How One Doctor Went from Being Told He Couldn’t Run Anymore to Being One of the Top Masters Runners in the Marathon

mark cucuzzella minimalist runningWhat do you do when you experience significant injury after injury, so much so that surgery no longer helps and most doctors tell you it’s time to hang up the running shoes? You hang up your shoes, of course.

In 2000, Dr. Mark Cucuzzella did just that.

After suffering for years from arthritis in his toes, Mark was told by his doctors to stop his running. However, Mark couldn’t give up on his passion, so he began to research and scientifically explore how barefoot/minimalist running could help save his career.

What Dr. Mark found was nothing short of remarkable. By running barefoot and in minimalist shoes he was able to run pain-free and injury-free for the first time in years.

In this podcast, we interview Dr. Mark Cucuzzella and find out exactly what he did, why it worked, and how you can do the same.

Dr. Mark is widely considered to be one of the leading experts on how and why to incorporate and transition to minimalist running. Mark is a Professor of Family Medicine at West Virginia University School of Medicine. His marathon best is 2:24 and has run under 2:40 for a marathon 24 of the last 25 years, with 22 of these years being run under 2:35. He won the 2011 Air Force Marathon in 2:38, a week shy of his 45th birthday. He attributes much of this longevity to good running form and minimalist principles. And that’s what he’s here to teach you today.

If you’ve been thinking about how, or if you should, transition to minimalist or barefoot running, you’ve got to listen to this interview.

Listen to this week’s show on how and why to transition to minimalist running!

Download the podcast version here

Read the Transcript

Jeff:                 Hello fellow runners. I’m Jeff Gaudette, chief running enthusiasts for Runners Connect, a community of expert coaches dedicated to providing runners the motivation, interest and training you need to achiever your goals. This is our interview series with runners, coaches and proven experts who come on our show to teach you what they’ve learned along the way so you can grab as much information as possible and apply it directly to improve your running right now. All of our previous episodes are available at or you can subscribe to our iTunes feed to get updated as soon as we post these new interviews.

On today’s show, we have Mark Cucuzella. Mark is a professor of Family Medicine at West Virginia University School of Medicine. Mark has been a competitive runner for 30 years completing over 70 marathons and [inaudible 0:00:40] and continues to compete as a national level master runner. His marathon best is 2:24 and he has run 244 marathons, 24 of the last 25 years. He won the 2011 Air Force Marathon in 2:38, a week [inaudible 0:00:53] his 44th birthday.

He attributes much of this longevity to good running form and minimalist principles. Mark is also the director, executive director of the National Running Center in Education Portal and network of stores designed to teach healthier running and promoting more natural footwear. He hosts educational conferences and collaboration with the Running Clinic Canada and speaks nationally on topics related to running, health and injury prevention.

Mark also owns Two Rivers Treads, a center for national running and walking in his hometown of Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Mark’s innovative work and story has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, Outside Magazine, Running Times, Runner’s World, Air Force Times and the Washington Post as well as other medical and media outlets.

Mark is joining us on our show today to discuss barefoot and minimalist running and how you can safely make your transition. Without further adieu, let’s get started. Hi Mark. Welcome to the show. I appreciate you taking the time today to share your wisdom with us about minimalist running and we’re excited to learn from you today.

Mark:              Well thanks Jeff. It’s a privilege to be on your show, and I’ve certainly enjoyed your post on your website [inaudible 0:01:56] up here in Boston last year for the marathon.

Jeff:                 Yes, it was exciting. I wished the weather would have been a little bit better for you guys racing. That looked pretty brutal.

Mark:              Well, thank you. Now, for those of us with job, it’s a day off and it’s fun. I think if you’d take the right approach, you just make the best of it.

Jeff:                 Exactly. Exactly. Kind of going off that, let’s give our audience … for those of you who don’t know who you are, a little bit of background into your own running and training and kind of how you evolved into the minimalist movement a little bit. How did you get started with the minimalist movement? Give us a little bit of a background about your running and training.

Mark:              When I got started into this chapter, it wasn’t the word minimalist that was certainly wasn’t related to running shoes. I was about … probably about the year 2000 and probably like most of your audience out there had experience a significant number of running injuries and mine were significant. In 2000, I had arthritis of my large toe joints and had no movement and those toes, it was causing all kinds of problems and I had operative repairs of the toes. I was kind of told at that time that running wasn’t in my future and find something else to do.

