Penny Barber tells Matt Long how it’s done

In representing England Masters back in September, what was outstanding about Tipton’s Penny Barber was the fact that she doubled over both 10k and the half marathon on two consecutive days, effectively only having 24 hours to recover between both races.

For the record W60 Penny ran a respectable 46:08 in the Kew Gardens 10k on Saturday 11th, finishing 6th in her age group and ran 1:44:33 to place a fine 3rd at the Richmond Run Fest half on Sunday 12th.

Whilst advising masters athletes to run back to back hard races is questionable there may be times when championships or in Penny’s case, selection opportunities make it too good not to give it ago. So her performances need unpicking because there is much to be learned about how masters athletes with an enhanced chronological and biological age can recover more quickly than one would expect them to.

Physiological issues for masters athletes

Athletes like Penny must cope with a relative decrease in muscle size and strength compared to many senior athletes. Connective tissues which surround joints and muscles can be damaged because of their lack of elasticity and changes in inflammatory responses and muscle protein synthesis means it takes longer for damaged cells to be removed.

What Penny did to recover between races

In her own words Penny says that, “What I did mostly was keep moving gently so nothing cramped or seized up. In the past I haven’t always done a proper cool down after races as it’s just too much fun gossiping with everyone! This being said I did make a point of being anti social after this one & did a slow just over a mile cool down. A bit later I walked a brisk half mile back to the hotel and braved the foam roller – 30 rolls each calf, quad & hamstring with a bit of extra small ball work on my fragile hamstring”.

In terms of the nutritional, she continues that, “I like to err on the safe side with sufficient food especially protein for repair materials and of course I needed carbs for both days. So I scoffed the chocolate and nut bar we were given at the finish and visited the brilliant baker’s stall outside Kew Gardens station to take on an almond croissant, big tortilla as well as a veggie samosa”. She continues, “We visited some friends on Eel Pie Island in Twickenham going there on the bus and walking half the way back. Dinner was Italian – raviola with ricotta & black truffle served with sage butter, tagliatelle with salmon and asparagus, chocolate cake”.

When back at the hotel, Penny embarked on static stretching to extend rather than merely to restore range of motion, pointing out that, “I did a little bit of stretching – quads 6 times each leg for 20 secs and calf stretches for 30 secs on each leg, plus some butterfly kicks for no better reason than I always do them for something to do when putting my glaucoma drops in. Then I put my feet up to watch Emma Raducanu win the tennis at the New York Open!”.

Masters athletes gather for the half

Towards an holistic recovery strategy

Author of The Masters Athlete, Dr Peter Raeburn, has done much good work in this area and offers an illuminating four fold typology, dividing recovery into the following four modes, namely:

• Neurological.
• Physiological.
• Nutritional.
• Psychological.

We can see elements of all of the above in Penny’s recovery strategy. The neurological is aimed at enhancing muscle relaxation and her active recovery through walking, static stretching to both restore and extend range of motion plus sleep will all have helped with this. If she had access, hydrotherapy could have complemented the self-mysofascial release which she effected. In terms of the physiological, increased blood supply to fatigued muscles could have been further facilitated by the wearing of compression garments.

The nutritional was dealt with by Penny’s sensible rehydration and nutritional strategy, the latter of which could have been complemented further by a greater range of high glycaemic index foods and protein. In terms of the psychological, Penny’s watching the tennis will have helped with mental recovery and visualisation techniques, breathing and meditation could be integrated into a programme in future.

Of course athletes like Penny have to be physically and psychologically robust in the first place in order to stand a chance of effecting back to back hard races but the following questions for self-reflection should help masters athletes improve their chances of recovery.

Questions for self-reflection

  1. What have I done in my training to ensure I am robust enough to try and attempt back to back races on consecutive days?
  2. Why do I need a recovery strategy in place and what does it consist of?
  3. How does my recovery strategy comprise of neurological, physiological, nutritional and psychological interventions?

Matt Long served as an England Team Manager and Coach for the recent Masters Representative Matches in London. He welcomes contact at for support.