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Kick off your shoes: Barefoot running

Barefoot running proponents claim technique is better for you and your time

August 30, 2010|By TIFFANY ARNOLD
  • Dr. Mark Cucuzzella demonstrates barefoot running at Ruff Fitness, a private personal training facility north of Hagerstown. Cucuzzella is considered a guru in the field of natural running.
Photos by Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer,

Nearly two dozen shoeless clients stood in a semi-circle around Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, who stood before the group barefoot and in a tie-died shirt extolling the virtues of natural running.

"You have this big foamy thing to land on and it feels good," said Cucuzzella as the group passed around his forms of evidence - a flat, tribal sandal from Mexico, a pair of vintage Asics Onitsukas and a pair of modern, heavily cushioned Nikes.

"But is it good for running?" he asked.

The group came to hear him speak during a recent clinic at Ruff Fitness, a private personal training facility north of Hagerstown.

As an advocate of natural running, Cucuzzella spent two hours explaining to the group why the answer to that question was "no."

In fact, he says less material between your bare feet and the ground is better for your body and could lead to better form and faster times. He calls this "natural running," the idea that by rediscovering our feet's connection to the ground, we can correct inefficient movements that slow us down as well as fix poor body alignments that cause pain and can lead to common running injuries.

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"I want to debunk the myth that if you run, you're going to get hurt," he said.

Cucuzzella, 43, is a family physician at Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) Family Medicine and has run more than 60 marathons and ultramarathons. He is the race director of Freedom's Run, a series of races that weave through four national parks, and he is the chief medical consultant for the U.S. Air Force Marathon.

But all of that would have come to an end, he said, when at age 33 he was told to stop running following surgery on his foot.

Through research, he came across an article about ChiRunning, a technique developed by ultramarathoner Danny Dreyer that combines t'ai chi philosophy with running. He's also working on a second edition of Dreyer's book about ChiRunning. He also studied the technique of successful distance runners for parts of Africa. These runners kept their knees low and ankles high, going against the high-knees, plant-push, plant-push technique most of us are taught.

"It just made sense," he said.

Today, Cucuzzella owns Two Rivers Treads: A Center for Natural Running & Walking, in Shepherds-town, W.Va., which sells specialized shoes and hosts clinics on natural running.

He is considered to be a natural running guru.

Earlier this year, runner Christopher McDougall, author of "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen," told The Herald-Mail that he drove from his home near Lancaster, Pa., to learn from Cucuzzella.

McDougall's book questions traditional perceptions of endurance running and enjoyed a healthy stay on the New York Times' best-seller list.

To be clear, Cucuzzella isn't necessarily antishoe - though a portion of the clinic was spent performing running drills barefoot in soft grass.

He said heavily cushioned shoes place your feet at an angle, making it hard to build momentum because your foot is already perched. "Like trying to jump in high heels," he said.

In contrast, he pointed to dancers and gymnasts, who perform barefoot, and people from other parts of the world who never wear shoes.

Cucuzzella suggests that people should run the way human beings were built to run - without all the cushioning.

Howard Smead, 52 of Hagerstown, was a hobbyist runner, getting in a mile or two here and there. But knee problems kept him away from running, he said.

Then he purchased a pair of Terra Plana Evo shoes, a minimalist shoe the manufacturer claims "is like running barefoot," according to the maker's website.

"It's the best thing I've ever done," Smead said. "It's really transformative."

Smead brought two of his children - Leah Smead, 10, and Julius Smead, 12 - to Cucuzzella's workshop at Ruff Fitness. Both kids are barefoot runners, Howard Smead said.

Sabina Spicher, 45 of Hagerstown, has run two marathons and a half marathon. But an injury has been holding her back. She said she has plantar fasciitis, which is when the thick band of tissue that connects the heel bone to the toes becomes inflamed. The condition is painful, which can make it hard to walk, not to mention run.

Spicher said she came to the clinic because she was curious to see whether the natural running method would help her.

"I want to be able to run when I'm in my 90s," she said.

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