News & Updates

27 June 2024 • Coaching

New Zealand middle-distance champion embraces coaching link up with rising star

Rebekah Aitkenhead helps the athlete she coaches, Catherine Lund, by occasionally acting as a pacemaker.

National 1500m and Mile champion Rebekah Aitkenhead currently coaches one of New Zealand’s leading U20 athletes Catherine Lund. We chat to the Dunedin-based pair to talk about how the coach-athlete relationships works and how Rebekah juggles the two roles as both a coach and an elite athlete.

When Rebekah Aitkenhead was approached in late-2022 by the parents of Catherine Lund to coach their daughter there was little doubting the attraction of the role.

As one of New Zealand’s premier middle-distance runners Rebekah had her own running goals but having dipped her toe in the water regarding coaching while based in Melbourne for a period it was an exciting opportunity to guide one of New Zealand’s brightest young teenage prospects.

“Catherine’s coach, Alan Moir, was looking at stepping back from coaching and I knew Catherine was a good runner in Dunedin,” explains Becky. “During my time in Melbourne in 2021-22 I trained quite a bit with Lydia O’Donnell of Femmi. I’d never really thought of coaching before, but it was a good side job to coach recreational athletes for Femmi. It was also flexible in that I could do it remotely.”

Catherine, who was at that time preparing for the 2022 New Zealand Secondary Schools Athletics Championships in Inglewood, Taranaki, was delighted that Becky agreed to step in as coach.

“I knew Becky had all the Otago records, so I was excited to be coached by Becky,” adds Catherine.

Becky acknowledged the excellent role that Alan played in Catherine’s running journey by adopting a patient, long-term approach.

“In many ways Alan made it easy for me,” explains Becky. “When I started working with Catherine she was fit and ready to train. I just needed to work on some areas where she wasn’t quite as strong such as speedwork.”

For Becky – who herself harbours international ambitions of her own – it might also appear taking on the additional coaching responsibility of coaching Catherine might be too demanding.

Yet Becky, who is herself currently coached by Tauranga-based Craig Kirkwood, quickly discovered it was complementary.

“Initially, I thought it might be too much because everything would be running related,” she says. “However, I realised because I am really interested in running and super interested in how people train. I listen to lots of running podcasts on how groups train, it is not too hard to juggle because it doesn’t feel like a job. It’s fun.”

In fact, as Becky explains working with Catherine, the national U20 5000m champion, has been a hugely beneficial experience for her running.

“Catherine is a very smart runner and listens to her body,” says Rebekah. “That kind of intuition has taken me a lot longer. When I was younger if I felt a niggle, I would stubbornly push through, which didn’t help at all.”

Rebekah has also adopted a developmental approach to Catherine’s programme. Training no more than five times a week – which includes one track work out, one long run and one tempo run per week – the approach has gained dividends as the Ariki AA athlete has continued to impress.

She has finished top Kiwi in the U20 women’s race at each of the past two editions of the World Athletics Cross Country Championships and still aged just 18 she is all set to compete in the 3000m steeplechase at the 2024 World U20 Championships in Lima, Peru in August.

“Becky has lots of experience, especially in different situations with different coaches and she has seen a lot of what to do and what not to do,” explains Catherine. “We are good at making sure I do the right things and she offers a structured approach.”

The pair sometimes train together on long runs and easy runs, but both immediately dismiss the prospect there is any competitive element between coach and athlete and athlete and athlete.

“Definitely not,” adds Catherine with a smile.

Becky praises Catherine’s strength, particularly during threshold and tempo runs with coach insisting their next big goal is for her fellow Otago-based athlete to deliver at the 2024 in Lima – where she will target a PB and a place in the 3000m steeplechase final.

With Catherine planning to move to the US and attend Providence College in Rhode Island in January – Becky hopes over the next six months or so she can best prepare her athlete to make the transition to the next part of her athletics journey.

“Here in Dunedin, Catherine does a lot of training solo but when she jumps into a group at Providence is it very important Catherine is healthy,” adds Becky.

While Catherine will move on the next chapter of her exciting running development, Rebekah is also looking forward to seeing how her coaching path will develop in future.

“I enjoy both sides of coaching both recreational and elite athletes,” explains Becky. “I would say to other runners, if you are intrigued by how athletes train, I would definitely get involved. Coaching is a very rewarding job and a great way to give back to the sport.”