The verbal footnotes stretched from New Zealand, to Kenya, to Oregon and Cambridge, Mass., as Cucuzzella, himself unassuming and given to exercise as a natural form of play, cited dozens of authorities who have contributed to a philosophy he dispenses from the unlikely new Mecca of running—Shepherdstown, W.Va.—where he runs a shoe store/web site/running-education center.
“It’s important to understand the whole machine, the whole engine—this is really basic science,” he told several dozen NIH’ers who gathered on a soccer field behind Bldg. 41. Guests were invited to try on sample pairs of running shoes that deliver one of Cucuzzella’s core themes: whether you run, walk or stand around an office or lab all day, it’s important for your foot to be flat to the ground. The raised and cushy heels so common to most running shoes today are taboo; they work counter to the foundation of running, which is basically “a series of one-legged balances.”
Cucuzella conducts a workshop as part of the Fitness for You series of free fitness classes offered by ORS and the R&W Association. According to the New York Times, his Two Rivers Treads shoe store in Shepherdstown, W.Va., “has turned into possibly the country’s top learning center for the reinvention of running.”
Photos: Bill Branson
|NCI’s Sara Davidson demonstrates a resistance exercise designed to improve running technique.
Cucuzzella had been a runner in college and, up until 2000, was running marathons for the Air Force. That year, due to arthritic changes in his big toe joints, he was advised to quit running and underwent surgery. Stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, he couldn’t bear to forego the beautiful routes and trails on which he had trained. Yet studies showed that up to 80 percent of runners suffered injuries every year.
He had heard of a tribe of indigenous “canyon runners” (the Tarahumara Indians) out west and wondered, “Why are they so good, so efficient and they never get hurt?” He decided to adopt their “springy, bouncy kind of running” and started wearing racing flats that approximated the flimsy sandals worn by the canyon runners.
“I haven’t missed a day of running since 2000 due to injury,” said Cucuzzella, who often speaks in support of a shoe company—Newton Running—that he said started out as an educational company then became a manufacturer.
“A shoe is a tool for whatever it is that you’re doing,” he said, and he has found that Newton shoes allow a safe transition to “minimalist” running. He allied with the company 4 years ago after a series of consultancies with other athletic shoe manufacturers on developing flat footwear.
“[Newton] is the first company to embrace running form and technique,” he said. “Their goal is to make things as simple as possible.”
Cucuzzella is a physician, a professor at West
Virginia University’s department of family medicine
and an Air Force Reserve flight surgeon.
Cucuzzella makes running simple through analogy. “The body is like an airplane. You gotta have a good engine and a strong chassis.” He insists there is a proper way to run and that getting out there and doing it “is non-negotiable.” But if you treat it as a pain, he warned, it’s going to be a strain.
“You’ve got to give yourself permission to make running fun—then it becomes sustainable,” he said, noting that the Swedish concept of fartlek, or “speed play,” has been especially useful to his philosophy. “Since 2000, I have approached every run as play,” said Cucuzzella, who in mid-October was training for his 20th Marine Corps Marathon [he finished 47th overall in 2:48]. “You’ve got to be a kid and just put yourself in the moment.”
Since he was addressing an audience of scientists, Cucuzzella delved into the chemistry of how the body burns sugars and fats, mentioning the Krebs cycle, but the take-home message was clear: over time, typically between 3 and 6 months, a person can, by slow, sure running, build more energy “factories” (mitochondria)
and “roads” (capillaries). The gradual, playful
approach enabled Cucuzzella not only to finish
3rd in the 2000 Marine Corps Marathon, but
also to feel at the end as if he could have gone
out and done it again.
“We probably have a limitless ability to build
mitochondria and capillaries,” he said, but it
takes years to develop one’s full aerobic capacity.
A person’s “chassis,” especially the hips and
core, need to be stable and strong enough to
absorb 2.5 to 3 times the body’s weight with
each stride, and 1,200 of such poundings per
mile. He offered “exercise snacks” a person
could do all day: improve posture and breathing
by standing tall (you can become “unconsciously
competent,” he said, if you do it enough);
work standing up if possible; and practice balancing
on one foot.
He also suggested three steps for improved running:
stand tall and solid; don’t overstride—you
should land on your mid- or forefoot, with your
foot directly below your knee; and make use of
the biggest, most tireless and important muscle
in your body when you run—your butt.
“The gluteus maximus—that’s right, the booty—
applies the most force to the ground when
you run,” Cucuzzella said. “It’s made up of red
meat and it’s born to run. If you learn how to
run with your booty, you’ll never tire out…Your
efficiency goes way up when you use your tush.”
He says he’s never seen anyone injure that particular
“We’re all damaged goods, just trying to keep
Humpty Dumpty together…so you can eventually
run to the nursing home,” he quipped.
To learn more of what Cucuzzella has to teach,
including videos of proper running technique,
visit www.naturalrunningcenter.com or www.