Jacuzzi Performance Podcast

Ep 7 Wellness and a lifetime in sport – the incredible Sally Gunnell OBE.


Welcome back to the Jacuzzi Performance Podcast. I'm Ed Baxter, and today, we're joined by Sally Gunnell OBE. How are you doing?

Hello, I'm really good thank you, yeah, great.

We had Richard Whitehead on last week, who's an MBE, so you've one-upped him there.

Oh, he's great, isn't he? Did you have a good chat with him? He's a brilliant guy.

Yeah it was great. We were saying, does it make you smile every time someone says 'OBE'?

Well, I'm still in shock. I don’t know, it's like all those things, isn't it? You never quite believe that you'd ever actually achieve those sorts of things. I was just saying it's 28 years today that I won that Olympic gold medal and I'm still in shock, I still think 'wow, that's just crazy', and it's the same with the OBE, it's like 'little old me from Essex. Who'd believe that you'd ever do that?' So, I'm still very humble about it all.

We’ll get into the Olympics stuff in a bit, but first of all, how’s lockdown been for you?

Do you know what, it's been okay. I've had a lockdown injury. I think you go one way or the other, don’t you? You either don’t do any exercise or you overdo it, and I definitely overdid it. I was on a bit of a sabbatical – I'm still working, but it was just nice to be around. My husband's often away with the athletes' training so he was around, my kids were around – the three boys – so yeah. I've had enough now though, I'm ready to get back and get on and do things. We've been really lucky, where we live and the equipment and stuff that we've got, which has been great.

Am I right in thinking you've got a home training centre?

We have. I've just been showing the guys around. We've only just moved into this house, well last October, so the priority was to convert the stables into a gym. We got all that up and running, and then we've done nothing to the house, and now we've got our swim spa and a hot tub in and we've got a lovely little area, so we've got our priorities right.

Have you got a miniature running track round there?

We have, yeah, in one of the fields. In lockdown the guys obviously couldn't get onto the track and stuff like that, so we've made a nice little track around in the grass. My husband's been out there rolling it, cutting it. They've been running around there and it's got a nice little slope in just to make it difficult for them all, and I've been out there doing my bit, so yeah, we've been very lucky.

Have you got a squad that yourself and your husband train and they're your prodigies, would you call them?

Yeah, my husband works for UK Athletic. He's the elite training coach for endurance, so there’s probably about 4 or 5 at the top end, and then we've got some youngsters coming through as well. I support him more than anything. He's brilliant, he's got so much patience. I would say I don’t make the best coach by any means. I haven't got the patience. I think 'what do you mean, you can't do that?' So he's brilliant, and I just help and stuff, and then I've got 3 boys that all run as well. Poor them, eh? They've been dragged into it, but they still love it. So it's still our life, and I love being part of that top end, but at the same time still trying to keep myself healthy and fit, and do a lot around health and wellbeing, and just trying to motivate and help others as well.

Yeah, that’s really cool. I was going to say, it looks like you're still very much in training. It doesn’t look like you’ve stopped running at all.

Well, you know what? It's a bit pathetic my running these days, I must admit. I still love it, but it's for a very different reason, it's much more around mental health, my sanity and my me time, almost, and running with the dogs. I do a lot more – especially as you get older – you've got to cross-train a bit more. Weights are really important as you get older as well, so I'll probably hit the gym three times a week, but add in Pilates, yoga and swimming now, and biking. Yeah, I find the body gets too used to what it used to do and you have to shock it into doing new things almost, so it goes 'whoa, okay, I'll get myself a bit fitter then' . You just have to keep adapting really, which has been really interesting.

I was going to say, a massive shock adaptation for your body, just like 'whoa, what is going on?'

I know, and I think as soon as you go for a run now the body's like 'I've done this for so many years', and it's got no physical change happening or anything, so you have to do lots of fast and slow stuff, Hiit bits and all sorts, just variety so it doesn't know. I still love going for a nice slow plod with the dog. That's my favourite, up on the Downs.

