Making the sport next level in Asia and beyond.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Making the sport next level in Asia and beyond.

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This decade has focused on the benefits of working out in all forms and for all ages; from weightlifting, cross training and aerobics to Pilates, yoga and everything in between, endorsing them as a way of life. In particular, running has grown in popularity and seems to have become the ‘it’ sport. Hong Kong attracts some of the world’s best runners, with races taking place almost every weekend during the cooler months. More specifically, trail running has become somewhat of an obsession around the globe. According to RunSociety, Asia’s leading online running magazine, in 2016 there were 38 running events in Hong Kong, 112 in Singapore, 153 in Malaysia and 69 in Thailand – enough to keep runners occupied year-round.

Thrill of the Chase

Hong Kongers, for example, live a high-pressure lifestyle and simply need a release. Running is an easy, convenient way to let off steam, and provides a fast track to the final destination of Healthyville. It is addictive in the best possible way – stimulating, powerful and inspiring, especially for those with a competitive spirit. Apart from the health benefits of staying healthy and active, running can also be social, as seen with the increasing number of run clubs and meet-ups which have drawn people in. Spending time outside is also a great way to reconnect us with nature.

Travel and fitness haven’t always been complementary, a break often derailing a fitness regime as a result of poor facilities, or limited access to safe jogging paths and running trails. However, today’s runners make travel plans based on the health and fitness activities available at the destinations.

“Many trail runners use their annual leave to combine a race and a holiday and are always searching for new exotic destinations, ” says Vlad Ixel, Hong Kong’s ‘Male Runner of the Year 2015–2016’ at the Hong Kong Trail Running Awards. “I love the idea of doing a race in a new place and then spending a few days exploring the area; you feel like you deserve the holiday after completing the race. Some of the new races are held in very remote locales and attract huge numbers of runners, as they are places most tourists would never visit ordinarily.”

Top trends in fitness travel include sight-running holidays, marathon tours and hiking trips. ‘Run-cations’ combine running and vacation and represent a growing tourism segment. Queensland’s Gold Coast Airport Marathon, now in its 38th year, attracts more than 3,000 international participants contributing to the event’s expected contribution of over AUD$20 million to the local economy.

Andy DuBois, ultra runner, coach and director of Mile 27, a specialist trail and ultrarunning coaching company says, “Runners are looking to explore trails in different countries without having to do a race. They provide a means of improving their running, exploring great trails and having a holiday away from the stresses of work.” Mile 27 ran one in Queenstown, New Zealand where participants covered 75km over four days with 5,000m of fantastic trails that runners can’t do in a race or by themselves. Participants improve their running over four days of training without worrying about where to go. DuBois recommends runners research thoroughly to ensure they know what exactly they are signing up for beforehand.

Some companies in Europe organise long-distance training trips in Spain and Italy, turning 13mi runs into well-earned sightseeing excursions, attracting groups, singles and diehard runners worldwide. Additionally, hotel brands are partnering with fitness brands, building on-site studios and offering trendy workout classes to stay competitive. The Westin hotel chain offers packages in collaboration with the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series, for example, with VIP bib pickup and pasta dinners, access to a designated recovery tent and ‘running concierge’.

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Next Level Sprint

Running has evolved in a way no other traditional sport has, breaking away from competitive sport and embracing fun, technology and youth culture. Asia is at the heart of this revolution, and the definition of what it means to be a runner has changed. Alternative running events, such as branded fun runs and extreme obstacle courses are rapidly gaining interest.

These include themed runs, such as the Doraemon Run in Hong Kong, Hello Kitty Run in Singapore and The Colour Run where participants end up covered head-to-toe in rainbow-hued powder, or obstacle courses such as the Spartan Race. These events are new and exciting compared to traditional sports like golf, tennis or swimming. Participants are stimulated on multiple levels and enjoy innovative, group-based experiences that can be shared on social networks like Facebook and Instagram.

Being a good runner is not necessarily all about running. Ixel says, “It’s important to balance your training with strength and stability work to stay injury free. Basic exercises like squats, lunges and balancing on one foot can take your running to the next level and keep you running strong and longer.” DuBois agrees, “Strength training is a long-neglected area of running training but the awareness of its benefits is growing. People should look for run-specific strength training programmes, moving beyond exercises like the plank to more dynamic three-dimensional exercises with greater benefits to runners.”

The integration of technology and running is also in demand, with successful running apps that combine themes of online multiplayer games with real-time running. Runners can track and share their progress, live-stream videos to social networks and share images and favourite playlists, anytime and anywhere.

Asia’s Best Trails

Ultrarunners Ixel and DuBois recommend the following: Lantau Island is a trail runner’s playground with some of the best in Hong Kong, many different terrains with amazing views that will suit a beginner hiker to a trail-running pro. At 934m, Lantau Peak is the second highest peak in Hong Kong, and popular for catching the sunrise.

If you seek soft trails with little concrete, Taiwan and those around Mount Fuji or Hokkaido in Japan have an abundance of trails. For a jungle feel, go with Sabah in Malaysia around Mount Kota Kinabalu. The trails there make you feel like you are running next to the Amazon River. South Korea also has exciting technical trails.

Trail running is also growing in China with some amazing trails in Yunnan. Options in Nepal are endless and Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world at 8,163m above sea level is worth special mention. The Manaslu Trail Race is a challenging multistage event that passes through the beautiful Himalayan landscape. Running up even a small segment of this mountain provides breathtaking scenery. To get to base camp, most fly into Kathmandu, and spend another week making the most of off-road vehicles and trekking.