Alana Barber is 28, and New Zealand’s fastest female race walker. Alana rose to success during her time in Leeds, UK, where she lived for a couple of years with her partner and fellow Kiwi race walker Quentin Rew (check out the Train and Chew interview with Quentin). Alana made massive improvements whilst in Leeds, and it these improvements were backed up when she competed at the British Grand Prix of Race Walking and finished a massive nine minutes faster than her previous PB with 1:43:46 to place second. Since then, Alana’s most notable performance was finishing 18th in the 20Km race walk at the 2015 World Championships, where she also set a New Zealand record of 1:33:20. She is currently preparing for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Who knows what other achievements await Alana in 2016!
- Can you start us off by explaining, very briefly, what the rules of race walking are?
There are 2 main rules to race walking. The first is that one foot must appear to be on the ground at all times. The walker’s front foot must be on the ground when the rear foot is raised. The second rule is that one leg must be straight at all times. The front leg must straighten when it makes contact with the ground. This is all judged with the human eye.
Race walking judges can caution competitors who they think are close to breaking the rules by showing them a yellow paddle. The same judge cannot give an athlete a second caution. When a walker clearly fails to comply with the rules, the judge sends a red card to the chief judge. Three red cards, from three different judges, will result in a competitor’s disqualification.
Additionally, the chief judge can disqualify an athlete in the final 100ms, if the competitor clearly violates the walking rules, even if the competitor has not accumulated any red cards. This stops walkers from getting away with running in the final straight.
- How long have you been race walking? What got you started?
I used to be an 800m runner and I wanted to train over longer distances. That’s when I started to get knee soreness. My Mum is a race walker and always pestered me about giving it a go, so when I was injured she said that race walking could be a great way to keep fit while giving my knees a chance to recover. I never went back to running seriously after that. And now Mum has stopped bugging me 😉
- What do you think has been the single biggest game-changer in terms of your training?
When I began training regularly for race walking, I followed Arthur Lydiard’s principles. I did 3 hour sessions at 7 minutes per kilometre to try and clock up the mileage, but ended up racing at 6 minutes per kilometre pace and I just couldn’t get my times faster. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for that style of training and it can be a successful way of becoming a strong runner, but it just did not make me a faster walker. I later started to focus on pace in all my workouts including 20-25km sessions. It was no longer about spending time on my feet; it was about puffing hard and increasing my aerobic fitness level. My speed increased over time and I began been able to hold 20km training sessions at 5 minutes per kilometre, which meant I could race at 4 minutes 30 pace.
- What is your favorite session?
My favorite session is known as “out & back”, which involves going at a fast pace one way, then turning round at 10 minutes and having to get back to the start before 20 minutes is up. There are 2 aims to this session: to get as far as you can in the first 10 minutes; and to judge your pace perfectly and get back to the start in exactly 20 minutes.
- Do you have a least favorite session?
Mentally I find 2km reps very tough. I avoid doing this session on my own. If I do them with a group, it helps A LOT, even if it’s with a bunch of runners.
- What do you think is the key to your success?
I have gone through long periods of not improving. Although it is important to evaluate the reasons why you might not be getting better times, I truly believe that getting through the tough times when you don’t feel like you are getting rewards, and staying positive is the key to being successful.
- Is there anything that would surprise people about your diet?
I am a sucker for cake and chocolate. I can’t just have 1 biscuit; I have to have the packet! But that won’t be a surprise to anyone that knows me.
- What are your favorite pre/post-workout snack/ meal?
Before training, I love having a banana. It’s the only thing I can eat and train straight away on, without feeling it in my stomach. After training the best thing is having a smoothie packed with fruit, mixed spices, mint leaves, coconut cream. I experiment all the time by adding different ingredients.
- You seem to travel a lot for races, and training, where is next on the list, and where is your favorite place to race/ train?
As I type this, I’m on my way home from Asian Champs in Japan. I love travelling and race walking provides that opportunity. The next race is in China on April 23rd, then straight onto Italy where our World Teams Champs are. We have a small NZ team competing there.
Obviously the big race I’m aiming for is Rio, but I am still in need of another B standard. NZ has tougher standards than what IAAF set, so despite the Olympic 20km standard being 1:36, NZ has a B standard of 1:33 and an A standard of 1:31. You can qualify by doing the B standard twice or the A standard once in the set time period.
I am doing my pre-Olympics build up in St Moritz, which just happens to be one of the most beautiful places in the world and has an ideal cycle path around the lake to walk on. Being surrounded by beautiful scenery increases motivation and makes you want to spend as much time outside training as possible.
- Have you got any advice for aspiring race walkers?
You need to be self motivated and enjoy your own company. You spend many hours on your feet by yourself and although training with a group is great, you can’t rely on anyone else to be successful. There are so many reasons not to train – your training partner doesn’t turn up, you have a blister from the previous session, it’s pouring with rain and windy. You have a hot date and you don’t have time shower before you meet him. It doesn’t matter what the reason is, you should still go out and train. Embrace whatever the bad situation is, this is what will give you the competitive edge. The more physically and mentally demanding the session, the better the athlete you become.
You need to be resourceful, particularly because there aren’t a lot of people that understand the sport. Find people who a good, find out what they do and get involved.Walking offers great opportunities. You can qualify and get invited to races around the world. It’s a very exciting lifestyle!
Check out Alana’s Facebook page to keep us to date with her races, and training.