Be Limitless in Your Pursuit of the Impossible - Praful Uchil

praful uchil
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Praful Uchil, Co-founder & Core Trainer at Striders Miles tells Sunayana Nair in this interview on offering arguably one of the best running programs to corporates and hobby-runners in India. Praful was a former national-level middle distance runner having set a record at the University level. He was working with and represented a large insurance firm before he quit to follow his passion of helping others run by setting up Striders. Edited excerpts from our podcast with Praful.

How did Striders come about? 

I have been an athlete since my school and even throughout college. I was eventually picked up by a large corporate. I was allowed time to transition and could represent them at various national level events. All went on well for 10 years but then once your form goes down, you have to, at some point in time, give up your professional running career. However, I realised that sitting in office from 10:30 to 5:30, doing a desk job was not what I was cut out for. I was still doing my running routine in the mornings and evenings and subsequently started training kids for various fitness activities at the Sports Authority of India Kandivali Centre but that was just limited during the vacations. So that’s where I thought we need to do something on a bigger scale.

It was around the same time, the Mumbai Marathon happened in 2004 and there was a demand for some kind of coaching for people who have never done any kind of sports or outdoor activity before. I convinced my friend and my partner now, Deepak who was fresh out of NIS (national institute of sports) to join me. We started with the (Mahalakshmi) racecourse and Shivaji park; I used to impart training at the racecourse. Initially, very few people would come for training in the morning but because we were passionate about it, we were happy even with two runners! Then ICICI Securities came in and we trained a dozen of their top executives and they enjoyed it. It was around that time when running also picked up in Mumbai. The word spread and we officially founded the company in 2006 and called it the Striders.

Initially, very few people would come for training in the morning but because we were passionate about it, we were happy even with two runners! Then ICICI Securities came in and we trained a dozen of their top executives and they enjoyed it.

Winning the TCS mandate was quite a breakthrough that turned things around too, wasn’t it?

Yes. Tata Consultancy Services continues to be the largest corporate to be part of our group. It was somewhere in 2010, when Mr. Chandrasekaran, who was the CEO then, walked into the centre and wanted to get himself trained and that’s where the journey started. After a year or more of training with us, he wanted 20 of his direct reporting team members to train with us. We did that too and then they wanted to open it to all the employees of TCS. The next stage was to include the spouses of the employees, so the family would imbibe this. So that’s how it has grown.

It is fascinating to observe the ripple effect the vision of a leader can have to propel this kind of a lifestyle that impacts every individual in the organisation and even his/her family. Have you observed this across the organisations you have worked with? 

Yes. The vision of a leader is very important here. As always, the top to bottom approach works. I have seen several organizations where the top leadership has taken the call and now their teams participate in the Mumbai Marathon consistently. In fact, you will find many senior leaders running on the road, if you manage to recognise them in their shorts and T-shirt, that is! So yes, corporates have played a big role in contributing to running, becoming the craze it is today. Earlier, on Marine Drive, one would have spotted just 5-6 people running. Now, it has completely changed and there are only 5-6 people walking, others are all running! 

Guess one could say then you’ll were at the right place, at the right time with the right offering! 

Well, yes, you could say that. We were able to leverage it. It is not that there weren’t better coaches than us. They were there. But they didn’t have the opportunity of training people who are basically hobby runners. We call them hobby runners because it’s not their profession. At that time, this concept was not there.

The vision of a leader is very important here. I have seen several organizations where the top leadership has taken the call and now their teams participate in the Mumbai Marathon consistently.

You will find many senior leaders running on the road, if you manage to recognise them in their shorts and T-shirt, that is!

Now, when a corporate signs up with you, what happens next? 

So, once a corporate joins the Striders community, their employees can join any of our centres across the 22 locations we have. They typically join in as a beginner because they wouldn’t have done much before. So, our trainers will do a little bit of handholding in the first week, gradually help them to pick up their mileage and become part of the big group. At Striders, we have groups like beginner, then White group, then Yellow group, Red group, Blue group, then Black group which is only for the full marathoners and there is Elite group. Elite is for people who want to outperform or accomplish a certain goal like attaining a certain timing which requires much more customized training and they are ready to put in that effort. The elites train at their respective centres but on a Sunday all the elites run together. 