You say slow, but I'm sure it's still faster than most people watching, like myself, definitely.

I don’t know. It is a bit pathetic, but hey-ho.

You mentioned there you've got a Jacuzzi swim spa. How are you finding that?

Amazing, we've had a swimming pool for the last 20 years, which has been great when the kids were growing up, but now they've grown out of that, and I think what the swim spa has done – it's offered so much, not just for our children to do their training sessions in, to have fun in, for me to cross-train in and relax in, but also these guys; the elite guys. They can't train twice a day and run twice a day, so it's been great for their second sessions. They've gone in there and run in the pool or they've done swimming in there as well. We've got one guy that's got a stress fracture at the moment, so he's in there swimming every day, and it's just getting so much use, to the point where we think 'god, how did I ever manage without it?' really. It’s so adaptable from, I don’t know – my 15-year-old has got six friends coming round on Friday because the weather's nice and they're going to play around in it, which is brilliant, to the next minute it's full-on swimming going on in there or exercise of some sort.

For myself, from a swimming background, that's the thing I've always found quite different about athletics, because I know quite a lot of people who are in athletics and they'll say 'oh, I've got a really big week this week, 5-6 sessions', I'm like 'what?', because as a swimmer we're 35 hours overall, we’ve got like 10 sessions in the pool, but your body can't take it in running and impact sports, can it?

No, exactly, and they have to cross-train, they have to adapt in other ways, because you've got to get the mileage in as such, and that can come in all sorts of different forms. So for them swimming in there as well is exactly the same, or doing a 30-minute run in there – they do interval sessions so they really can hit it hard. Actually what they've started doing is, they'll do five-minutes of swimming and then go straight into doing two-minutes of running in the pool, and then back to five-minutes swimming, so we're adapting and learning so many different things that we can do in there, but what it's allowing them to do is to train harder, which is what it's all about, but without having that real stress on your joints and your ligaments, and the pounding and that side of it. So yeah, it's not just about relaxation and going easy, it's being able to hit the second session of the day full on, which has been great.

So I know you've been quite a big Jacuzzi fan for a while, haven’t you? You've had an actual tub – not the pool – for the last 20 years now, isn't it?

I know, my husband bought me a Jacuzzi Sundance – well, my middle one is 19, so it must have been 19 years ago – so we had it for 17 years. We've just had our new one for the last two.

You had the same one for 17 years?

For 17 years, yeah, it lasted that long, and I always said that there were two things when the kids were young and they were growing up that I'm so pleased we had, one was a trampoline because when you've got three boys, you've got to get them out doing something or other, and then the other thing was the hot tub, because it allowed me to talk to the kids, talk to my husband, to relax – when the kids had gone to bed, Jill and I used to go in there and chat. I'd spend a lot of time in there with the kids talking about all sorts of rubbish. Sometimes it's about, you know, when do you get that chance to chat about the important things? That's what it did for so long, and I would so not be without it. I mean the Jacuzzi we've got now – they've obviously come on a lot since that one we had 19 years ago – is amazing. Now it's changed because I don’t have to sort the boys out anymore – well, they still have relationship problems that we probably end up chatting about now – but it's much more around the relaxation side of it. After doing a hard training session and getting in there and getting the jets on your neck or on your hamstrings – and all five of us will still go in, but it's much more after training. So where it used to be like an evening relaxation, it's much more; we would have done a session, we'd probably wait an hour or so – and they're doing things like the cold water and then the hot tub, just for recovery stuff, that's what the boys and the elite lot are doing – we'll go in there probably an hour after I've trained or something to get the relaxation side of it. So yeah, it's still good, still works.

Would you say Olympic gold – that must be your biggest achievement in your sporting career?

