciate the scenery in the trails.
Any other tips you would like to give to runners?
Running is a long-term journey, so enjoy every step of it!
Get tips from Singapore’s other top runners!
Click here for running tips from Soh Rui Yong.
Click here for Soh Rui Yong’s SEA Games marathon success.
Click here for SCMS Tips from Soh.