Ajay Singh Sethi a Reebok certified trainer and Barefoot exercise specialist talks to Deepthi Velkur about how he wants to help people live a lifetime of health, fitness and happiness.
“Formal education will make you a living. Self-education will make you a fortune” – Jim Rohn.
Ajay Singh Sethi is hugely inspired by Jim Rohn and believes continuous self-learning helps you achieve greater individual success as well as coach and inspire others.
An MBA graduate from XLRI, Jamshedpur, Ajay traded in his promising corporate life for one that inspires and helps others stay active and healthy.
A Reebok Certified Trainer, Barefoot Exercise Specialist (L2), EBFA USA, Certified Rehab Trainer, Kettle Bell Instructor, 24FIT Master Trainer and a Running Coach to name a few, Ajay hopes to bring Kota on the world map of Ultra Running with his flagship event Chambal Challenge (www.chambalchallenge.com) and take his 24FIT Coach education program nationwide to help people live a lifetime of health, fitness and happiness.
FM: From playing sports at the national level to running, what was the trigger to switch to long-distance running?
Ajay: To be honest, it wasn’t a well-planned or thought out decision. I was hoping to be a professional basketball player but unfortunately, injuries cut that dream short.
With a management degree from XLRI and a promising corporate career with Tata Steel, it appeared that I had my life all sorted out, but I wanted more. I wanted a more dynamic, active engagement with people where I could make a difference.
I decided to make a change – leaving my well-paid job of 8 years behind, I moved to Kota, Rajasthan and started Inshape, a lifestyle-based fitness facility in October 1995.
Building on my many years of hard work and training helped me achieve my dream of playing at the National level, I wanted to give something back and build a sporting culture in the city. Back then, not many people were inclined towards fitness or sports and there was no running culture at all. I used to run a couple of times a week, had a few friends join in and an informal group called Inshape Runner’s Club evolved naturally.
Initially, I promoted running to connect people to fitness as a way of life. With a background in sports, I knew that physical activity creates self-awareness and with effort, we could also remove self-doubt. I soon realized that every time we ran longer distances it was like breaking a mental barrier which got me to train and promote longer distances to make people mentally tough and overcome self-imposed limitations.
Personally, I had no fascination to run long distances but as a coach, I needed to lead by example. As a result, I participated and completed my first SCMM in 2004 along with 6 others from our little group. Since then the SCMM (now TMM) and ADHM have become almost a ritual for us.
Ajay: Persistence – that was the key. I think if you stick and pursue an idea with a single focus, anything is possible. I didn’t get into running or promote running to get something out of it. Even when a large majority of the people had a different take on running, it didn’t deter me and I kept on pushing and gradually people realized for themselves the benefits running had on them.
FM: What are the highlights of your running career so far?
Ajay: I didn’t get into running for a career or to prove how accomplished a sportsman I am. I think I just ran to make people run and help them discover the joy of being physically active – the distances just followed.
So far, I have completed 18+ official Half and Full Marathons that include ADHM, SCMM and Leh Marathon. The longest distance I have run is 63KM.
I saw running as a community sport rather than a competitive sport. I believe the whole concept of PB and fast finishes in long distance running is nothing more than a self-serving, ego-boosting tool that pushes people in the wrong direction. Running isn’t boxing or wrestling where you win by knocking the other person down. I believe distance running is a sport that breaks down ego and makes a person humble. I promote running as a community sport where everybody wins.
FM: When did you think of opening up your own fitness center-Inshape?
Ajay: Multiple recurring injuries limited my growth as an athlete. After having finished my post-graduation in MBA like most young MBA’s I was aspiring to climb the corporate success ladder until one day when I asked myself this question- What is the one thing I would like to do for the rest of my life even if I didn’t get paid? This changed the direction of my life. I realized that it had to be something to do with fitness and sports.
In 1991, I joined the Corporate Wellness initiative in Tata Steel and became a visiting faculty in Tata Management Development Center talking about exercise and nutrition. The more I learned the clearer it became about what I wanted to do. I could trace back reasons for many of my injuries to the lack of professional help in my early sporting days. There were few gyms but there wasn’t any facility that was training people for lifetime health, fitness and happiness. In 1994, when 2 of my close friends quit and decided to go to the US I decided to go back to my home city Kota and start Inshape. I had a clear purpose ‘to make an appreciable difference in people’s quality of life’.
