David, you’ve been running a long time and are an accomplished athlete, tell us about your running background.
I only started running in my mid-30’s, and it’s been a fun and enriching 10-year journey so far! I ran to improve my fitness so that I wouldn’t get so out-of-breath while playing football… but then the football games gradually decreased and disappeared, and I started to enjoy running itself more and more until it became my primary sport and passion!
I started with 10k events, gradually moved up to the half-marathon distance, and completed my first full marathon 2 years after I started running. Along my running journey, I got introduced to trail ultramarathons, and that’s now my favourite. As a way of giving back to the running community, I volunteered 4 times as an official pacer of the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore and also help facilitate weekly public runs with Running Department.
You’re the country director at Potential Project. Please share with us a little more about this and what you do there.
Potential Project is a global provider of organisational effectiveness programs based on mindfulness. Mindfulness has become increasingly popular as a way to handle stress and improve personal well-being. Besides these benefits, Potential Project believes that it can also improve bottom-line performance and effectiveness at work. We also believe that mindfulness can help organisations achieve strategic objectives by enhancing performance, creativity, and resilience. I take care of Potential Project’s Singapore operations, where I deliver Corporate-Based Mindfulness Training to all kinds of companies and organisations in the private and public sector.
Most athletes spend a considerable amount of time training their body but few spend time training their mind. Why do you think this is and what is the easiest way to begin training your mind?
Sports is typically thought of as “physical” activity, so it’s no surprise that we place most of our emphasis on the body. It’s also easier to focus on our body as it’s something tangible, there’s a wealth of knowledge and research on the physiology of sports, a huge range of programs on how to train our body, and it’s easier to see the changes and results brought about by training our body.
You’ve probably heard the popular saying that “running is 90% mental”… Mental training in sports has actually been around for a while but has mainly been confined to the realm of the pros or competitive athletes pushing their limits and continuously training towards performance breakthroughs. They train their minds to give themselves that extra 1% (and more!) of advantage, where the margin between winning and losing is razor-thin. However, training our minds can also help the rest of us, even if we’re just participating in sports for fun and recreation.
The easiest way to start mental training is to have an open mind and to acknowledge that your mindset has a direct and very real impact on your body, your training, your racing, and your enjoyment of your sport in general.
What is it about mindfulness that you find so beneficial?
Mindfulness is about our ability to manage our attention and focus and to become more aware of ourselves as well as what’s going on around us. To do that means learning to be present. It leads to all kinds of benefits and insights: clarity of thought, self-awareness and self-regulation, resilience, compassion, and more.
I find mindfulness incredibly helpful because it’s very holistic. It’s such a foundational skill and ability; if you invest in training your mindfulness, it can benefit you across all aspects of life – in sports, in your personal life, at work, etc.
And the good news is: we can all train ourselves to become more mindful. We can undo bad habits and mindsets that are not helpful, and rewire our brains with new habits and positive behaviour that we aspire to.
How do you apply mindfulness to your training and racing?
When I’m mindful about my running, I can connect to what really motivates me and find the motivation to train 5-6 times a week. I practice patience, manage my likes & dislikes, and can focus on executing my training program. I concentrate on the training process and let my fitness unfold, instead of getting too absorbed with chasing specific outcomes. I try to listen to my body with awareness and avoid injuries or overtraining.
I try to keep the joy of running alive by being fully present with each run and enjoying the journey. I focus on taking care of what’s within my control (like my training, rest, nutrition) while accepting things that are outside of my control (like the weather, or an erratic GPS signal on my training watch) and not stressing unnecessarily over them. Even on race day, I just keep my mind on executing to my race plan/strategy, sensing and adapting to the realities of the race (“I’m feeling more dehydrated than usual, and the hills are steeper than I thought!”), not getting too attached to a specific race result, and just focus on doing my best.
And how about in day to day life?
Mindfulness is a state of being, a way of seeing and relating to the world. So, what I just shared above can easily be used to describe my strategy for day-to-day life – just substitute “training” and “racing” with “work” or “making that important presentation” or “managing interpersonal relationships” or “planning a vacation” 🙂 I try to apply the same focus and awareness, and the same strategies of presence, patience, acceptance, etc.
What are some of the most common mental mistakes you see athletes making?
As the ex-Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, once said, “The problem is to keep the monkey mind from running off into all kinds of thoughts.” A lack of focus and concentration leads to a lack of discipline, haphazard and ineffective training execution, and potentially a loss of motivation.
Left to its own devices, our mind is highly habitual and runs on autopilot. Without mindful awareness, we tend to react on impulse — to our impatience, to our judgments, etc. — rather than respond with clarity. An unexpected setback in the middle of a race easily sparks off a spiral of unhelpful negative thoughts and ruminations. And during training, this could lead us to ignore the reality of our fitness and condition or take training shortcuts, which increases our risk of overtraining and injury.
You’ve been a Coached athlete for years and have had success with our programme. Tell us what you like about our approach and why you’re excited to now be involved as a team advisor.
I really like and agree with the Coached tagline of “train smart, not hard.” I’m not getting any younger so I can’t get away with training by brute force! And it’s good advice even for the young and robust. I find that using time/duration (instead of distance) to determine volume and heart rate zone (instead of pace/speed) to determine effort very helpful to me for 2 big reasons:
1. It takes feedback from body plus external conditions into consideration, to ensure that I’m training at the right effort. When I train for mountainous trail ultra-marathons, I run a lot of hills. For those who live in Singapore, you’ll appreciate that a “Steady” effort run up Mount Faber on a hot afternoon is NOT going to be the same as a similar “Steady” effort run along flat East Coast Park on a cool morning.
If I tried to run up Mount Faber at the same pace as what I can comfortably do at East Coast Park, I probably wouldn’t be able to complete that workout, and probably would have trained too hard to recover in time for the next day’s workout, thereby messing up the rest of my training plans for the week. However, by using my heart rate zone instead of pace, I can train at the correct intended intensity (“Steady”) and adjust for the fact that it’s a hot day and it’s a grade 20 incline by going slower. I can still get in the intended volume (for eg. 60 mins.) of training. However many kilometres I end up covering is just an output/result, but it’s not my focus or target.
2. Using time/duration x heart rate zone also gives me a lot of flexibility to adapt my training to non-typical workouts. Hong Kong trail ultra-marathons are notorious for the number of steps that you have to tackle. So, getting used to stairs is a big part of my training. It would have been really difficult to translate my running pace into a stair climbing pace (how steep are the steps?
Am I taking one or two steps at a time?). However, by working towards a target heart rate zone, it’s easy for me to adapt my stair climbing into the appropriate “Moderately Hard” hill rep workout (two steps at a time, as fast as I can) or “Easy” long duration workout (one step at a time, sometimes running and sometimes walking). Similarly, this approach allows me to adapt to and train for all kinds of terrain & conditions that I may find in my races, from the scorching sun in Thailand and Australia trail ultra-marathons, to the cold winter/spring of the Seoul Marathon