Running is education

Santosh Padmanabhan

Running teaches me that I am capable of so much more than I ever imagined – Anonymous

Running started as a punishment in my younger days for being late to P.E class, but turned out to be my window and purpose to life. We tend to see running only as a sport, hobby or a passion but in effect it is an entire new world of learning. Here are some of our experiences in creating a schooling system that sees running as an integral part of learning in school, life of its children and staff.

The schools we worked with included children with HIV/AIDs, children in remote tribal areas, children with neuromuscular, developmental and physical challenges and children from underprivileged and disadvantaged backgrounds. We introduced long distance running (running for 5kms or above) as a regular activity in the lives of children across different schools. We designed a training program incorporating all aspects related to running technique, schedule, nutrition, etc., and trained the children methodically towards targeted runs. The emphasis was on training together and helping each towards a better and healthier version of themselves.

Exploring and experiential learning
Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.’ – Steve Prefontaine
A classroom where the child just sits and listens to the teacher curbs the child’s ability to learn through a multitude of ways. In the schools we are a part of, physical activity, dance, theatre and games are all important learning tools. Math happens in the outdoors with kids running to solve puzzles, create geometrical shapes, design obstacle courses, estimate distance, time, and speed. Their own runs serve as a starting point for numerical analysis and understanding of concepts.

We learn about the anatomy; physiology and functioning of the human body through carefully designed activities. Children could apply what they learned in training or outside to the discussions in classroom and vice versa. The concepts one could explore are unlimited opening a new world of experiential learning for the child.

Healthy body and mind
If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, keep moving. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Running is affordable and accessible to everyone. It doesn’t need fancy equipment and is the most natural way of moving for humans. Introducing kids and staff to running encourages them to maintain a fitness regimen throughout their lives. Running lays the foundation for all other sports. We saw children progress tremendously as they started running regularly. The improved immunity reflected in the almost zero doctor visits and lesser absenteeism due to ill-health. Doctors presented papers on the positive effect of a regular running program on the children with HIV/AIDs. Another positive aspect was a decrease in instances of children seeking counselling for depression, anger or other issues. Violence reduced drastically as the abundant energy was channelized in a positive manner.

Lessons for life
If you are losing faith in human nature go out and watch a Marathon – Kathrine switzer
Long distance running can be used as a tool to steer students to learn important lessons on patience, self-confidence and self-esteem, qualities that will shape the people they become. Running helps children formulate a tangible goal, working towards it in a systemic manner and being able to handle unexpected challenges. When they reach the goal, their belief in being organized and working hard improves tremendously. It also imbibes important lessons on communication, team work, overcoming fear and various other life skills. In the initial stages, a schedule was created and the children trained under the guidance of an adult coach. Later we shifted emphasis to the children handling the entire training on their own. The children took on many responsibilities including those of organizing running events with many hundreds of participants. They started applying the life skills lessons they learned during these events when planning and executing tasks. Even after graduation, many children continue to train with the running community at large and have incorporated running as part of their lives.

Building a community
When a runner sets foot on the road, suddenly aspects such as religion, race, caste, class, ability or anything that might separate us don’t matter. We go on our journeys in our own way, yet celebrate every step together. The most important lesson is that winning is not important – it’s the joy of running and finishing a task together. For a child, the school is the first exposure to the idea of a community. It is all the more important that the first experience helps the child learn about the role of a community in establishing equality, liberty and fraternity. Running can help build such a caring community. We, the teachers, children, parents all train together, travel together and participate as one community, waiting for each runner to finish, cheering them as they reach their goals.

Running as Inspiration
As a runner, I believe inspiration is everywhere for those who seek it. I am inspired by someone who has just moved off the couch and has decided to fight all odds to take care of their health. I am inspired by the girl who fights for her right to education even when pushed into marriage and sees running as a statement of the same. I am inspired by the six year olds who wear their shoes and are ready outside even before the sun rises. I am inspired by that runner who shows amazing endurance to stay on course and finish after many hours, yet humbly apologizes to friends waiting for him/her. I am inspired by that runner who ditches his/her personal goal to help a fellow runner. I am inspired by that kid who is fighting something as tough as HIV/AIDS and yet finds it in her/him to run regularly to show the world what she/he is made of.

I am inspired by the differently abled persons who make the world grow up by seeing their abilities than how they can’t do something. I am inspired by that grand mom who jogs those ten steps in her sari and gives a wonderful smile to a fellow runner. I am inspired by that small kid whose pants don’t stay up, yet he holds it with his hands to keep pace with a runner who he befriended a few minutes earlier and the list will go on.

Basically, there is inspiration in each of us and everyone around us. I would love to respect the amazing story in each one of them. There is no one better, no one lesser, each a beautiful and amazing story of its own – so, fortunate are we to hear, to see and be a part of these wonderful stories.

The author is a student and a coach. He runs to feel alive and enjoys every step and breath that he takes. He aspires to make a meaning out of running rather than see it as numbers or goals. He can be reached at

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