Does training in a group make a lot of difference apart from customised training? Is it also one of the key benefits of joining Striders?

Yes, absolutely. We are a bunch of like-minded people coming together looking to run first thing in the morning. One will observe that such people who are out at that hour, doing a workout of any kind are very positive. They encourage each other, share their experiences, goals etc. Apart from the motivation, this is about an eclectic mix of people from finance, marketing, professionals like doctors, lawyers, individual businessowners coming together, bound by at least one common passion. So, there’s a lot of communication and networking that happens even while running. We have whatsapp groups within each of our groups and the discussions are much beyond running!

Do you’ll have an app also?

Yes, we are using technology. We use Strava. We have also built our own app to track all our runners. This makes it possible to track the progress and pace of the runner from anywhere. So, a trainer need not be there for one to record and input one’s performance. 

We are a bunch of like-minded people coming together looking to run first thing in the morning. One will observe that such people who are out at that hour, doing a workout of any kind are very positive.

Are the trainers from the local areas? How do you ensure they are on-par in terms of training the Striders-way? 

Typically, yes. They are national or state level runners. We have many athletes from Kerala since it is a sports-loving state. Usually, they are doing some kind of job and we try to get them to join us and they are thrilled to know that they don’t need to join a desk job. We fly them from different parts of the country to Mumbai where they are trained rigorously by our veteran Santosh Varghese. They undergo like a month of internship of sorts, training a member, where we observe them. Once we believe they are good to fly back, they join the local centre or even setup one. We have spent years in researching, designing specific workouts and meticulous plans which are followed across all our centres and we frequently audit all our centres personally.

How do you train the runner or hobby runners at your centre? What does the training comprise?  

We focus on running as well as strengthening. There are lot of things we do with the medicine ball, the theraband…We also have seasons. If somebody is training for Mumbai Marathon which happens in January, this is off season. It’s difficult to build up mileage in April-May because of the weather; it is too hot. So, we concentrate on building their muscle, strengthening their joints. Once the rain starts, we pick up the mileage slowly and we do the Sunday runs at Nariman Point. Everybody comes there. 

We have spent years in researching, designing specific workouts and meticulous plans which are followed across all our centres and we frequently audit all our centres personally.

Are you prevalent mostly in metros only?

No. We are almost everywhere now. Right from Delhi to Trivandrum, Chennai, Hyderabad. We have many more centres in the South than the North. But we are also present in the East like Bhubaneswar and we are also opening a few centres in Tata Nagar, Jamshedpur. We see potential there. We see a lot of people interested in running and that place has an athletic background. Somehow it died down and we want to revive the entire running culture there.

You also provide some kind of training to young athletes who are aspiring to become state level and national level runners?

What we do is we have got these young boys, students, who are cross-country runners. In the mornings, they assist our trainers and during the evenings they do their running, their training and that’s with their coach. So here we provide them some kind of financial support so that they can continue their training. Many are not from affluent backgrounds. At present, we have a good line of ten young boys who are a part of it and they are active in sports right now. And they’re pursuing their career in industry. 

We understand the person’s capability and design the program accordingly and in a phased manner where you graduate across groups consistently and work towards a goal with others.

What is the feedback you’ve got in terms of the value that Striders has been able to impart to the runner? 

The program we offer at Striders, I would say is not very easy, but is not very tough that you get injured. We understand the person’s capability and design the program accordingly and in a phased manner where you graduate across groups consistently and work towards a goal with others. The workout is the same but the intensity varies according to every individual. So, there is less injury and we a runner graduates from beginner to white, from white to yellow, yellow to red and so on but only when we see some results at the trial runs we conduct on Sundays. Our methodical approach helps the runners. 

“Be limitless” is your tag line, so what is it that you have set for yourself to be boundless?

The first tag line that we started with was “small steps to big strides”. So, that happened. Now when we are talking about being limitless, it is about graduating to IRONMAN, ultra-marathons and other things which is that space you know there is no limit to human capabilities. If you can think about it, be it any wonder, you can achieve it. There are ways, there are training programs and people who can help you achieve that goal, today! 

You may listen to the full conversation with Praful Uchil here