Yeah, it is the ultimate, and I'm sure the swimmers would say the same. We do have World Champs and stuff like that, but still the Olympics is every 4 years – where the World Champs is every other year – and just the history of it; it's the thing that you dreamt about. It's the thing I watched when I was, I don’t know, 14 years old and said 'that is what I want to do, I want to go, but I want to stand at the top of the rostrum', which is such a weird thing to think at that age, but that's what every training session was about, that's what got me out of bed in the morning when I didn't want to do those sessions. It was just about seeing how good you could actually get yourself to, but I knew on that day, what, 28 years ago today that I was going to win. I'd done everything right, I'd eaten well, I'd trained to my top ability, I'd done every session, and I knew I'd mentally prepared myself, and this was my day. It was

an amazing feeling to actually execute the race that you'd visualised and thought about for the last 12 months almost, and for it to go as it played out. So yeah, crazy.

When I was 17-18, I did the 2016 [allegiance] Olympics with Adam Peaty, and we still say to this day, ‘oh can you remember in 2016 when we did this’, and it’s something you never forget, isn't it? Not just 4 months, 6 months – that year leading up to the Olympics, that Olympic preparation. Can you take us through that, how that was?

Yeah it's your life, isn't it? You live and breathe it, from what you eat pre-session to the actual session. My coach used to plan ours 12 weeks ahead, so I'd be looking at this session – which was the dread session – for 12 weeks going 'this is the day I've got to do the session'. You know you're going to be sick at the end of it, but there’s also that feeling of doing that session and doing it well and it's in the bank. It’s hard because you've only got that window, and I knew that if I didn't win that year I'd probably never have the chance again, because I was 26 years old, which is when your body is meant to be at your peak. So it's getting everything right, but a lot of it is having belief and faith in the team of people around you, not always questioning it. I never questioned my coach, I had complete faith in what he did, and it was all about doing those sessions, putting it in the bank. Yeah, you had some good days, you had some bad days, but it was about staying positive, and it was about mentally pushing yourself as well, and getting the best out of every training session you can – doing the recovery, living and breathing every single moment, but also doing the whole mental preparation. That was the difference for me in that year compared to when I got silver in the Worlds the following year, or 5th in the Olympics four years before, just the self-belief and the mental approach that I'd put in, and the work that I'd done around the visualisation and all those sorts of things. It was such a powerful part of it, and allowed me, as I say, to have that confidence to go out there and do that, because I don’t think that was a natural thing.

Probably the biggest thing for me was, I always thought everybody else was better, and it took a lot of years to work out that you're just as good as them, you deserve it and you train hard – but that was the mental side of it, not worrying about what others are doing and taking control of what you do. You can't just put that in. That is – I don’t know, what are we talking – probably 14 years of ups and downs, and the struggles that you've had to allow yourself to be able to do those, and those lessons that you've learned to allow yourself to get into that sort of place. I call it ‘the zone’. Sportspeople talk about ‘the zone’. Only ever got there twice: then, and then the following year when I broke the world record. Amazing, if we could all get there every day it would be brilliant, but it takes that pressure, expectation, and those mind games that you've played with yourself to be able to get yourself in that. What it means is that you don’t remember any of the race. I don’t know whether you've ever felt this, but I don’t remember the gun going, I don’t remember going over the hurdles, I don’t even remember crossing the line. All I knew is, I don’t know, probably 2 weeks later, that you are an Olympic champion. It took that long because it was like 'wow, is this a dream?' almost, it's crazy.

I guess that's the beauty of sport, however long your career is – 2, 5, 10 years – not every single day will you hit that sweet spot, that ‘zone’. It might go wrong, it might go really well, you just never know, do you?

No, and I think that's what I love about it. It was for me. I used to lose all the Grand Prixes leading up to it, but they were just a process, and we'd worked out that the 13th race had to be that Olympic final, because there's such a short window of being at the peak of your sport, which is crazy, isn't it? It’s amazing also that you do that, and what sessions you put in place. That takes years, doesn't it? To understand that and work that out – and it's not just you, but how important your coach is and all the other people around you at the same time. It's that whole belief of 'yeah, I've got it right. Let's do it’.

