Singapore is a runner’s dream. A plethora of well-surfaced, well-lit and family friendly parks and connectors are spread around the country catering for anybody who wants to lace up a pair of trainers. Running tracks are everywhere too and every evening they are packed with sprinters, middle-distance specialists and plain old joggers. And it seems as if there is at least one running race or event every weekend for the masses who want some competitive action or simply fun runs.
But there’s a whole other running world out there, away from pounding the concrete or doing endless laps of the 400m tracks. We’re talking about trail running. Worldwide it’s becoming an increasingly popular alternative/addition to road running and the fact that the recent North Face 100 Singapore trail running race (which had 100km, 50km, 25km and 13km options) attracted over 2,000 entrants shows that Singaporeans have caught the bug too.
Yes, it can be tough in the “wilds of Singapore” and you’ll more than likely get dirty but it’s more rewarding to be striding right through nature rather than around it on the well-manicured paths and footways in our parks. And most importantly it’s fun.
As with any form of exercise there are pros and cons but the benefits outnumber the potential negatives.
It’s good for the soul to run through the forest, bush or jungle. Seriously, the stress of city living is temporarily gone when striding along a trail and it’s much less crowded than say the Botanic Gardens or East Coast Park. Singapore has some truly stunning areas and running through them is as good as way as any to experience them
There are also physical benefits. Due to the rough surfaces encountered on trails, more muscles are used, which over repeated efforts, will build stronger legs. First timers are often amazed at discovering lots of tiny little leg muscles they never knew existed. Running on uneven surfaces will also improve balance.
Dirt, gravel and grass are also much more forgiving than constantly pounding on concrete or asphalt, so knees and backs suffer less stress too. Trail running shoes tend to be constructed with less cushioning for this reason.
There is only one negative really, a slightly higher chance of getting injured. Unfortunately, those uneven surfaces that build better muscles and improve balance can also cause more injuries, from rolled ankles to cuts and abrasions from the odd slip or fall. So keep an eye on what’s in front of you, especially during particularly rough sections.
Things to note
If entering the trails, find a buddy to run with or at least tell somebody where you are going, just in case you have an accident. While none of Singapore’s trails are in what you would call wilderness areas, human contact can be minimal, especially in the middle of the midweek days. Bring a mobile phone just in case.
Appreciate but don’t interfere with the wildlife you’ll encounter. The monkeys, monitor lizards and array of colourful birds are harmless, but watch out for snakes and wild boar.
And don’t venture into the nature reserve trails during or just after a heavy rainstorm. Localised floods, mudslides and fallen trees can occur.
Singapore is blessed with quite a few great running/hiking trails, most of which fall within the combined Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Central Catchment Nature Reserve, which is where we’ll concentrate on for this article. Other places, such as Pulau Ubin or the Sungei Boluh Wetland Reserve, could also be checked out.
The options are endless at MacRitchie
MacRitchie Reservoir Park
There is more than one trail at MacRitchie but the main circuit loops around the reservoir on a 10.5km circuit and it fully deserves its reputation as Singapore’s best place to trail run. It’s wide and extremely well maintained with the drainage nothing short of remarkable. Our last two visits have come on the mornings after huge storms and yet the ground underfoot was barely wet and mud at a minimum. Running the trails at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve after heavy rain is a different story, but more on that later.
The MacRitchie trail is suitable for any runner with a decent level of fitness, and because of its mostly hard-packed surface, normal running shoes are fine, but it’s maybe best not to wear a really old pair as the ground is uneven and sharp edges in the shape of rocks and broken bricks used by the trail builders can pierce a well-worn sole. If eventually bitten by the bug, consider buying trail running shoes as their stiffer, treaded soles really do make a difference.
Read also: 5 great places to run in Singapore
Also, be warned that it will take considerably longer to run the 10.5km than it would to cover the same distance on the road. Apart from a 2km section in the middle the trail constantly undulates. The steepest and longest slopes are in the first half of the trail if run anti-clockwise, so it’s up to each runner if he or she wants to load the biggest challenge into the beginning or end of the loop.
Trail running provides for majestic views
Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
The Bukit Timah Nature Reserve plays host to a network of interconnecting trails and paths that make for a great running experience. While not as seamless as the MacRitchie loop, some of the trails are considerably more challenging, cutting as they do through the nature reserve’s ravine-filled jungles. And be warned, following any big storm or wet spell, the trails tends to be very muddy in places. But getting dirty is part of the fun of trail running.
Newbies to Bukit Timah might be best to stick to the four well-marked, colour-coded trails to begin with. They all start at the nature reserve’s Visitor Centre and head up towards Bukit Timah Summit, at 163 metres, Singapore’s highest point. The Blue and Red routes aren’t really trails as they follow the footpath, but they are super steep. The Green and Yellow trails are both short at just under 2km but are first-rate tests of endurance and feature a wide range of terrains. Trail shoes aren’t essential but recommended.
Read also: Singapore's mountain bike trails
A fifth, orange-coloured trail starts at the Visitor’s Centre, but runners should NOT enter it as it is exclusively for mountain bikers. Running this trail has the potential for causing serious accidents as the bikers might not have time to react when confronted by an unexpected runner coming the other way.
Another gem begins just south and outside the official boundary of the Nature Reserve, on Hindhede Drive. This out-and-back route combines the Pandan, Rifle Range and Nangka trails, and the Durian Loop, and provides 4.2km of undulating action on a combination of (overgrown) footpath, gravel and dirt surfaces. The Durian Loop section is well named so watch out for falling spiky fruits!
This route forms part of the Kampung Trail, which connects Bukit Timah Nature Reserve to MacRitchie Reservoir Park via Rifle Range Road.
Also accessible from just outside the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is the old KTM railway line, now known as the Green Corridor. While basically flat and not technical at all, it has has become a boon for runners, walkers and mountain bikers alike. It runs unbroken from Bukit Merah to Rail Mall on Upper Bukit Timah Road, a stretch of some 15km. It is possible to continue north but the authorities removed the rail bridge at Hillview Road meaning some scrambling and crossing of roads is required.
The Green Corridor is easily accessed from a number of places along its length and while the authorities keep the vegetation from encroaching on the wide trail with regular trimming, it can get quite muddy during wet spells. Some spots, especially an infamous bog near Jelita, are permanently gunky and regularly claim shoes from unsuspecting runners, so beware of simple puddles!
Try these trails and it’ll bring a whole new dimension to your running experience.
Alan Grant is an exiled Scotsman who, apart from a four-year stint in the USA, has spend the last 20 years living and working in Asia. Among his employers have been the South China Morning Post, the Straits Times, Discovery Channel Magazine and Time Out Singapore. Addicted to cycling, he spends too much time in the saddle and the rest of it writing about anything related to the pedal-powered lifestyle.