At that point, I kind of accepted that for a couple of months but sure as many of your audience are … they love running and it was something that just made the rest of my day work. I was busy and getting outside and just moving. It was something spiritual to me, so I had to learn it and had to relearn it and I didn’t accept that an answer because I know as a doctor, there are a lot of what we kind of take as conventional wisdom. It’s not necessarily true, not just related to running but in my home medical career, a lot of the paradigms that we were told and you really drill into just like well, maybe that’s not true. I didn’t accept that as a truth.

I started to study running form and this was really before people started attaching the footwear to it. I started looking really at how East Africans run. These guys run better than any of us. I’d line up with a lot of them and I wanted to figure out what they did. They ran different. They ran in a kind of mid-foot style and more elastic style of running and started to read about elasticity in running and spring mechanisms and things like that, which really sprinters, I ran track in college and we just go ran and then [inaudible 0:04:20] these drills at night. We really didn’t have a clue what they were doing but there was a science to that. That the distance runners really didn’t apply.

Long story short, I really understood running mechanics at that time and wanted to learn and relearned how to run. I started to apply a lot of the techniques of mid-foot running, good activation, some of the sprinters were doing and felt good. Running didn’t hurt. I also applied a lot of the aerobic developments so I never learned anything about how you train. We just went out and ran everyday. If an easy day was maybe one step ahead of the guy you’re running with and we all thought that that was better so I looked into methods of Lydiard and Maffetone and had no intentions of racing with them. I was like, “Let me just learn this stuff” because it all fits in and it’s hard to hurt yourself for running easy. You get faster … a lot of the stuff you post, I mean, you can actually get faster while running slow but it’s like taking the red pill.

Jeff:                 Right, right. Now, it’s tough to get people to believe that.

Mark:              Yes and then you go on to the rabbit hole of discovery. I went down that pathway, too because this all fits together and it worked. Three months after … three months off of running, you’re just doing this easy running and focusing on running form, I lined up with the Marine Corps of marathon as part of the Air Force team and ended up finishing third place, and I get 2:28 or something and which wasn’t my fastest time but it was pretty well because when I hit the finish line, that I felt like I could run again.

It was completely different. I was using different energy systems. Yes, it was wild and I was like, “Okay, well, this works.” Yes, and started take and get involved in footwear about 2005, 2006. I was running for Brooks sport at the time and you’ve had affiliations with Brooks, Jeff and you’re all running shoe companies have little side projects that they say, “Okay, what’s common, what’s new, what’s different?” I was working on minimalist projects with Brooks and really started to help with the design and testing and thought processes and some stuff that I was kind of like coming back out again. I mean, this was before I ran, before Lieberman’s papers.

That really got me to understand just what being flat was all about and how that affected running. There was the designer there named Trev Allen who really understood it, thought me everything and all I needed to do was put the shoes on and didn’t need to read anymore research papers because it felt good. I was like, “Wow, this is my body is designed to work.” Flat on the ground, that’s how were made, posture is normal, I can use the elasticity.

Those projects didn’t come to market. It was a tough time in the … any industry around 2008, 2009, the economic crisis. Those projects got put on the table for a while and then I saw that a new company new to running was coming out and I knew nothing about their shoes but their whole philosophy and upsite was about flat shoes and better running form. I was like, “Okay, this isn’t a side project for this company.” This is what they’re all about. They’re all in. From that time, I started doing some similar stuff for that and really on the education side. It evolved from there because the people learn the stuff really quick, Jeff. It takes five minutes of teaching in an intervention and they kind of get it. If they’re given some safe tools on how to progress, that was not a difficult process. They get it really quick.

We started developing races here in West Virginia to build trails and guards because my real medical interest is obesity and pediatric obesity and we started to do runs to race money for trails for schools. Those runs got large enough that we started to develop kind of a community of runners and there was no … we’re in West Virginia there’s no running stores within 100 miles of here. We got kind of cornered in to starting a running store because I had a couple of real passion of runners in my community who had been through this. We’ve been transformed and they’re like, “Mark, we can open the store for you. Just do this. We won’t sell any flat shoes.” We know we can do this and none of these guys were doctors or physical therapists, they were just community runners.

