Speed and Personal Bests are exciting. But have you thought about the longevity of your running career?
Odds are that if running is important to you, you’ll want to run healthy for the rest of your life.
Accomplished runner and coach Mark Cucuzzella, MD has made it his mission to promote the habits he believes lead to healthy, pain-free, sustainable running.
He’s spent the past two decades researching, learning and sharing his hard-earned knowledge. The result is his new book, “Run For Your Life.”
His journey to healthy running stemmed from years of suffering through pain for the sake of his sport. Cucuzzella took up running in his youth, discovering a natural talent. In college, he raced for the University of Virginia, and while successful, he was often plagued by injuries and setbacks.
As an adult, his running nearly came to a screeching halt when surgeries to relieve arthritis in his big toes left him struggling. After orthotics, pain relievers and plenty of advice to give up the sport, Cucuzzella began searching for a better way.
Doing both his own and collaborative research with legendary clinicians and coaches like Harvard’s Dr. Daniel Lieberman, physical therapist and author Jay Dicharry, and coach Arthur Lydiard, Cucuzzella began making changes to his form. The goal, he determined, was to soften the impact of running and become as efficient as possible.
Successful in this mission, Cucuzzella has spent the past decade spreading his gospel around the world at seminars and clinics. He’s compiled his findings in his book as another avenue to share what he’s learned.
His philosophy: “No pain, no gain, no thank you.”
If you’d like to drink from the same pain-free formula that Cucuzzella has devised, have a look at some of his chief recommendations.
Step 1: Simple Drills
Cucuzzella rarely does speedwork, yet at the age of 51, he’s still routinely laying down sub-3:00 marathons. One thing he does use regularly, however, are drills. Each chapter in his book shares some of his favorites, and they all have a different focus or purpose.
Balance drills are one example. Cucuzzella says that good balance is the basis of healthy running’s single most important attribute, relaxation. Among his favorites are one-legged drills, and single-leg deadlifts. Once you’ve mastered these, up the challenge by closing your eyes.
Foot strengthening drills are another component of Cucuzzella’s regular routine. He is a proponent of spending a portion of every day without shoes. He recommends walking on varied surfaces, walking on heels, toes, and edges of your feet.
As we age, tendons and fascia grow stiffer and less pliable and can often be a downfall for masters’ runners. For that reason, Cucuzzella recommends a dedicated approach to keeping them in the game. Foam rolling, dynamic movement, yoga and treatments like Rolfing all make his list of “go-tos” for keeping this tissue healthy.
Here are even more running drills to help you improve your athleticism:
There are best used before a workout or faster training session like a track workout or fartlek.
Step 2: Improve Your Running Form
One of Cucuzzella’s big breakthroughs in his own journey to healthy running has been a change in, and a focus on, form. He’s convinced that several tweaks can make a world of difference for runners who want to run healthy – and those who want to race faster.
His favorite tips include:
- running tall in a straight vertical line
- maintaining a strong and stable core (this core routine will help)
- using your arms and hands to set your rhythm
- allowing your feet to actively moderate the impact by landing below your center of gravity
- finding the cadence that allows you to harness your own, built-in “springs”
To accomplish improved running form, Cucuzzella regularly performs drills like slow, short jogs in bare feet; running forward while skipping rope; and running in place with a tether.
Step 3: Improve Your Mobility
Over the past few years, movement specialists like physical therapist Kelly Starrett (Jason owns his book and highly recommends it) have brought much-needed attention to the importance of mobility work in an athlete’s life.
Cucuzzella cosigns on this and stresses the need for regular drills. Aware that most runners lead busy lives, he recommends looking for short windows of opportunity throughout your day to sneak in short bursts of work.
Good ways to keep the body loose and mobile throughout the day include:
- Gentle lunges
- trunk twists
- a walk around the block
- even household chores!
In addition, Cucuzzella is a fan of getting back to movements we can often perform as children, but lose as we age.
Things like full squats, sitting on the floor, and “windshield wipers”—lying on the floor on your back with arms outstretched, while moving your knees back and forth from one side to the other—can all go a long way toward improving your mobility.
Step 4: Balanced Training
Cucuzzella doesn’t limit his advice to drills and his approach is far-reaching. His nutrition philosophy, for instance, takes exception to much of the western model for eating. An unhealthy diet for living is also an unhealthy diet for running, he says. A few of his tips:
- Don’t diet, ever. Cucuzzella says they just don’t work. Instead, eat healthfully and mindfully until you are full
- Up the healthy fats and proteins, lower the added sugars, and upgrade all the components of your diet (this will help)
Cucuzzella also has a balanced approach to training and warns heavily against digging a hole in your energy stores. His tips for training include a healthy dose of recovery:
- Recover from running with sprinting: while it sounds counter-intuitive, Cucuzzella recommends finishing off a run with some very short sprints and drills to set yourself up for better recovery.
- Make sleep hygiene a priority: No sugar or screens two hours before bed. He also points to a cool, dark, quiet place for slumber with an early bedtime to ensure fresher awakening.
- Utilize water and compression: a good soak in warm water and compression socks can go a long way, he says.
Racing is another area the physician addresses near the end of the book and his approaches are sometimes unconventional. His tips:
- Form a mental plan for race day so that you are ready to deal with adverse conditions like weather
- Don’t overeat on race morning and instead consume a light breakfast
- When you get to the final, painful miles of a race, check in on your posture, relax your arms, and try to run over the ground rather than into the ground
In all the information that Cucuzzella shares, he prioritizes health and longevity over speed and results.
However, he emphasizes, if all the building blocks – drills, diet, recovery, form – are in place, performance should naturally follow.
More than anything, Cucuzzella wants runners to focus on injury prevention so that they can enjoy their sport healthier, happier, and well into their later years.
Your Cheat Sheet for a Lifetime of Healthy Running
Mark’s book, Run For Your Life, is highly recommended.
But if you’re looking for the short-hand version of Cucuzzella’s healthy running tips, here’s a 10-item list of essential elements:
- Pre-assess yourself: Find a trusted health professional to determine your current state of health before ramping up activity.
- Follow the general principles of natural, healthy running: He considers these to be building endurance, moving, progressing gradually and considering minimal footwear.
- Give yourself positive affirmations: Create your own set and repeat them regularly.
- Warm up: Take 10 minutes of easy, comfortable running before ramping up.
- Keep movement going: Throughout your day and with dedicated mobility drills.
- Prevent injury: Include strength and mobility in your endurance building so that the load doesn’t become more than what your body can manage.
- Recover: Stress must be balanced with rest.
- Monitor improvements: Both by feel and with biofeedback.
- Eat well: you can’t outrun a bad diet.
- Set a goal: Examine where you are and where you want to be and work toward it.
Focusing on injury prevention, longevity, and healthy running will be a boon to your running career.
You’ll be happier, stronger, and faster. And those extra years of pain-free running will help you have more adventures.
Don’t miss our free injury prevention course, showing you:
- Why no amount of strength work or drills allow you to “outrun” a poorly designed training plan
- The mistakes and training errors that most lead to injury
- How other runners have escaped their personal injury cycle
- Example strength exercises that are specific to runners needs
- Simple training adjustments that yield outsize rewards
Sign up here and you’ll get your first lesson right away!