FM: Take us through the different training programs available at your centre?
Ajay: Our programs are designed in 3 categories i.e. Health, Fitness and Performance.
Health programs are typically designed for individuals with weight and mobility issues. Fitness programs are designed for people who want to be more active and fit. Lastly, people who want to maximize performance i.e. bodybuilding, modelling, body transformation to running a marathon or triathlon. We have a few people who come with very clear and specific goals on what they want to be trained for. We also conduct group classes like Zumba, Step Aerobics, Floor Aerobics, Flexible Strength, Kettlebell, etc. catering to various interests’ groups.
FM: Considering the varied group of trainees, building customized plans must be a challenge. How do you handle this?
Ajay: Being a certified group exercising instructor this was easy. I follow an annual training calendar for my running club members that lasts from March-November. I always design the training keeping in mind the lowest denominator i.e. the newest person in the group. At the start, I put runner’s through a series of assessment runs to determine their current level and based on that I put them into different groups. Those who are regular, get to know their levels as well as paces and then it’s easy to instruct them. I also conduct running clinics from time to time to educate runners about what they are going through. Those who join the running sessions in between get aligned automatically with others who are more experienced. Also, since I promote running as a community sport not many runners come to get a customized training plan or with the objective of pursuing running as a career.
FM: How do you assess to check if you have achieved the results at the end of every program?
Ajay: It’s simple. I believe everything that can be measured can be improved. Tracking various parameters show us if we have been able to deliver the right results.
People in the health program go through body composition assessments and these parameters (fat percentage, BMI, Height-Weight Ratio etc.) can be tracked on weekly basis.
In Fitness Programs, we primarily assess 4 points: Flexibility, Mobility, Strength and Endurance.
In Performance-based programs assessment runs deeper and wider and includes an 8-point screening methodology i.e. Flexibility, Mobility, Stability, Strength, Endurance, Speed, Power and Agility. Each of these parameters can be tested and improved.
FM: How do you ensure your trainees stay injury-free?
Ajay: This is one area where I feel a lot more needs to be done. I try to educate them and train them to be better athletes rather than for a particular race or an event (since most are not professional runners).
I think it has more to do with people than the coach today. Most people want too much too soon and they are in a hurry to run more races or long distances in a short period of time without understanding the principles of adaptation and progression. Those who trust us and listen are the ones who go further and long, others learn the hard way by getting injured.
FM: What according to you makes a good coach/trainer/mentor?
Ajay: The one who practices what he teaches. Formal education is important too but a good coach should continue to learn by self-education and only by applying that can he become knowledgeable. All this goes to waste if you truly don’t care about people. I learned from my mentor Jim Rohn that “people don’t care what you know until they know how much you care.”
FM: How do you keep your runners motivated to show up for training and assist them in achieving their goals?
Ajay: In my fitness centres as well as the running club I follow a 4-point approach. Inspire, Engage, Connect and Enrich. I inspire people through others results, engage them through goal setting and structured program, connect them with others who are already following the program and lastly enrich them through unique lasting experiences through various events and activities.
FM: What got you to conceptualize an event like Chambal Challenge?
Ajay: Deep within me there always is a desire to go beyond, to do better than my previous best. I believe that this desire is there within everyone. I wanted to challenge people to act on this desire and attempt something they haven’t tried before or are not sure about. The distinct topography of Chambal Valley and the terrain of Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve gave me a perfect setting to create this event. You put together a road run, a trail run, uphill and downhill into one long run and attach spectacular view of Chambal river, reserve forest, and a bird century, you have Chambal Challenge. Chambal Challenge is a dare to runners to test their skill, strategy as well as attitude. I believe these attributes will help a person go beyond running as well as in life.
FM: What is your message for the amateur runners of today?
Ajay: Run because we are born to run but remember so are we born to lift, shift, push, pull, carry, climb and jump. So why limit yourself when you have unlimited genetic potential.