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By Amit Mehta FitnessOn the trail with Ashok Nath

On the trail with Ashok Nath

If you are a regular in the Indian running scene, chances are, you already know who Ashok Nath is. We at the Unived Sports team have had the privilege of not just interacting with him, but also the chance to see him in motion – one look at Ash Nath’s perfect running form, and it becomes clear why every Indian runner should be taking notes.

At 51, he is India’s leading veteran marathoner and a 6-time Boston Marathon qualifier, which includes a dazzling sub-3 in 2013. His record as the fastest Indian to finish the Comrades in South Africa stands unbeaten at 8.43, and Ashok is targeting an incredible 7.43 at the 2015 Comrades race.

As a founder of Catalyst Sports and an Executive Trustee of the India Amateur Runners Trust, Ashok is a tireless proponent of not just running as a sport in India, but of proper running form and scientific training. Ashok also played a crucial role in the making of ‘Two Feet of Fly’, the first documentary on the Indian running community. An inspirational figure to countless runners across the country, we thank him for granting us such an insightful, honest and incisive interview.

You are a trailblazer in every sense of the term – you started running way back in the 80s. How different was running in India back then?

Our running movement has seen two phases. The early phase touched the serious runners and so, was limited in its reach, whereas the later phase saw the entry of the fitness/ recreational runners and is much larger.

In the ’80s, runners were quite rare and running races even rarer. When people describe running as having low entry barriers, they would be referring to the early days when a cotton tee, socks and shorts with basic shoes would suffice. Running wasn’t a hot subject and you would catch glares from walkers and general public.

What has been the biggest game changer for the sport in India, between then and now?

There are several reasons why running found traction and is making waves. Firstly, running is a natural activity and the sheer simplicity of its action appeals to people with otherwise cluttered lives. Secondly, fitness is now a “hot subject” and running has benefited from the whole movement towards looking and feeling good. Thirdly, there is the “YOLO” (you only live once) feeling that many of the younger generation believe in that makes that them live life to the fullest.

But all this wouldn’t have succeeded if the sport brands had not entered the market, and brought in the gear and apparel that otherwise was near totally lacking. While there is still huge scope for improvement on this aspect, the simple fact is that many runners look straight out of some fashion magazine, and that helps drive our running movement.

You have an extensive record of running at home and abroad. From your experience, what makes the Indian running community special?

Quite frankly, nothing. There is too much incestuous bickering between running groups, too much reluctance to pay for quality, too much satisfaction with mediocrity and so forth.

I have been described as aggressive but at least I am willing to stand up and be counted. I am confident of my abilities as a runner and as a marketer, and of my predictions as concerns our running space.

What are some marked differences you notice between events abroad and in India? Where is the room for improvement for us?

Abroad, running is managed like any other business, for profit. The market is segmented and positioned to attract a category of runners as it addresses their needs. As a result, a runner is assured of a good experience but it comes at a price.

In India, this targeting is largely missing and most organizers target the lowest common denominator, and in the process alienate many runners. I am surprised at how slowly new concepts and services are being adopted and what never fails to sadden me is how most runners believe that anything related to running should come literally free to them.

As Indians, we always tend to ‘Indianize’ things. How have we ‘Indianized’ running in this country?

“Community v/s the Individual”. Indians like to belong and adhere to a group code. This reflects in how many running groups are inwardly looking, at how protectionist the elders are of their flock and so forth. It’s not very healthy, as it is through the sharing of ideas that communities prosper and grow. That is why I like to be a member of several running groups, but my allegiance is to running. 

How does it feel being a mentor to so many young and old runners? What are some common areas that you address while mentoring them?

Learning is a two way street and I am constantly learning from each of my Mentees as each runner is unique. On my part, I am fortunate to have that something special in my running and believe it is my duty to repay this gift by sharing my knowledge and expertise with others.

When I left corporate life to focus on making a difference for our running space, I was clear that the task was to grow the small pie, and not contest for a piece. I do this by applying the skills gained from over two decades in the corporate sector – environment scanning, gap analysis, data-mining, customer insights and marketing. These lead me to the unaddressed need, namely, Running Form.

I work with select runners on a Mentoring Engagement which starts with a comprehensive workshop on Running Form, followed by a detailed Induction session that leads to a Personalized Training Plan which addresses all aspects necessary for success- Training, nutrition, running form, mental Strength, and so forth.

Most recreational runners are forever trying to understand that elusive ‘proper running form’. Could you define it for us?

Proper running form is when you run in a balanced state with all parts of your body engaged in a unified manner and contributing proportionately. This ensures better energy efficiency so you don’t get tired as easily. Also the impact on your body parts is lower for faster recovery and less likelihood of injuries.

To become a good runner, you actually need neither brawn nor youth but just fluent movements and a mindful approach to your workouts. Running should be graceful, even powerful but more as a result of intelligent body engineering rather than endless hard workouts trying to wrench that last drop of energy.

