Why Hong Kong surgeon who fixes joints picked triathlon for exercise

Triathlon is great cross-training and relatively safe, says Christopher Tong, who, as an orthopaedic surgeon, knows about the risk of knee and other joint damage from high-impact sport

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 August, 2015, 12:12am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 August, 2015, 12:12am

Does working in the health industry go hand in hand with being healthy? This month we meet three medical professionals who think so, gaining insights from their active pursuits and applying their experiences to help others live well.

Some people choose sport for fun, but Dr Christopher Tong has additional criteria in mind. As an orthopaedic surgeon, he worries about the impact the activity has on joints - and that's why his sport of choice is triathlon.

"Triathlon is great cross-training and relatively safe. The biggest danger is an overuse injury or falling off your bike - but other than that, the risk of injury is lower than other high-impact sports," the 45-year-old explains.

He signed up for his first triathlon in 1999 as a way to shed unwanted weight, but found that the sport offered the "perfect package". "Training is fun, because you usually do it with a group of people. Racing almost always involves travelling and the process of taking part in a triathlon is also fun - it's nice to set goals and improve."

He's since taken part in more short-distance triathlons than he can count, as well as six half Ironmans (1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21km run) since 2008. His best effort was five hours, seven minutes in Taiwan in 2012.

Despite Tong's choice of sport, a period of zealous training two years ago landed him with a meniscus tear, requiring surgery.

"As an orthopaedic surgeon I do this type of procedure all the time, but as a patient I was a little nervous. It made me realise that even the simplest of procedures is a big deal for a patient."

These days, he admits, overtraining is no longer an issue. With a new addition to his family - one-year-old daughter Charlie - long training days are "out of the question".

"Previously, I used to cycle around Disney, Tung Chung and Plover Cove, but these days I just roll out of my house in Pok Fu Lam," he says.

He aims to cycle at least three mornings a week.

"I like getting out in the early morning and riding up The Peak when the weather is nice. You can hear the birds sing and see the harbour - it energises me for the rest of the day.

"I'm fairly relaxed; my stress levels are different to other people living in this city," he says. "Rather than taking part in sports to 'heal my stress' like many people, I find it brings balance to my life."

I find fractures, joints and ligament tears fascinating. In high school I was a swimmer and loved sports and always had an interest in limbs. I knew I wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon when I was a medical student. Often when a patient walks into my office, I'm able to get them back to pre-injury level and back into their sport, and that always feels good.

My involvement in triathlon helps my patients. I think it helps me understand my patients better. It also shows them I understand pain thresholds, so if I say "no" to something - like continuing to play sport when you're injured, for example - they know it's really not a good idea.

My biggest fear is falling off my bike in the morning before operating on my patients. If that were to happen, it would affect my whole livelihood. I used to take part in local cycling races. I found them exhilarating, but I'm a bit hesitant now. If I were to fall off and get a fracture, then I wouldn't be able to operate.

Ultimately, good performance is all about consistent, injury-free training. It's better to err on the side of caution than to go too hard and to risk injury. As I get older I find that I need to spend more time on "maintenance", like rolling my muscles and stretching, than just simply training.

I won't rule out doing another half Ironman. But these days I'm focusing on shorter distances, higher intensity and less training.

My athletic goal right now is simple. That's to improve my time on the bike from the Adventist Hospital to the traffic lights at the top of Peak Road. My aim is to go under 16 minutes. Courses and conditions in triathlon are really variable, so you don't always know if you're quicker or slower. But the distance from the hospital to the top of Peak Road? That doesn't change.