Striding in the right direction with Praful Uchil

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Sportsjoy’s Reena Narula had an early morning chat with Praful Uchil, founder of STRIDERS, the largest running group in Mumbai

For someone who gets hundreds of runners hitting the pavement every morning, Praful comes across as a quiet, down to earth person. I almost ran past him on an early Wednesday morning when he was at Hiranandani Gardens wearing the sky blue Striders tee-shirt and matching cap. He was flying the same day for Tokyo marathon so the interview had to be done right away. It would be tough getting hold of this man who’s literally on the run! Here are excerpts from our chat –

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Reena: Praful, first things first. How did you get into running?

Praful: During my student days, I was passionate about running and outdoor programs. I was an 800m sprinter and represented my university at state level. Later on I worked for Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) for 21 years. I represented LIC in various corporate sports competitions. Running has remained an integral part of my life.

Reena: So, how did STRIDERS happen?

Praful: In 2004, when the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) started…

Reena: Aah, the first year of SCMM!

Praful: Yes. In 2004 some corporate executives had registered for SCMM but didn’t know how to prepare for it. They only had a goal but no understanding of the process to get there. My business partner Deepak Londhe and I saw this huge gap. That’s how STRIDERS was born.

We trained 15 corporate executives from ICICI Securities. It was a successful case study which established our credibility. The client base began to increase.

Soon we had a challenge of scale. Deepak, an NIS (National Institute of Sports, Bangalore) trainer himself, and I got successful former athletes onto our trainers panel.

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Reena: It has been been quite a journey. From 2004 to 2016 STRIDERS has gone from strength to strength.

Praful: Yes definitely. We started off at a single location and today we have 19 centres in Mumbai. In 2015 we trained over 1400 people.

Reena: Wow, that’s awesome! During these 12 years what’s the biggest challenge you have faced?

Praful: The biggest challenge is selecting the right trainers. A compromise here and our reputation would be at stake. We went through a lot of pains to get this right. Things are under control now.

We have a comprehensive ‘Train the Trainer’ program for our trainers. During the program, professional sports coaches, experienced athletes and doctors conduct sessions. It provides a holistic view so that our trainers are equipped to handle different scenarios. This ensures quality of service.

Reena: Any plans for STRIDERS to go beyond Mumbai?

Praful: Certainly. We have presence in Chennai, Bangalore and Gurgaon. Plans are afoot to move to other cities in India.

Reena: Many runners begin training enthusiastically, get injured and leave running altogether. How does STRIDERS handle such situations?

Praful: Unfortunately this is a common occurrence as new runners try to emulate the established ones and get injured. An injury layoff is frustrating which can lead to discontinuation. At STRIDERS, we have designed our program to avoid such situations.

We segregate our trainees into groups – White, Yellow, Red, Blue, Black, or Elite.

A beginner joins the White group and moves upwards. Blue is for half marathoners with stiff time targets. Black is for full marathoners and Elite is for full marathoners with time targets. The intensity of the program varies depending on the group.

We ascertain the fitness levels of beginners and slot him/her into a suitable group. We allow them to move to the next group only after they have reached the expected level.

This graded approach has worked well to avoid injuries.

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Reena: Your group does a 15-20 min run followed by floor exercises. What is that about?

Praful: This is the off season workout where we focus on muscular strengthening. This is a firm foundation for the running season in the later part of the year. We prepare our runners for the endurance training and pace workouts.

Reena: How do you promote STRIDERS?

Praful: Word of mouth only. Our runners do the promotions for us.

Reena: Tell me about the Hiranandani Thane Half Marathon where STRIDERS is a knowledge partner.

Praful: We conceptualized the Hiranandani Thane Half Marathon event. We organize the event and Hiranandani are the sponsors. The 4th edition of the event conducted in Feb 2016 attracted over 10000 runners.

Reena: Any more such runs?

Praful: We organise the IL&FS run, and we are knowledge partners for IIT Bombay Run on 6th March 2016.

Reena: What kind of corporate programs do you organize?

Praful: There is increasing acceptance among corporates that employee fitness translates into higher productivity.

A fit employee can focus better, work for longer hours without getting tired, and requires fewer medical leave. We run this program “FitForLife” for TCS employees and their families. The company pays for the program.

Similarly we run programs for Edelweiss, Axis, Jolly Gymkahana, CCI and others.

Reena: Any interesting anecdotes that you would like to share?

Praful: Newcomers often say to me “I run on the treadmill for an hour so you should be putting me in a faster group”. I respond with “let’s see”. A few minutes of outdoor running and they understand it is completely different to running on the treadmill in an air-conditioned environment. The realization arrives late but it does.

These days weight loss is the in thing. Misconceptions abound but we have to deal with them.

Reena: Oh yeah, many women and their obsession with weight loss!

Praful: It is important for people to understand that weight loss will not happen in a hurry. Training has to be consistent. Sometimes, there may not be any weight less at all. There could be loss of inches which is not captured by the weighing scale.

A common refrain is “I can fit into my old jeans but the weight is constant”. One needs to understand that one square inch of trained muscle is heavier than one square inch of fat. Many times the fat percentage may have gone down but muscle mass may have increased, and that’s why it is not visible on the weighing scale.

Diet is a crucial component of weight loss.

Reena: Do you have to often explain that yours is a training program for running and not weight loss?

Praful: We get enquiries like “here’s the money, mereko 5 kg kam karna hai” and we say “This is not a weight loss program. We are building your cardiovascular capacity and we want you to enjoy running.“

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Reena: What is your take on online training?

Praful: I am firm believer in in-person interaction. A good trainer observes every aspect of running and advises on form correction breathing pattern and sometimes even the mental state of the runner. A runner who hasn’t slept well is likely to struggle. At times the trainer modifies the targets based on these factors.

An online program can never replicate this level of personalization. Of course online program allows for flexibility in timing.

I think an online program may be used to complement the in-person interaction. Not replace it.

Reena: Ok, one last question – you have influenced so many people to improve their fitness, who has impressed you the most?

Praful: There are many worthy performers amongst the young runners. But the ones I admire the most are the senior most ones. Some of them started running after 70 years of age and have successfully completed marathons. Their fitness levels and enthusiasm is amazing. They are a source of inspiration for the younger runners and also our trainers.

Our top priority should be life long fitness and not performance goals. We keep pushing ourselves to run faster and longer but there’s a limit to everything. Enjoying your retired life with good health; nothing can beat that.

With this, I wrapped up the interview, thanked him for his time and wished him luck for the Tokyo marathon. On my way back home I realised this chat changed my overall perspective. Suddenly it seemed that the right way is to lead a healthy life and not fret too much over the extra 5 minutes taken to complete a run or the 500 gm gained during a holiday. The short term targets need to be there for us to maintain focus but we need not lose sleep over them and lose sight of the bigger picture. Lost in thought I didn’t realise when my jog took me back home.

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