Doctor, runner gives tips on how to train for a marathon

May 07, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Dr. Mark Cucuzzella shows good running form Thursday on the C&O Canal at Shepherdstown, W.Va. Cucuzzella finished the 2012 Boston Marathon fourth in his age group.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

For the casual runner, there's no bigger aspiration than participating in a marathon.

Forget the aches and pains, the blisters, the sprained ankles and scraped knees.

Each battle scar would be worth it, just to say you competed in a long-distance race.

But most recreational joggers know it takes more than dreams to run a marathon.

It also takes more than putting one foot in front of the other.

It happens with dedication, determination and serious training.

There are many lessons to be learned in deciding to run a half marathon or marathon, Dr. Mark Cucuzzella said, and one of the first is realizing that not everyone is cut out for endurance running.

This advice comes from a man who is a medical doctor and offers running and injury prevention clinics.

Cucuzzella also has 30 years of running experience — starting as a child who ran for fun and continuing today as a nationally-ranked marathon competitor.

He became a competitive runner in high school and while studying at The University of Virginia.

Today, at 45, he has more than 70 marathons under his belt, his first in 1988.

Several weeks ago, Cucuzzella ran in the 2012 Boston Marathon — his 19th time at this iconic racing event, with a current string of 10 consecutive races.

His only misses, he said, where for military and work duties, as well as foot surgery.

Cucuzzella said he placed 143rd overall this year and fourth in his age group — the men's 45-49 division.

But despite his experience and his successes, Cucuzzella, who is an associate professor at West Virginia University School of Medicine and a family physician at Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) Family Medicine, said he still can recall that first marathon almost 25 years ago with all of its rookie mistakes - "going out too fast and pounding down the hills."

Those are mistakes made by many beginner runners, which is why, he said, training for a marathon doesn't happen over night.

"I don't encourage beginners to set a goal for a marathon," Cucuzzella said. "For most runners, it takes several years to safely progress to do this with health and without injury. You have to achieve a love of running for enjoyment and, if the desire grows to complete a marathon, then train correctly."

It sometimes can take, not just months, but years to build a strong endurance base, he said.

But if you make the decision that a long-distance race is in your future, "make a commitment to health and fit it into the pattern of your day," he said "Most people find they feel better, sleep better, think better and are in a better mood with exercise."

Cucuzzella said part of his training routine is focusing on relaxation and breathing.

He rehearses complete relaxation from the top down — eyes, jaws, shoulders, allowing his legs to relax and extend behind him, relaxing and softening the knees and ankles.

One of the most important aspects of marathon training is learning good running form, which can reduce pain, he noted — proper posture, hip extension and a slight forward lean from the ankles. 

You also have to progress gradually in your volume of running.

And while physical stamina is important, so is mental stamina.

"They go together. A person needs to be committed to health — and the mind will drive that," he shared.

Cucuzzella said daily health nutrition also is an important aspect of marathon training.

"Don't eat junk and refined sugary foods and drinks," he suggested. "Eat real food. Hydration is overemphasized. Listen to your body's thirst cues."

Cucuzzella said selecting the right running gear is fairly simple.

"Choose something to keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer," he said. "Shoes are simple, too. Your foot is the best tool for running, so the shoe should not interfere too much."

Cucuzzella said new research and runners' experience are making the case for running with a more efficient stride instead of focusing on modern running footwear. His shoe for the last three years at the Boston Marathon has been the Newton Distance - "a fast and efficient shoe for those who have worked on form."

As far as pacing yourself during a marathon, Cucuzzella said to relax and maintain effort, not speed. You should feel easy in the early stages.  It is a marathon."

While proper training in anticipation of a race is important, so is allowing your body to rest following a marathon.

"Recovery after a long, hard race like a marathon is very important," he said. "Tissues are injured and the full recovery from a marathon can take weeks."

Winning is the goal of most runners, but what is more important, Cucuzzella said, is having fun.

"If it's not, then running is not sustainable and is just another stress in your life," he noted.  "Most people run too hard as they take up the activity. Slow down and enjoy it, eliminate 'no pain, no gain' from your vocabulary."

If you go ...

Dr. Mark Cucuzzella conducts a running clinic the first Friday of the month from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at The Wellness Center at City Hospital in Martinsburg, W. Va.

The interactive clinics teach good running form, safe training principles, injury prevention and performance improvement and are free and open to runners of all levels.

To register in advance, call 304-264-1287, ext. 1814, or sign up by emailing

Cucuzzella also conducts running form and injury prevention clinics at Two Rivers Treads in Shepherdstown, W.Va., a walking and running special retail outlet that he founded and owns.

The clinics are offered every Thursday at 5 p.m. and every Saturday at 10 a.m.

"We teach the basics healthy movement patterns for running," he said.

More information is available at

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