Mark Cucuzzella got behind the minimalist running movement before there really was one.
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. – When he was 13, Mark Cucuzzella, realizing he was too small to participate in team sports like football and basketball, went on his first distance run — in his bare feet.
“My brother was running cross-country, so I decided to just go run with him one day. We’re at the beach, and he ran 10 miles and I tagged along,” he said.
This was the first time Cucuzzella remembers a run that wasn’t just for play. Still, this run, which kicked off Cucuzzella’s career as a distance runner, was a precursor for everything he would stand for 32 years later.
Before Christopher McDougall’s 2009 best-selling “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” inspired a new generation of barefoot and minimalist runners — some of whom believe cushioned running shoes are what cause injuries, not prevent them — Cucuzzella was already both a passionate advocate and practitioner.
Cucuzzella, 45, ran competitively in high school and went on to the University of Virginia, where he eventually went on to graduate from medical school in 1992. There, he suffered “every running injury in the textbook,” he said, including arthritis in his foot.
In 2000, Cucuzzella had surgery on his foot. To come back from his injuries, he tried running in lighter, less bulky shoes, and even taking some of his shoes and cutting out the cushioning.
A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, six years ago Cucuzzella and his family moved to Shepherdstown, W.Va., where he later opened a running store, Two Rivers Treads, claimed by its website to be the nation’s first minimalist running shoe store.
“So I’m kind of in this small group of the tribe that’s out there talking about barefoot running — about what it is, you know, what the purpose of it is. But the barefoot thing always captures people’s fascination. But this is nothing (different) than I’ve been doing for 10 years, which is talking about running form, running mechanics,” he said.
Cucuzzella, who is a physician with West Virginia University Hospitals, said the differences in movement between minimalist, or barefoot, running and running in cushioned shoes has to do with muscle elasticity. While he admits there is no proven study that says barefoot running prevents injury, he believes minimalist shoes prevents injury.
Cucuzzella said what has been documented through treadmills, videos and force plates is the landing and movement pattern of the different running patterns.
“People land differently when they put a shoe on. Take the shoe off someone’s been wearing shoes their whole life, they still haven’t learned the movement pattern yet,” he said.
Cucuzzella closely identifies with Daniel Lieberman’s claims in his 2012 article, “What We Can Learn About Running from Barefoot Running: An Evolutionary Medical Perspective.”
Lieberman’s article states that, while there isn’t any evidence that barefoot running has negative effects on performance, most individuals choose shoes to protect their feet from rough surfaces.
“My prediction — which I readily admit is nothing more than a hypothesis that could be incorrect — is that shod runners with lower injury rates have a more barefoot style form … Likewise, I predict that injury rates are higher among barefoot runners who either lack enough musculoskeletal strength in their calves and feet … or who still run as if they were shod with long strides and slow stride frequencies,” the article reads.
Cucuzzella said that “shod” movement patterns have become the new “normal” in running.
“People run in a different movement pattern with higher joint forces when running in shoes compared to barefoot … But the forces are not in line with how we are designed. Eighty percent of runners are hurt every year,” he said.
But not everyone has gotten behind the barefoot running movement.
According to a May 2011 article, “Barefoot Running Claims and Controversies,” by David W. Jenkins and David J. Cauthon, a piqued interest recently in barefoot running is due to lack of improvement in running-related injuries from cushioned running shoes, despite enhancements to the motion control of the shoe.
While the article does highlight some advantages of barefoot running, the authors also highlight disadvantages. Some included injury from debris and surface temperature, but more studies were cited by authors focusing on the increased shock impact and shock transmission back to muscles.
These types of studies don’t deter Cucuzzella. He has found his stride in this method.
“Every day the naysayers about minimalist and barefoot running, you know, they’re waiting for the day for me just to get hurt or tank in a race,” he said. “I’m going to not let that day happen. I haven’t missed a day from running from an injury since I had my surgery in 2000.”
With dozens of marathons under his belt, Cucuzzella said that, after placing 143rd and fourth in his age group in April’s Boston Marathon, he still woke up the next day and went for a run. In 32 years of running, he has finished more than 60 marathons and ultras. His personal best in the marathon is 2:24.
And after years of competitive running and being injured in the past, these days he’s thinking like a kid again.
“Running is play for me. But I can go out there a few times a year and run a very fast marathon,” he said. “I have a busy job, and I don’t need to put in pain and effort — this is not painful. This is fun. It’s play.”
To learn more about barefoot running, go online to http://naturalrunningcenter.com/.