Slow and steady wins the race

SINGAPORE - In sport, triumphs are memorable, but failures leave an indelible mark too. Ashley Liew, the reigning Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore (SCMS) local champion, remembers his worst race well.

Just 6km into the 2011 SCMS, he "hit the wall" - that heavy-legged feeling of fatigue that marathon runners typically have about three-quarters into the 42.195km event. A pre-race favourite, he eventually finished in 3hr 6min 3sec, far from his personal best at that time of 2:41:55.

This "most disastrous performance", in his words, was not due to a lack of training. Liew, 26, says he was in peak form, but months of hard work were undone two days before the race, when he did a photo shoot that involved a lot of jumping. In hindsight, he says, he should have listened to his coach's advice to not get distracted before the race.

"By over-committing to things in the days before, we drain our body and mind of precious energy," says Liew, who is studying at the Sherman College of Chiropractic in the United States and has a new marathon personal best of 2:35:43. "Your endless hours of preparation can be squandered by a seemingly harmless activity, even shopping."

Indeed, the days leading up to a race can make or break a runner. After months of hard training, rest and recovery should be the focus during this period.

A gradual reduction in training volume - known as tapering - has been proven to help one achieve peak performance through an increase in muscle strength, power, endurance and maximal aerobic capacity. It also has positive effects for the mind: motivation, arousal and psychological relaxation are all increased.

"The longer the event's distance, the longer the tapering period," says exercise physiologist Ray Loh of Tan Tock Seng Hospital's Sports Medicine and Surgery Clinic. "A typical tapering period for endurance sports is one week."

It does not mean you spend a week on the couch. While training volume decreases during tapering, intensity should be at or above the intended race pace. This brief high-intensity training has been shown in laboratory studies to give the body enough stimuli to prevent a loss in fitness.

Don't do anything out of the ordinary just before the big day.

Teacher and former national runner Renuka Satianathan, 25, learnt her lesson in 2009 at a 14km race in Sydney, the City 2 Surf. In the Australian city for the first time, she got carried away with walking around, exploring, the day before the race. She says she paid for it the next day on Heartbreak Hill.

"It was my first time (doing the race) so any time would have been a personal best," she says, "but it probably could have been a quicker run on fresh legs."

Another runner, Mr Melvin Wong, 30, thought he would race faster by imitating the Kenyans. The analyst had read in Runner's World magazine that a secret of their marathon dominance was being ready on race day - including doing a "shake-out" run on race day morning before breakfast and the race itself.

At last year's Safra Singapore Bay Run 21km race, he woke up at 3.30am to do a 20-minute shake- out run. At the 5.15am flag-off, he felt slightly fatigued. Adrenaline kept him going to hit a personal best of 1:18, but he says the last 3km were a big struggle.

"Even before the halfway mark, I knew I was running on little fuel due to the early-morning awakening," he says. "I would strongly advise not to introduce anything new on race day. In fact, establish a pre-race regimen and stick to it. Toe the start line feeling fresh and not depleted; I'm pretty sure that will be half the battle won."

Certainly, do not race if you are injured. Singapore's fastest women's marathoner Anne Qi Hui, 32, did so at the 2010 SCMS and suffered for her folly.

"I tore my calf muscle four weeks before the race and was told I needed to rest for about eight weeks with therapy, but I thought I'd just do an easy jog and finish the race," she says.

"I finished the marathon but aggravated the injury and delayed the recovery. I couldn't even walk for the next few weeks. The lesson I learnt: Train to be stronger and not injured - and if I get injured, I need to accept it and be patient."

Once the gun goes off, pace yourself, advises another top runner, Mok Ying Rong, 19. At last year's SCMS 21km, she started off too fast and did not achieve her target of going under 1:30.

Learning from the experience, she started slower and held a steadier pace at this year's 2XU Compression Run 21km. Says the Nanyang Polytechnic student: "I finished the race in 1:29 feeling strong and good."

That feeling eluded ultramarathon champion Sumiko Tan, 28, at the 2010 SCMS. Running in second place in the local women's marathon category, she collapsed just 50 metres from the finishing tape and did not finish the race.

"I felt good through the first 30km. Therefore, I thought that by skipping a few water points along the way, my body would be able to take the exhaustion and I'd save some time," says the physical education lecturer. "I learnt to listen to my body and hydrate before I feel thirsty."

Finally, test and decide on your race attire early. At this year's Aarhus City Half-marathon in Denmark, Singapore's 3,000m steeplechase women's record holder Yvonne Lin was overdressed for the 10 deg C weather. She had to stop mid-race to strip off excess clothing, wasting time.

"If possible, do some practice runs prior to the race (to test your attire)," says the student.

And certainly, get your gear ready the night before or you may find yourself with two left feet - or shoes.

In an early morning scramble before last year's SCMS, Renuka's brother Devathas accidentally packed the left side of each of his old and new pairs of running shoes. He ran in his sister's shoes and finished fifth (3:01:38) in the local men's category.

A respectable result, no doubt, but you most certainly wouldn't want to put yourself in his shoes.

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