Ok, you mentioned earlier, you were 14 years old, seeing the Olympics on TV, and you go ‘this is mine, this is where I’m going, this is what I’m going to do’. I know you're a massive advocate of goal-setting, aren't you? So can you talk us through that a little bit?

Yeah, it’s still a really important part of my life, and I think that was one of the things that my coach was very good at was, right from a very young age, saying 'right, what do you want to achieve out of this training session today? What do we want to achieve next month? Next year? In 4 years’, 5 years' time?' I think that's so important to know why we're training, what’s the purpose of training, and it's the thing that I took with me. The day that I retired, the first thing I did, or the day that I achieved that gold medal in the Olympics, it was like ‘what is next?' I would start by those goals, and challenge myself on what they might be. I guess when you run and you're at that high end of your sport it's easy, because you've got one goal and your one thing that you're aiming for. From the day I retired things are very different, but what I did was I set five goals, and even though there might not have been that one and that real ‘trying to rule the world’ scenario, they're still really important. It’s just allowed me to know what it is I'm trying to do, and it stops you from wandering, it stops you from questioning what you're doing. I still go 'right, what do I want to achieve by next week?' I'm a right list person, I always have a list of what I've got to do, to where I want to be in four years and whatever else, and it's just allowed me to keep on developing myself as a person since retiring. It’s helped in lockdown to know each day, because sometimes there are days where you don’t really know what you're going to do, and it doesn't have to be massive, it can be simple. I was very lucky – I had amazing people around me when I was young that I was able to think big, and so at 14 to actually think that I'm going to go to the Olympics and win, it wasn't something I thought about every day, but I had great people around me that I was able to actually think in that sort of way. So often people get shot down or think they can never do it, and I always say 'do you know what? Think big and just go for it’.

Those guys – you had it in you – but they just needed to facilitate it coming out of you almost.

Yeah, sometimes you have to ask for help, and it's having people around you that do encourage you and not always put you down. I remember when I left school and people were like 'what do you mean, you're going to go and be a full-time athlete?' I had to get part-time jobs, but 'don't be so pathetic, you won't go to the Olympics, only a few people do that, let alone win medals’. So you're up against that all the time, but luckily my parents, my coach and the team as it built over the years encourage you to do that and supported you.

Yeah, that’s amazing. Everyone watching this can probably tell you're still a very motivated person, and I think that's something people struggle a lot with – especially coming out of elite sport – is finding that motivation in other areas of your life. Because you did a long spell in athletics, you’ve had a brilliant career, how have you managed to keep that going when it’s not sport, you’ve had to transition into motivational speaking or other areas of your life?

I think it's where so many of the lessons that I learnt from running have helped since that. Firstly it's knowing what you want to achieve, so that goal thing is really important, and that keeps the motivation going because you know you've got something in place that you want to go and do. So that's part of it. It’s about learning new things. I'm forever challenging myself, and it doesn't have to be in a dangerous way, because I know lots of the guys when they retire really struggle because they're trying to find that real high of sport, real buzz. And I don’t know, sometimes I think because I had kids almost straight away, whether that helped to take that away, but I still loved learning new things. I've really got into biking now, and I want to learn to swim, believe it or not, because I can swim, but my kids say ‘you're absolutely rubbish' as they're in there swimming for half an hour and I'm like, spluttering on. I've just never been taught. So I think the motivation comes from learning new things and being fresh to things and still challenging yourself, it doesn't have to hurt, it doesn't have to be bungee jumping or whatever, but there's something about continuously learning and adapting, so that's where the motivation is going, and I think not to be scared of failure. The first time I did the talks, I didn't do it for years because I thought 'I cannot stand on stage and talk to, I don’t know, 500 people' or whatever else, and it was actually Roger Black – 400 run ­– who said to me 'people just want to know your story. There are not many successful women, they want to know what it takes, and just to be genuine' and that's the thing I learnt is to not be somebody else, be true to yourself, and that took a little while coming away from sport and getting into life and business and all these sorts of things. I learnt over the years, don’t try and be somebody else, just be yourself, and if people don’t like it then it's tough really, but be true to yourself, and I think that really helps at the same time.

