27-year-old PE teacher, Alex Ong, is one of Singapore’s top distance runners, with a number of podium finishes to his name. These include winning the Tri Factor Run (31.5km) in 2013 and coming second in the 42km category in both the Standard Chartered Marathon in 2013 and the Sundown Marathon last weekend.
None of these was Alex’s answer though, when asked what his most remarkable achievement was. Instead, his fondest memory was when he ran alongside South East Asia’s top marathoner, Mok Ying Ren, in last year’s Standard Chartered Marathon.
Explained the PE teacher, “I was most happy to have run with Mok because I saw how well he was pacing himself to victory. Mok is someone whom I look up to – a lot.”
Besides his running, Alex is also into healthy foods and believes in eating right, to enhance his performances in his chosen sport. He decided to go into healthy eating about four years ago, when he became sick after a hard bout of training – for a period of time. As well, Alex says he easily puts on two to three kilograms if he doesn’t watch what he eats.
This is the third article in a series on healthy food and running – and is written by Alex.
Singapore is a renowned food paradise and eating is arguably our favourite national pastime. After a hard run, our refuelling choices include roti prata, chicken rice, nasi lemak, chilli crab, fish head curry, char kway teow, satay and laksa. I can name many more of our nation’s signature dishes but it will only make you drool while reading this.
Running is tough work. Depending on the individual’s weight and exercise intensity, running burns more calories than most forms of exercise. Therefore, it is not surprising that after a hard run, runners will feel that they have earned the right to indulge in “good” food.
Eating and running share a complex relationship. When eating to run, runners choose the right food to obtain the best nutrition for recovery and performance. Running to eat, on the other hand, means that runners choose to indulge in delicious and usually unhealthy food. The concept of eating right seems to go against our desire to indulge in good food.
Choosing the Right Food to Stay Healthy
I believe in a balanced diet incorporating food from the three food groups: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Fat is not necessarily evil. As some vitamins are fat-soluble, the body requires a healthy amount of fat to absorb these vitamins. Like many of you, I have cravings for “junk food” as well and I do indulge in them occasionally. From my perspective, after all the hard running, it definitely won’t be fun to restrict myself to only certain types of food. Restrictive diets may also be difficult to sustain and expensive. Despite growing calls for a healthier lifestyle, I sometimes find it absurd that a bowl of salad can cost more than a set meal at a fast food restaurant.
There’s certainly no harm having the occasional burger or fries after all the hard running. Overall, I feel that the individual does not need to be too concerned with counting calories as long as he or she is consuming more healthy than unhealthy food. However, too much indulgence may compromise running performance. From my experience, I discovered that I would easily put on two to three kilograms if I don’t watch what I eat. There was also a period of time when I would fall sick after a hard block of training. Subsequently, eating to run became my principle to eat healthy.
Healthy Eating can be Delicious
Many people I know of, associate healthy eating with bland and tasteless food. This is not true – runners do not need to sacrifice on taste in order to eat right.
Healthy eating can be delicious with some creativity and good ingredients. Take broccoli for example. Throw in some garlic, peppers, onions, and a little bit of oil and you get a delicious stir-fry. Instead of having French fries, cut some potatoes into wedges and bake them in the oven with some rosemary and paprika. Use more herbs and natural spices for flavouring instead of salt and sugar. Choose healthier cooking methods, together with the use of herbs and spices, when preparing your meats. Well marinated, grilled chicken wings can be as tasty as fried chicken wings. Fried food can also be healthy for those who are willing to invest in an air-fryer.
I know of runners who will go the extra mile to make healthy and delicious meals. Soh Ruiyong, one of Singapore’s top runners, has shown that with some planning and effort, healthy and delicious meals are possible. He has a blog detailing some of his forays into cooking: http://www.runsohfast.com/ Looking at some pictures of his food make me go “yum”!
Healthy Eating = Plant-Based Diet?
Healthy eating is also usually associated with a plant-based diet. Although eating lots of fruits and vegetables is part and parcel of a healthy diet, the absence of meat may affect one’s intake of protein if he or she is not mindful of consuming sufficient healthy meat alternatives. Moreover, our bodies require both complete and incomplete protein (essential and non-essential amino acids). Strict vegetarians are less likely to consume essential protein.
I’m definitely not against a plant-based diet. I just feel that its followers must be mindful of consuming a wide range of non-meat food products to have sufficient macro and micro nutrients. Personally, I will have a protein-rich meal after long or hard runs.
Healthy Eating at the Food Centre
Many Singaporeans are eating out due to hectic lifestyles. For convenience and affordability, many Singaporeans eat at the foodcourt or hawker centre. As a result, these have become an integral part of Singapore culture and life. A substantial number of dishes sold at food centres are heavily dependent on the use of oil, seasonings and, thus, are high in fat, salt and calories. It’s a challenge to eat healthy when dining out.
Healthier dishes can be found at the food centre, though. Yong tau foo, fish soup and popiah are just some of the examples I can think of. I’m also aware that Maxwell food centre and Golden Shoe Food centre have stalls which sell salad. For less healthy dishes such as chicken rice, modifications may be made to make them healthier. For example, by choosing plain rice instead of the usual rice served, chicken rice will become a healthy dish. At the economical rice stall, choose dishes which are cooked using healthier methods.
Staying hydrated is also an essential component of a healthy diet, especially in hot and humid Singapore. I will usually drink a glass of plain water before my meals to prevent overeating. Research has shown that thirst can cause overeating as our bodies sometimes confuse thirst to be hunger. I will also have at least four servings of fruits each day. Packed full of vitamins and minerals, fruits are also rich in water content. Lastly, isotonic drinks are a good way to replenish electrolytes lost through sweating.
Like how cars run more efficiently with better fuel, better food choices will improve running. Eating to run doesn’t necessarily mean boring, tasteless food. Eating well is very similar to running well. Like every good training programme, a runner’s healthy diet is one that is balanced and contains a variety of food groups. And that means there’s still some room for that pint of ice-cream that you’ve been craving for!