Nike, Reebok, Puma stay in the fast lane to catch up with India's growing population of runners

A few months ago US-based sportswear brand Under Armour launched a shoe they claim is so well-designed for the runner's feet - ball, heel, foot, pinky toe and all, that they fit like bras. The Speedform, which costs $120 a pop, is in fact made in a bra factory. It's the Wonderbra of running shoes from what we gather. Under Armour is, of course, not the only company in the world trying to woo a growing population of runners, and not just the variety which sprints to the grocery store or to catch the 18:00 local. Nike's Flynet shoe has won many awards and the company recently launched the Nike Free 5.0, a shoe which simulates a barefoot running experience. Reebok has a small army of product category managers who help create products like Reebok One, a running shoe with a three part sole. It is being developed by top end runners and will cost you between Rs 8,999 and Rs 9999.

Puma too launched its running shoe the Mobium this year, which has seen its fair share of asphalt already because, as Rajiv Mehta, managing director, Puma India puts it, "People realise they can't wear a squash shoe for running." However, where you put your foot is just the beginning. From Milkha to Bolt, from running clubs and running solo to running for teambuilding and running for good, from customised playlists, training apps and wristbands that measure everything from distance covered to calories lost to sweat absorbent underwear and hydrating nutritional gels, that is the runner's world. It is a rapidly evolving ecosystem and brands from sportswear and technology to food and finance want in on the race.

The bottom line is that running in this country is becoming serious business. But that wasn't always the case. Although across the country Indians, barefoot or not, have always been running for all sorts of reasons, and despite the lack of a conducive environment for runners, over the last decade the number of runners hitting the open road as a lifestyle choice has been going northward at a breathless pace. According to Vivek Singh, joint managing director, Procam International, the company behind the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, India did not have a running culture till about a decade or so ago. Yet, in 2004, the first edition of the Mumbai Marathon, which is now a top global distance running event, had 21,000 people register.

Of course, the current cap only allows for 40,000 runners, but says Singh, all places fill up within a few days, thus leaving many in the spectators' stand. It is this eagerness exactly that prompted sponsors such as Standard Chartered, TCS and Airtel, among others, to take "a leap of faith" to begin with. Says Singh, "Because running is not just a spectator sport. It is participative in nature and can help brands build based on an emotional differentiator that is worth paying for."

Now companies are attempting to embed running in to popular culture, and they are reeling in the young first. At Nike, for instance, they even have meetings as they run within the company. According to Avinash Pant, marketing director, Nike India, running is getting more social since it's extremely simple (and sometimes cheaper) "just put on the right footwear and product and then head outdoors to get energised." For brands targeting a younger demographic, running is becoming a fairly effective platform from where they can have meaningful exchanges with their core consumer. "We look at the youth today and think of how to engage them with running: which is why the platform of college fests is perfect," says Pant, referring to Nike Outrun 2013, a 4-kilometre foot race in Mumbai designed for college students.

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