They opened the store and that was two years ago and kind of the movement is taken off from there. We opened the store, Jeff, I think there were three lines. We had … the Vibram was there, Newton and Vivobarefoot. There were no socks and it just came out with the Canberra and now, gosh, you can’t even count the number of flat transitional and minimal shoes. A long store, sorry, if that went on. Yes, there’s so many layers to what’s happened in the last two years with this. We had a natural running center now which has about 12 partner stores with similar philosophy but I’ll let you lead from here with other specific questions.

Jeff:                 Yes. No, that actually helps. It helps a lot. I think just gearing on your background in terms of where you’re coming from. This isn’t really something that A started recently. It’s not something that you’re just jumping on a bandwagon, and it’s also not something that … something that you can attest to personally in terms of, I mean, it definitely is pretty incredible story for the fact that you’re at the point where you’re considering that you may have to not run. That people were telling you that you can run and then to be able to make such a simple transition to working on your form and moving into more or less type of thought process at least and what they mean at the time, but that direction. To be able to kind of save your running, I mean, I definitely think it’s a great story. I know there’s runners out there who are maybe experiencing the same thing or curious about, how it can get them to be able to train more so. I’m glad you shared.

Mark:              Thank you. It is a … I think what’s good for runners now is that there’s road maps out there now and I think some of the earl adaptors of this, we’ve all kind of learned a ton along the way and we’re continuing to learn. It used to probably take me an hour to try to explain some of what I can do now in about three minutes. Certainly, a lot of my colleagues who teach this, we’ve all really simplified the process a lot and we don’t over think it now. I truly believe that, I mean, there’s a model of it is because we don’t sell elevated, heeled pushing shoes, that anyone who wants to run or walk and get into a flat shoe.

It’s not like the special niche. It’s like this is where we should all be and we do pre-assessment on everyone to say where they are in a spectrum, they’re green light just go right into it and go run like a kid. They should never put into a rigid supportive shoe. Or if it’s someone who has a lot of dysfunction, no spring mechanism and then we give them very specific simple training tools so they can adapt the right way. I’ve not had one person come back and say, “I think I really need to be back in the big, bulky shoe.” That’s the truth. They would find me and e-mail me and say, “I want my money back.” Yes, that hasn’t happened so far.

Jeff:                 That’s definitely a good success story. Speaking of that movement and transition, I guess, maybe the way I’m seeing, you speak about it, maybe there’s two phases to kind of starting with the minimalist running. The first is kind of identifying where you’re at on the spectrum, and then the second would be implementing a specific plan. To start, what can runners do in terms of being able to self asses or figure out where there at on the spectrum so they can figure out what their plan should be moving forward?

Mark:              Yes, that’s a great question, Jeff. I think probably the best resource is just to kind of look at and read the Running Times April of 2012. I’ve quite learned all the technical side of this and the anatomy and by-mechanics from Jay to Sherry, formerly University of Virginia Gait Lab and now just moved up to Bandorgh and is opening starting a gait lab out there. I’ve done a lot of work with Jay. He has done clinically and research wise kind of what … the article was called Are You Ready for Minimalism? Really to look at running as a skill like any other sport, you have to have specific joint stability and specific mobility in the correct areas to be able to run efficiently.

We’ve drilled it down as a running [inaudible 0:13:04] get people ten assessments and ten corrections. You got to make it pretty simple. We put into this article three stability tests and three mobility tests and a lot of the stuff I’ve seen on your site, Jeff, can you stand on one leg? Do you have adequate hip strength because you’ve got to land on one leg 1200 times a mile with three times your body weight even if you run like a canyon, that’s a non-negotiable. You would need hip strength. You have to be in good posture and you have to have control of your foot. You have to have a stable and controlled landing.

Most runners can take off just fine but they don’t know how to land. Learning how to land, we all watched the Olympics. Look at how a gymnast … a gymnastics performer lands. Thousands and millions of landings and they unconsciously can just land softly and correctly and use their whole mechanism.

We have three tests for stability. Can you stand on one foot, shut your eyes? Do you have a good posture, simple test there? Can you actually activate the big toe to stabilize? That’s the specific muscle in the big toe called the flexor hallucis brevis. That muscle is specific to foot stability, control and very much to running because it’s differentiated from other primates and other [inaudible 0:14:22] animals that do not run.

