30th December 2021


Luke Gunn

University of Birmingham Head of Athletics
& Birmingham Talent Hub Manager

What is your athletics background?

Like many it started at school. I was encouraged by my PE teacher to go along to a local race after doing well in a fitness test at school. I think I finished pretty modestly at that first cross-country race, but I was given a letter to take along to my local athletics club. I did that – I was about 13 years old at the time. I joined Derby Athletics Club and the rest is history! I was immediately hooked.

I gradually took it more and more seriously and competed through all the age groups. I was never the best for my age as Derby had some strong runners. But at 16 I started going on a few camps and competed at English schools. I met Bud Baldaro and started to take things a bit more seriously once I was at the University of Birmingham. After I ran an 800m and missed out on international selection I decided to focus on the steeplechase. I’d watched a few and, being a bit of a show-off, I thought I could do that! At my first steeplechase event I won a medal so never looked back.

I progressed through the age groups representing GB at junior championships and European Team Championships as well as making the England team at three Commonwealth Games.

How did you get into coaching?

Looking back, I probably didn’t realise it at the time, but it began while I was training. I always had quite an inquisitive brain so I would quiz coaches during sessions, at weekends and at camps. I remember Bud at university saying to me “you’d be a good coach but make sure you do your running first.”

I would often find myself being a bit of a leader within the group. If Bud wasn’t on the run or at the session, I’d often be a bit of an interpreter to try and enforce Bud’s plans onto the group and lead the session on his behalf. It then naturally moved from leading into mentoring others.

While I was still competing at about 24/25 years of age, I was coaching a couple of friends who’d just asked me to help them. When I got a job, my first at the university (after graduating), it was nothing to do with coaching, but I got brought in to the athletics group to be a bit of a mentor and started developing lifestyle skills. Bud made me lead drills and help out more and more with the sessions.

In 2012 I took a bit of a step back from the sport and a few more people approached me about coaching them. I continued to compete until 2017. By then I was getting GB junior and under-23 athletes asking for help so at that point I realised I wasn’t able to do both effectively, so I decided to take the coaching route.  I have been coaching in some capacity for nearly 15 years and seriously for five or six years.

What is your coaching role?

I have two roles. My day job is to manage the athletics programme and manage the coaches at the university. But like most coaches the majority of my coaching takes place in the evenings and weekends. It gives me a great circle of influence. I manage the whole spread of events – sprints, endurance, jumping and throwing – but I have a team of coaches to support me and I specialise in endurance but we all work in collaboration along with four volunteers.

There are about 30 athletes that I support individually including in some cases liaising with their own personal coaches if they still have those at their ‘home’ clubs.  So, I am regularly talking with coaches all around the UK.

It gives me the opportunity and a platform to be around the athletes and the practitioners on a day-to-day basis.

This, of course, helps me with my other role where I am Birmingham Talent Hub Manager looking out for and supporting new talent coming through. The Hub facilitates athletics and specialist support to 43 athletes and their coaches in the region, aiding in the transition of u23 & senior athletes through the pathway to senior international success. We also facilitate elements of the England Athletics national youth, junior and senior talent programme delivery.

What is your coaching philosophy?

I am very individualised in how I communicate with and develop programmes for athletes, but I am also a big advocate of getting groups to work together and to develop together wherever possible. No two athletes have the same programme but there is a lot of benefit from partnering people up to support and help motivate each other.

I am a big supporter of getting good mechanics and working on technique whether for a marathon runner or 800m runner – I install this in in my athletes. I like them to have a holistic training programme with plenty of strength and conditioning and lots of supplementary work, not just running.

I am also a big fan of periodisation throughout the year to ensure that athletes peak at the right time, usually in the summer. At the start of the year (October time) we do a lot of work all together and then we will start to specialise into groups and see the 800m runners no longer training with the 10k runners but begin to really specialise on their different events.

For me I like to see the athletes develop as a person through sport too; it is not all about results. The athletes are very aware that there is a very short peak performance window at the top and only a very few will be lucky enough to make it as full-time athletes. All my athletes currently are either working or studying full or part-time so it is important to work around their needs when developing their training programmes. It is indicative of the athletes that I work with that many are university or graduate level, so they are able to use their brain, be creative and analyse their own performances and work on a career model. We want to get them to work together and help one another by encouraging and motivating each other because that is what will keep people in the sport much more than fancy shoes or other gimmicks.

This is very much how I can manage a big group of people and it is interesting that it feels like things are going full circle in that I can’t do it all so the natural leaders and those with coaching traits start to come through and I can see where the next lot of coaches could come from.

What motivates you as a coach?

I am a dopamine addict so I thrive on constant development and continued progression. Having athletes to coach is always a challenge – good or bad.  In my job, no two days are ever the same. I love working with passionate and driven people which I think is a real blessing of being an athletics coach. I am very lucky that the athletes are inspiring and enthusiastic – it is not like managing a team of people who just turn up to get a pay cheque at the end of the month.

It is also infectious being around people who are enthusiastic and are working hard to improve and achieve without it being all about the medals. It is genuinely different and dynamic every day when I go to work.

It is long days and weekends but there is no coach out there who doesn’t work 24/7 and let it seep into their downtime.

What is your most memorable moment(s) as a coach?

There are lots of individual achievements – of course helping Issy Boffey become European under 20 and under 23s champion is very special.

Watching Mark Pearce at the British Championships and Olympic trials this year is also a highlight for me. Of course, he ran the steeplechase which is my passion. He hadn’t really reached his potential while at university and came to me quite late in his career. In just four years since he started the event, he has become British Champion. But it was the way he approached the Champs that impressed me so much. He knew he didn’t have the time but he took the race on by the scruff of the neck and very nearly pulled it off, he fell just short of the standard but got a stadium record in the fastest time the British Champs has been won in for several decades and I could not have been prouder. I was an emotional mess as I couldn’t believe what I’d witnessed. He didn’t qualify but he was at peace with that because he could not have done more on the day so it was very special to watch.

I also love to help athletes who come to me pretty broken, whether it be injured or who have fallen out of the sport; to help them to get back on track is a huge driver for me. To watch them get back and better where they were before is a great feeling. Unfortunately, through no fault of anyone it is often a tough time around 16 to 18 years and athletes can pick up injury or fall ill so for those my team work hard and we have managed to help some get firmly back on track and racing again. That is what really motivates me and brings a real sense of pride.

More holistically, seeing the group at Birmingham being the envy of other groups across the UK and even further afield is the biggest compliment anyone can ask for. I am so proud when I hear other coaches say, ‘wow we’ve seen what is going on in Birmingham and we want to emulate it’. We have done it ethically too; we’ve not gone about it aggressively or tried to recruit other athletes. We have built it slowly and use lots of ‘salt of the earth’ club coaches who want to send athletes our way. It is all about wanting to help athletes stay in the sport and reach their potential.

What are your coaching ambitions going forward?

It is all about helping my athletes make teams; I haven’t had one of my athletes make a GB senior team in a major championships yet. It is about getting the seniors in the teams. Next year we have three championships: Worlds, Europeans and Commonwealths and with the Commonwealths in Birmingham it is very close to our hearts here in the city. It would be great to get a few people on the team for the home champs.

After that it is all eyes on Paris (Olympic and Paralympic Games 2024). With the demographic of the university, early 20s, a lot of them will be looking to peak in Paris. So, for me, that is the pinnacle so it will be all about building to the 2024.