Zoom for improvement

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 November, 2011, 12:00am


Photographer Olaf Mueller has never really struggled with weight. At university, he was a sporty student, working out and playing team sports regularly. After marriage and two children, he continued to be active, eat a low-carb, high-protein diet and exercise religiously.

But even those who've known him for years have been amazed by his recent transformation to a lean, mean silhouette. Apart from weight, he has shaved years off his looks. But he's swallowed no secret Benjamin Button pill. Since taking up triathlons, Mueller has transmogrified from artist to athlete in the space of months.

'I wanted to break out of the routine of my daily life. I love challenges and one day in March I decided, for myself, I must do something new,' says Mueller, 31, who did his first triathlon in June. He's signed up for the Ironman 70.3 Asia-Pacific Championship in Phuket, Thailand, on December 4 - a triathlon that involves a 1.9 kilometre swim, 90.1 kilometre cycle and 21.1 kilometre run.

The challenge of the sport, he says, is not race day itself, but the long preparation before it. 'I started [training] seven months before and it's a daily commitment.'

His wife, Jessica, is amazed that his recent self-shot pictures aren't the product of Photoshop. 'I've never been this fit in my entire life. My entire physical structure has changed,' he says.

Mueller admits he was tempted to quit in the beginning. A natural runner, he was so bad at cycling that he found it 'depressing', and swimming was even worse. But he never let go. 'I'm an extreme character; once committed, I'm in for the long run. I was tired for the first two to three months, then I hit a wall and something clicked and it stopped hurting. Now I have so much energy; if I don't train, I feel something's wrong.'

Was it hitting 30 that made you rethink your life and health?

Age had nothing to do with it. I wanted to do something new. Especially in Hong Kong, you can get so sedentary and stuck in a routine. I'm always at events and exhibitions, and the drinking culture of the city is hard to escape. I've always loved my beer, but something strange has happened recently. My body automatically rejects alcohol after a certain point. I get my fix through sport.

Do you train with others?

I train on my own - I have a busy life full of people so this is my quiet time. I get up at five in the morning to start my training routine - it used to be hard to get up early, but not any more. I live in Clear Water Bay, where there are others in group training, but I wanted to do this at my own pace.

I have an online coach - it costs about US$250 a month - who puts me on a training schedule. He plans my workouts, he understands how fast I can recover, he tells me what to do and what not to do, what sort of equipment to get, and so on. What most people do wrong is that they dive right into the routine and crash and burn. You need to build your stamina, heal your muscles and get your bones ready for the impact. The trainer helps pace me properly.

How long do you train for?

I train between 14 and 16 hours per week. People think they don't have that kind of luxury of time, but it's really a matter of discipline. It's not that difficult. Because I'm up so early, I get to see my kids go to school. I work long hours, so in the past I rarely saw the kids in the morning as I was asleep.

What's the best part of your routine?

It may seem wrong but I eat more than ever - guilt-free. Most people eat less because they want to get slimmer, but my primary objective was never to get thinner - that happened automatically. I wanted to be fit, to meet the challenges. Because I burn so many calories so quickly, I get to eat whatever I like. I eat more carbohydrates, more healthy fats, and less protein, as digesting red meat makes me tired. I still enjoy wine and beer, but I drink plenty of water as alcohol is dehydrating. I don't deprive myself of anything - and still this is the best shape my body has ever been in.

Have you changed your wardrobe?

I was always a large or extra large and I have all these amazing clothes that now float on me. I still haven't had a chance to shop - my waistline has gone from 35 to 30.

But surely this isn't for everyone?

I think for me, that was part of the appeal. Only a very small part of the population has the stamina to do this, to commit to it, to not give up. I do have to say, it's an expensive sport to get into. But for me, it's been the best thing. Triathletes are the fittest people in the world.

For me, [this has] been the best thing. Triathletes are the fittest people in the world