Sonia Ahuja has distinguished herself as a world-class elite ultramarathon runner. In September 2022 she came first overall in the 100-mile Miami Florida Ultramarathon and then in January 2023 she ran the 135-mile Brazil Ultramarathon, where she set the record as the fastest female, coming in third overall and was the fastest international runner. She has recently qualified for the Badwater Ultramarathon in July 2023. Considered ‘the world's toughest foot race’, the 135-mile course starts at 282 feet below sea level in California's Death Valley and ends at Mount Whitney, an elevation of 8,360 feet.
We spoke to Sonia about her journey to this challenge, why she thrives on endurance running and where she finds the physical and mental strength to keep pushing her limits.
Have you always been sporty? Tell us about what first got you into fitness…
"I was never into sports when I was young. I grew up in India where the focus is on academics. I started running when I moved to Southern California in my early 20s because I was trying to create a more balanced life.
I began with small distance runs, graduating to half marathons and then full marathons. I soon realized that I would run a marathon and come home, and while the others who I had run with were feeling worn out and laying on the couch recovering, I didn't feel like resting. I would cook, do all the house chores, go for a walk. Sometimes, because I was on such a high from running, I would secretly sneak out and go for another run.
Once I observed this about myself, I became curious about discovering my body and what I am capable of, which inspired me to keep pushing more.”
Endurance sport typically translates to hours of training. How do you balance this with a very busy career and a family?
“I am a chief operating officer of an insurance company. I manage hundreds of people and it’s a busy job, so I make sure my typical day starts early. Getting up and heading to Gold’s Gym to do a workout is what keeps me disciplined. Once I’m back from the gym, I start my workday and it’s meeting after meeting, a lot of desk work. By the end of the day, I’m looking forward to my run. Sometimes it's short, sometimes it's long, it depends on how much time I have. On the weekends I have more time, so that’s when I go for my long runs.”
"I became curious about discovering my body and what I am capable of, which inspired me to keep pushing more."
How do you feel such a focus on fitness helps make you a better person?
“It’s not about fitness, it’s about mindset. I really enjoy the feeling of pushing yourself beyond what you think is possible. When I challenge myself I feel happier and it gives me more confidence, and that translates to my professional life too. Sometimes we’ll have a business issue and I’ll hear, “Oh, we can’t generate this much income from this business,” and I will say, “Actually I think we can, we just have to think about what is needed to do that.’
I also think a lot when I run. If I have an issue that is bothering me, instead of getting negative and stressed I will go for a run and then I come back feeling relaxed and destressed. Sometimes I even solve problems on my run, because I think I am just thinking much more clearly.
I also like the fact that by looking after my physical fitness and mental wellness, I am giving back to the next generation of runners and being a role model for my 15-year-old daughter and her friends.”
"I’ve been doing regular BODYPUMP classes. I truly believe they have been instrumental in my running wins."
Tell us about the training you do at the gym
“I used to do nothing but running – then I got a serious back injury and had to completely stop. Going to the physiotherapist, I learned my core wasn't that strong. Since then, I’ve been doing regular BODYPUMP classes. I truly believe they’ve been instrumental in my running wins.
I have had times when I’ve had to travel for business for weeks and I wasn't doing my regular workouts. Without these strength workouts, I found that my back would start hurting when I ran and that it was harder to push for a faster pace. As soon as I got back to my BODYPUMP and LES MILLS CORE classes I got back to my regular running pace and I could keep going.”
You understand the value of strength training, and how a strong core improves running performance, why don’t you simply lift weights on the gym floor?
“I love BODYPUMP because of the structure, and how you can train all your muscle groups in one workout. I know some people, especially some of the guys, think they can lift much heavier when they train on their own. But it’s not always about the amount of weight you lift. I really feel that BODYPUMP gives you the right combination of intensity and repetition. The easiest thing is not having to think how many repetitions you need to do, you just show up, and that alone allows for so much more consistency in your training. Every workout you end up doing so many reps and you don't even feel the hard work because it's so much fun – and the friendships you develop in class make it easier too as you're all in it together and you laugh and support each other through.
There are days when I go heavy and train with intensity and days when I will lift lighter because I’ve just done a long run – and even after a long run it feels really good for my muscles. I specifically love going to Instructors Michael Gorder and Melanie Karsten’s classes. They are great role models, pushing me to not be afraid and push the limit, which I think has been key to my success.”
"No matter what age you are or how fit you are, core strength is the foundation for everything!"
You have some upcoming prestigious races – how are you preparing?
“I recently went out to run in Death Valley, which is where I’ll be running in July. They say it’s the hardest place in the world to run. I ran 20 miles. It wasn't as hot as it will be in July, but just the terrain alone made it very challenging – I still enjoyed it though!
I’ve also been spending more time doing consecutive sessions at the gym. I do BODYPUMP three times a week, sometimes I do back-to-back cycle classes and then BODYPUMP just to train my body to continue to go when it’s fatigued. Sometimes I do BODYPUMP with heavy weights and then I will go for a run or a bike ride and then come back and do another class. I also do a lot of core work, in-between meetings I will grab my resistance band and put on a LES MILLS CORE workout and do a quick 15 minutes.”
What’s your advice for others interested in challenging themselves?
Back yourself, build gradually and keep at it. Any time you start something new it’s challenging, but the key is to not give up, and each time just go that little bit extra. So if you start with running for 30 minutes, the next time you run do 35, then 40. I really feel that anyone can do anything if you maintain a disciplined approach. And also FOCUS ON YOUR CORE! No matter what age you are or how fit you are, core strength is the foundation for everything!
My aim is to create awareness that a common ‘normal’ person can go from the couch to being an endurance athlete – all it takes is discipline, consistency and a basic fitness routine.”