You touched on it earlier saying about wellbeing and that's a massive passion of yours. Is that – well I guess it’s both – mental health and physical health as well? What does that mean to you?

The wellbeing side of it has come on very much in the last 10 years, and I think it's led on from the motivational high performance talks that I do, which was brilliant, and I still do; I still get the goosebumps when I'm talking about the race or whatever else. It's great to see people really – but they want more afterwards, and so much of what people want to do is they want the tools to be the best version of who they are. So, a lot of the wellbeing I do is around building resilience, which we all have to do as sportspeople, so when the tough times come, like lockdown or whatever, we've got the mental skills, we've got the physical skills to be able to pick ourselves up and deal with every day, and that's no different to sport, is it? The days we fail, it's about putting it behind you and moving on, and it's the same. So, a lot of the talks I do now, a lot I do around wellbeing, are much more around how do you build that resilience, what does that look like around nutrition and sleep and the importance for people, and how that can affect mental health and your confidence and all sorts of different things. I love it, and I think it's been amazing, lockdown, that I can still go and do my webinars and talk to the green dot with 500 people on the other end, and help support people, so just really lucky. I've learnt so much from my running days that I can pass on, all those little tools about controlling the mind and all those little things, so yes, very lucky.

My coach, Mel, her thing was ‘the best version of yourself’, and that was really interesting just then – you said it word-for-word, exactly what she said, it's such a big thing. You always forget, you're a sportsperson, whatever, but it's about yourself and being the best version of you you can ever be.

Yeah, and that is what wellbeing is. It's about not giving yourself a hard time, and it's something that we all do so much, we're always so quick to put ourselves down, and we can't always be perfect, but I think it's just realising, also I think what sport taught me is how important some of those little things are, that they all add up, like taking your own pillow to the Olympic Village, do you know what I mean? It makes such a difference, and it might be so simple and so insignificant, but it is about the way that you relax, or having your coffee cup or whatever else. So, it is about being the best version, so sometimes it's just allowing people to think about themselves and what it is. Stress is with everybody – what do they put in place to deal with stress? That might be, I don’t know, reading a book, going for a walk with your dog or whatever else, but sometimes it's finding ways to allow people to do that, which is really important.

Usually just before we finish, we ask for some top tips in your area, in what you’re best at. So, can you give us 3 top tips: one for training, one for how to compete in racing, and then one for sport in general for the guys who aren’t performance-based?

Okay, training, I would say the more you can cross-train, the better. I think that is definitely less stress on the body, and it allows the body to adapt more so you get more out of it. Competition, I would say use this up here [points to head], it's free, and it's what lots of people fail on, and when you're at a competition often there's not a lot of difference between you all, and the people that win are the ones that have used that up there. And what was the last one?

Just sport generally.

Just sport generally. Do you know what? Enjoy what you do. I always think I loved what I did. I find people that say 'I can't exercise, I hate it' and I just say to them 'find something that you enjoy. If it's Zumba dancing, if it's going for a bike ride and chatting to your friends, it's great, it's fine, you don’t have to go and run for an hour if you hate running or get in a swimming pool on your own if you hate swimming. It’s about finding something you enjoy and enjoy it. The day I retired was because the enjoyment went out of it, and it was the biggest relief and I knew I'd made the right decision. Yeah, so just go with enjoyment.

That’s brilliant. I’ve really enjoyed that. Thanks for that, Sally.

Thank you very much.

Thank you very much for watching, and we’ll see you on the next episode.