When your upper body, lower body and mid-section are synchronized, you experience fluency in your running, or what I refer to as “flow state”. For this to happen, you must run in a well-balanced manner.

Physical balance happens in six directions namely left to right, up to down and front to back. For example, when you lean forward, your stride should open up behind you. Your upper body should share the workload, as otherwise your lower body will be overworked. And so forth.

Knowing the right running technique empowers you to face any situation that you may confront – fatigue, hills, focus, trails – and you become a more confident runner

Barefoot running has been creating buzz and debate in the community. Your thoughts?

I am not at all interested in barefoot running, nor do I recommend it for two reasons. Firstly, running barefoot is asking for trouble on our Indian roads with its stones, glass, debris and feces. Secondly, given the infancy of our running movement, nearly all runners do not have the necessary muscle strength in their lower foot nor the correct running form to handle barefoot running.

Instead, I advocate making a very gradual movement towards “minimalistic footwear” which mimic barefoot running without the stated fears though a word of caution to go about this shift very slow and cautiously. To elaborate, there are various grades of minimalistic footwear so start with the higher versions and over time make a move to the more minimal versions, a process that should take the runner nearly a year.

For the novice or the new entrant, focus initial on general fitness and improving your running form before even contemplating minimal shoes, or barefoot running.

What are some key pointers you can offer today’s aspiring runners?

Be a “thinker” runner, and don’t blindly follow the herd. Running is a “skill sport” and just like you would do for other sports, you must get your “technique” right before you immerse yourself in a training plan with its emphasis on speed, frequency and distance. The reason we see so many runners –approximately 65% – facing some running related injury is due to their misconceived belief in “No Pain, No Gain”.

So, learn the correct running techniques and then adhere to gradual progression. Seek out a personalized Training Plan and not what your friend is following, one downloaded from the net, or taken from some running book. There are different approaches to arrive at the same end goal, and you should be able to relate to your personalized training plan.

Also, I don’t believe the full marathon (42.2km) is for everyone. Some enjoy doing the serious mileage training necessary for it while others find it boring. I personally don’t enjoy high mileage training too much, and so I am selective in the number of marathons that I participate in.

Finally, I am a firm believer that a runner should “beat” the shorter distances before looking at more challenging races. If you are incapable of running a good 10km or a half marathon, then park your aspiration for the full marathon for a later date as you will only break down your body.

I realize with running events galore that it is tempting to participate in many races but maintain some common sense and realize that racing breaks us down while it is our training that builds us.

One body, one life. Be smart.

What, in terms of gear or nutrition, do you wish more Indian runners had access to?

It is a chicken or egg story of whether the sports brands wait for the market to grow before bringing in their best goods, or do they recognize the growth trajectory of our running space and take an early stake. Very simply, it is time the sport brands stopped treating us like 2nd class citizens, but bring into India their best quality with some level of depth.

Footwear, apparel, accessories, nutrition, literature et al – there are glaring gaps in all these categories that should be filled, and the Indian runner will show his appreciation to the sports brand that shows its faith in us.

What is one thing you would change for the better about running in India?

Professionalism. All the players in our running space – the runners, the race organizers and the brands – need to go about things in a more structured manner.

Runners need to plan their running life better and not rush in too fast into any aggressive training. Learn proper technique, improve your diet, follow a personalized training plan and above all be consistent.

Race organizers should follow an event template and ensure that the basic expectations of all concerned are met. Ideally, an objective 3rd party should undertake an annual audit of events and print a ranking across various parameters as this will ensure that standards are improved.

Finally the sport brands should segment the market and offer products and services that suit a particular segment rather than one size fits all approach. Too basic, and you alienate the experienced runner. Too advanced, and you lose the novice runner. However, to carpet bomb is addressing no one and leaves everyone disgruntled.

What has been your most memorable running experience in India? Also, any favorite Indian trails?

“Running on the Roof of the World” was how the Great Tibetan Marathon (Leh-Ladakh) promoted itself and it was truly a fascinating experience to run at 12,000 feet over dry cold desert conditions. Such races are known as “adventure marathons” but sadly many do not continue as the audience is niche.

With regards to running traiIs, your needs are different depending whether it’s a speed, tempo, hill or a long run. There is nothing to beat a proper stadium atmosphere for speed workouts, and Kanteerva Stadium in Bangalore is nice. I enjoy doing my Tempo and Long Runs on the Inner Ring Road, while Nandi Hill is apt for hill training.

You have conquered the Boston Marathon. You are the fastest Indian to finish Comrades….what next? What keeps you going?

I have still some unmet goals for both these races, looking to do another sub-3 at Boston and a sub-7.30 at Comrades. Until I achieve what I believe I am capable of at a distance/event, I am restless and this keeps me going. 

Photo credit: White Light Photography

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