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Doctor on the Run

April 29, 2022   Return


Written by Tee I-Wei

Interview by Mok Shi-Lynn

Dr Au Yong Pui San

Sports Medicine Physician

Triathlete, Powerlifter


Marathons, duathlons and triathlons are just a few of the many ‘tons’ in 36-year-old Dr Au Yong Pui San’s life. The other tons come from the incredible weights she handles when powerlifting. It comes as no surprise then, that she is a sports medicine physician. Her work encompasses sporting injuries, post operative rehabilitation, return-to-sports rehabilitation, exercise prescription as well as fitness assessment. As we chatted with her over her profession and her passion for endurance sports, it became obvious that this was one physician that practices whatever she preaches – and yes, she really does lift, bro.

How did you get started?

It was back in 2008, when I had just finished my housemanship. I gained a lot of weight during that time, so it pushed me into exercising. I started with casual running until an uncle at the park asked me what my running goal was and hinted at a full marathon. I didn’t even know what a full marathon was back then. So I tried to do at least 10km. In two months, I could run 10km. I ran my first 10km race (Ipoh International), and it wasn’t that tough! I got into the hype and kept looking for more races to run. The second race soon came along (King of The Road), and, amid my Dad’s concern – I did it alone. I ran and fell in love with it! When I decided that I could not run any faster, I went longer. I went from a half marathon to a full marathon, all the way to double the normal marathon distance. After doubling the marathon distance, I took up cycling too – which led me to my first triathlon. After that, I did my first Olympic distance, then 100km, then the ultra marathon. After the ultra marathon, I decided that it was enough for me in terms of long distance as it was so stressful and painful! I kept it to a marathon distance after that.

If it is painful and uncomfortable, why do you still do it?

It signifies to me how life is – not everything in life is going to be easy. You need to feel how uncomfortable life can be physically to know what comfort really means. We live in a time where everything is comfortable – air-conditioning to stop sweating, parking close to the entrance to avoid a humid walk through the car park. You won’t know just what you are capable of. We are capable of so much more. So I think I need a reminder that I can do a lot, and endurance sports is one way to keep reminding myself of that.

How often do you train and what’s your training regimen like?

I train six days a week. On Mondays during my lunch break, I do deadlifts for an hour. When I head home in the evening, I have a cycling session on the trainer. Tuesdays are for upper body strength training, evenings, I’ll either cycle or run on the trainer. Wednesdays are my squat days and a day off from cardio. Thursdays are my ‘add-on or accessories’ strength training day, where I work on upper body, core, balance and specific areas. Then another cycling session in the evening. Fridays are my off days. Saturdays are long ride days while Sundays are long run days. I have a “deload” every three to four weeks where I wind down training for about a week, then I restart. This helps to give my body a rest from the load I am constantly putting it under, before I hit hard again in the new week.

Are you disciplined in other areas too – rest, diet and stress management?

I am very particular about sleep, making sure I get my minimum 8–9 hours. I sleep at 9.30pm because I’m usually so tired by then! I’m up again the next morning around 5.30am. In terms of dieting, I don’t particularly limit myself to just healthy food as I believe that kills a lot of the joy. Everything should be in moderation, and I try to eat as sensibly as I can: load up on carbohydrates for squat days, more protein for cardio days.

Do you ever worry about over-exercising?

You need to be in tune with your body – do you feel aches and pains or niggling discomforts? After a certain age, niggling pains can become chronic issues. My advice to recreational athletes is to do cross training, which means you do similar activities, but not the same. For example, if you are a runner, try swimming, cycling or even yoga. Do things that are different so it does not add load to the same joints you use for your primary sport; plus, you also get to strengthen the other parts of your body. And for those who think that all this muscle use causes degeneration – well, think of it this way: if you do not use your muscles and store them away like a newly bought pair of shoes that is never worn, it will fall apart when you take it out a few years later! 

What are some of the highlights or memorable moments of your sporting adventures?

It would be the time when I fell from my bike and broke my finger. It’s memorable because I never got to experience this whole injury process as a patient, because I am always the doctor. It was exciting – waiting for the ambulance, waiting for the X-ray, going back to work with my cast on, and even learning to write with my left hand. Being a right-handed person, I found out that I could learn to write and do a lot with my left hand, so that was a good experience.

What are your future goals or targets?

I am currently doing 85kg for my deadlifts and 65kg for squats, but I would love to lift double my body weight in my deadlifts and squats. It is a bit lofty but I am hoping to do it soon. I’m doing a lot of reading, watching the professionals and analyzing the biomechanics and positioning.

Why do you think that you, as a healthcare professional, should be fit?

How you look is your best advertisement. You want the patient to trust the advice that you are giving, and I am a firm believer in practicing what you preach. If I tell my patient that she has to walk for half an hour, three times a week, and she asks me “Doctor, do you do all this yourself?”, I have to be able to say “Yes, I do it six times a week.”

Any tips on how a couch potato can start an exercise regimen?

Start with short durations, but do it as frequently as you can. Habit formation is the most important part of exercise. If you can do the same exercise daily, even just 10 minutes, for three weeks, it becomes a habit, much like brushing your teeth. Once the habit is formed, you make the durations longer. And find activities that really interest you – find your passion. If you like to dance, go for Zumba. If you like to fight, go for muay thai. If you like something more rugged, go for trail hiking. The more you like something, the more frequently you will do it. And most importantly – do not get injured! One injury can set you back many months. Prevention is better than cure.

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