Barbara Nwaba is a very busy woman. In fact, the 2105 and 2016 U.S. national champion heptathlete is so busy that she’s talking to me by phone at the same time she gets treated by her chiropractor. She’s getting tuned up before her trip to Rio de Janeiro, where she hopes to be in contention for a medal in her first Olympics.
“I get bored really easily,” jokes the 27-year-old from Santa Barbara, Calif., between chiropractic adjustments. Fortunately, that’s exactly what makes her good at heptathlon—a grueling two-day, seven-event competition that starts with the 100m hurdles, includes high jump, shot put, 200m, long jump, javelin and an arduous two-lap 800m race to cap it off. The key, Nwaba says, is to focus always on the task at hand and not to dwell on anything that’s already happened. “Whether you have a good event or a bad event, park it and move on.”
Nwaba’s heptathlon advice could also serve as decent advice for life too, and that’s particularly true when it comes to the patience needed for slow and focused progress across so many disciplines.
She was a high school hurdler when her college coach at UC Santa Barbara convinced her to try the heptathlon, even though she had never done most of the events. (Javelin is still not her favorite.) It was hard for Nwaba to believe she could ever be good. But, slowly, she learned the techniques for shot put and long jump and even javelin. She stopped worrying about the bigger picture and simply focused on improving one small thing at a time. And it worked.
“You just get better as you go,” she says.
The Seven-Day Circus
That single-minded focus is key to success within the circus of elite heptathlon. Just training for one event is a full-time job for most professional athletes. Training for seven sounded like a logistical nightmare to me. How do you make sure you’re getting enough technique work at the high jump, but also running enough to also be good at the 800m? Is it possible to ever really feel like you’re doing enough (or like you’re getting enough rest)?
Apparently, I am worrying way too much about all this. Nwaba, on the other hand, takes the chaos in stride. There is simply a schedule and she sticks to the schedule, but keeps enough flexibility to make changes when necessary.
In the fall, Nwaba does strength work in the gym and builds up a foundation of running—though she rarely runs long, just about 30 minutes or so at a time. That turns into more explosive efforts in the winter to prepare for high jump and long jump. And then, once the season is underway, it’s shotput and 200m repeats on the grass on Mondays; hurdles, high jump, sprints and the weight room on Tuesdays; active recovery Wednesdays; a hard long jump and sprint session on Thursdays, followed by the weight room again; javelin technique and 800m track sessions on Friday; weight room on Saturday (depending on how she’s recovering from the week’s work); and then on Sundays we rest.
Sleep and Eat, and Sleep and Eat Some More
If that sounds exhausting, it’s because it is.
“I love sleep. That’s my favorite thing to do,” Nwaba says. She also gets a massage every 2 to 3 weeks, and foam rolls every day before and after practice. And she (unsurprisingly) eats a diet of healthy fats, lean protein, and lots of fruits and vegetables. Although she’s not super strict, she says. Of course, her standard of “not super strict” just means that she only allows herself one cheat day per week at most. She doesn’t worry too much about calories, as long as it’s not cookies, because she needs to stay fueled between workouts and especially between the two days of competition.
It’s hard to eat during meets and you don’t have enough time for a big lunch between events anyway, so Nwaba makes sure to have a hearty breakfast and then snack on bananas, trail mix, and possibly a sandwich—and other things that are easier to keep down.
“I drink a lot of Pedialyte,” she says.
Eating isn’t the only thing that’s hard during meets. Sleeping that night in between the two days of competition is also tough. That’s when you have to put everything out of your head again, watch a movie, and relax—so that when the time comes you can focus on the one task at hand.
Eye on the Prize—But Not Too Much
When we talked, Nwaba was not packed yet for the trip to Rio, but she wasn’t too worried about that either. She planned to throw everything in a bag and fly down this week with her coach Josh Priester, Priester’s parents, her boyfriend, her mom, and the all-important chiropractor. She’ll walk in the Opening Ceremony on Aug. 5 (which will count as her workout for the day) and she’ll see as much as she can around the Athlete Village. Then, if she’s lucky, she’ll have an outside shot at a medal. (She’s ranked sixth in the world heading into the Games.) Not that she’ll necessarily know during the competition.
Heptathlon is scored based on a points system of benchmarks. Achieve higher or lower than the standard in any event and you’ll get more or less points, per a complicated formula.
But, despite having competed in these events dozens of times, Nwaba says she doesn’t have the exact points formula memorized. “We don’t have a calculator,” she jokes. She knows her personal bests in each event and how she generally expects to perform. “I let my coach worry about everything else,” she says. And he’ll tell her, as it gets closer to the final 800m, what she needs to do or how she’s stacking up. That’s all she needs to know.
Grounded in Reality
In college it’s relatively straightforward to be a student-athlete. You just show up where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there. After college, though, as she started training with the newly formed Santa Barbara Track Club, which Priester founded to help post-collegiate heptathletes and decathletes, Nwaba struggled to find balance in her life. Suddenly, it was all track all the time; there weren’t any classes or other places to be. And she found she needed something else to round things out.
“You need to have other things to pull you back,” she says, to ground you in the real world.
So she goes to church, hangs out with her friends and boyfriend, and works with the Santa Barbara Youth Track Club. That way when it’s not time for heptathlon, she doesn’t worry about heptathlon. And when it is time for heptathlon, she’s able to focus solely and intently on the task at hand, and then move on to the next task and the next one after that—until eventually those tasks add up to a national championship.
Like I said: heptathlon advice makes for good life advice too.