A participant in the Tata Mumbai Marathon prepares to run. (Source: Tata Mumbai Marathon’s Official Twitter Handle)

Indians Have Donned The Running Gear And Fitness Brands Are Loving It

It is 6 a.m. on a Sunday and Murlidhar Batra is already warming up alongside 50 others for a 14-kilometre run. He is 58 years old. A year and a half back, a painful cervical condition made even walking difficult. After therapy, a motivated Batra signed up with a local fitness club, which started him off on regular walks and then a dedicated training regimen.

Three 10-km marathons later, Batra has shed five kilograms and his health problems. He has now set his sights on the 21-km run in the Indore Marathon. If he manages a good enough time, he’ll qualify for the Mumbai Marathon—the biggest in India.

Batra is part of a growing tribe of fitness-conscious Indians taking to long-distance running with the rising popularity of marathons. And that’s spawned a business ecosystem which, according to Vivek Singh, the head of Procam International that launched the Mumbai Marathon, is now worth $350 million. From footwear and apparel brands to wearables and training companies, all sniff an enormous opportunity in a nation where more than half of 1.3-billion population is less than 25 years old.

Striders, a fitness training company started by Praful Uchil in 2006, began by training 15 marathoners in two locations—Mahalaxmi Race Course and Shivaji Park in Mumbai. It now trains people in 23 locations in Mumbai alone, besides 14 other cities. It’s easier to organise marathons in smaller cities and towns as it’s easier to get permissions and they have open spaces and better suited environment for long-distance running, Uchil said. “With increasing health awareness, even residents of small cities and towns have started taking up running as a fitness activity.”

A Sprint From 3 To 1,200

In 2003, Singh and his brother were inspired by the London Marathon. “We’ve been in sports for 30 years, and we’ve seen everything from the Wimbledon to golf majors, but on this start line, we saw mothers, grandmothers, doctors, lawyers with a certain look in their eyes that we have only seen in elite athletes,” said Singh, joint managing director of sports events organiser. “They had trained, they had set a personal goal of running the full marathon or the half marathon within a specific time.”

But when Procam International first mooted the idea of a marathon in India, the initial response was discouraging.

People told us, you’re crazy! Nobody is going to come out and run. They don’t run in India. And somehow on that morning in February 2004, almost 18,000 people came out of their homes (to participate).
Vivek Singh, Head, Procam International

The Mumbai Marathon was one of the only three major running events in the country then. A decade and a half later, there are over 1,200 running events, and over 1.8 million runners, Singh said. “The number of people lacing up every year is rising by 22-24 percent.”

And they all are buying everything from shoes to fitness trackers, helping India’s Rs 7,000-crore sportswear industry grow.

Sportwear Flying Off The Shelves

Sales of sports apparel on Amazon.in grew over 70 percent in 2018, and sports shoes grew 55 percent, according to Arun Sirdeshmukh, business head, Amazon Fashion. The e-commerce platform features 1,400 brands. And demand for its sportwear is increasingly coming from outside the metros in tier 2 and 3 cities.

Japanese multinational footwear and sports apparel company ASICS sees tremendous potential in India. “There is a substantial shift in the way fitness is now viewed across India,” said Rajat Khurana, managing director, ASICS India. “This has propelled demand for fitness gear in tier 1 and 2 cities, making India an important market for ASICS.”

A relatively late entrant, ASICS recorded sales of close to Rs 93 crore in the year to March 2018 led by demand for running shoes. And, since it started operations in India in 2015, has been growing at a compounded annual growth rate of 35-40 percent, Khurana said.

The company also views marathons as a way to raise brand awareness. It is the official goods sponsor of the Tata Mumbai Marathon and is looking for opportunities to sponsor events in smaller towns.

Athlos Activewear, an Indian brand, is also betting on the growing sporting culture in India. And it relies on feedback from athletes and users. There’s a use case for alternate fabric in sports apparel that’s more suitable for India’s tropical climate, according to founders Pravin Dhake and Shruti Kamath. It’s first produce was apparel made of bamboo fibre.

Brands will see many more such opportunities as Procam’s Singh expects exponential growth for at least a decade. That’s because it isn’t just 18-year-olds who are running to stay fit, even their grandparents are aspiring marathon runners.