Runner’s High: a barbecue mantra for beginning runners

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Photo by Miguel A. Amutio

Kansas City is known for both its barbecue and as the birthplace of burnt ends for good reason. Those exquisite, melt-in-your-mouth cubes of beef—with their crispy exterior and fat-marbled interior—take time, patience, and a lot of love. Ask any local pitmaster the trick to incredible burnt ends, and I’d bet you the phrase “low and slow” is mentioned. Coincidentally, this barbecue mantra is also the perfect advice for running newbies who want to avoid injuries.

But before we get into what that means in a cardio context, think back to how running felt during your adolescence. For me, it involved laps around the soccer field, or the poorly-named “suicide drills” on the tennis court. Often framed as punishment or conditioning, running was never the goal, but an onerous means to an end. As an adult, I started training for my first marathon with the same mindset: go hard and finish as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, that’s a recipe for disaster. Or in my case, inflamed hip flexors and IT bands before I’d been training two months. Luckily, I’m older and a little wiser now, which is why I run low and slow.

Low, in this situation, refers to the amount of perceived effort during your workout. A popular benchmark is how easily you can have a conversation while running. Getting a little out of breath? Time to ease up, walk for a bit and let your body relax. If you have a training watch, heart rate (shown as beats per minute or bpm) is another indicator. I typically shoot for 140-160 bpm on a normal training run, but variables like age, weight, and gender all factor into each person’s unique resting, target, and maximum heart rates.

Running slow sounds self-explanatory and, dare I say, easy? However, on more runs than I can count, I’ll inadvertently accelerate on a downhill or flat portion until my pace is anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute too fast. Slowness takes focus and self-discipline, with considerable rewards to be reaped. For instance, leisurely, relaxed running (jogging) allows your body to adjust to the added impact on muscles, bones, and ligaments. It also teaches your cells to utilize oxygen more efficiently, increase glycogen reserves and prioritize burning fat for fuel. Those metabolic adaptations are what will allow you to scale your mileage in a safe, sustainable, and minimally painful way.

Now, if you’re thinking this all sounds too good to be true, you’re partially correct. Speedwork has a place in any training plan. But those workouts should make up a small fraction of your weekly mileage. For the most part, easy runs at a slow speed are your best bet when training for anything longer than a half marathon.

It took me a handful of overuse injuries before I abandoned my preconceived notions about how running should feel. Candidly, I’m surprised there are an estimated 47 million runners in this country, considering how we position running as penance for subpar performance. These past few months, my mileage has increased steadily with no injuries or setbacks. I’m just taking it slow like a pitmaster who knows that the best things, burnt ends included, take time.

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