That simple, you can go to the website of Running Times or Natural Running Center website under mobility and stability and you can pull up the article and the video. Mobility, in a story, it’s real simple. You can assess someone’s ankle mobility. Do they have 30 degrees? Common complain of people getting in flat shoes are, “I get this discomfort in my Achilles, my calf.” They’re lengthening that are. If you don’t have proper mobility there, you’ve got to do some corrections there and it could take eight to ten weeks to get that mobility good, but identify it. Do you have mobility in your big toe?

Plantar fasciitis is huge in people that go in minimalist shoes if they don’t have plantar fascia mobility because they’re used to the shoe actually controlling that forefoot rocker. Instead of the big toe bending to bring the arch back to stable, the shoe just rockers you forward, and that’s called toe spring an issue. That’s where it kind of ramps out from the forefoot to the tip of the toe and you see this angle there. That’s inhibiting your toe from bending, so if you take that away, meaning they’re just different. I’m not saying one’s better than the other. It all depends on your feet have no mobility in your plantar fascia. Probably isn’t a good idea to go run ten miles in a five fingers the first day. You’ll be mobilizing many tissues that hasn’t been stretched in a long period of time.

Really, I think the big one and you hit this in your side if you don’t have hip extension. You’ll never be able to run efficiently because you have to have hip extension. Running is a pendulum in motion. You have to put your leg in front of you but it’s got to get behind you in an equal amount and we sit all day and I’ve never seen anyone … and you’ve probably seen hundreds and hundreds of runners video them all.

I’ve never seen any runner have any trouble getting their foot out in front of them. They all have trouble getting there, like behind them and that’s hip extension. Again, there’s so many … the beauty of all these is that all the corrections can be done while you’re doing something else. Stand on one foot while you type in your e-mails. Hanging out with the kids, get new positions, stretch out your hip flexures. Just figure out in your day because no one has time to spend two hours getting specific therapies. Just develop your own toes.

That’s kind of the quick assessment of kind of the chassis so to speak but I think that the other big rock in all of these is, okay, so you’ve got stability, mobility but you have a smart system. For example, the spring mechanism, and I think people are starting to talk about this in a different way than the researchers were ten years ago because everyone knows it’s there.

Running is elasticity. For example, my kids are nine and seven and they have highly efficient spring mechanism. They, you watch them. They can play jump rope, Hopscotch. They jump off of things. They land. They spring. It’s working. My kids, they only wear minimal shoes or barefoot so they haven’t inhibited but then you and I Jeff got to a point where we were runners, right? You need a running shoe so you’ve got this … I’ve played ultimate Frisbee like crazy when I was in high school, a highly efficient spring.

Now, I’m a runner, wear a supportive running shoe. What’s happening to my spring mechanism? Getting smaller, yes, so you go through the progression but then I get hurt. Then, what did they say? Wear a shoe with more support. Then, what happens to my spring mechanism? Small, yes, then now I’m hurt again. Then, what did they do? [Inaudible 0:18:05] motion control shoe then 2000, now, okay, well, you can’t run. Walk. What do you think happens to my spring mechanism? Gone, yes, and then, yes, I’m a duck. Then, we see all the people, so what’s the next stage? Knee arthritis, hip arthritis, can’t walk, use a cane. I mean now, can this is … people don’t consider these things running injured.

There’s the generative joints but, and everything injured because the human body is designed to work in a certain way. As soon as you start to take the foot out of the equation and the Achilles and all that, this isn’t about running. It’s just about health and spring mechanism gone and watch people walk down the street. You know the people that have spring mechanism and those who don’t. You see it. Smash into the ground when they walk and their knees and hips were just going to be their own part time. Some of that makes sense but that’s without any scientific papers. That’s what happens. I think that’s just what it is.

Retrained spring, so to go back to how do I assess someone? If I … no kiddng, I’ve seen people that can run a 30-minute 10K, haven’t do some box jumps and they hit the ground like an elephant. They’re hurt and things but because they don’t know how to land. We give people simple training tools but you’re just simple spring exercises. Jump rope, do these real low level box jumps. I’m not talking about going to cross fit gym and doing box jump at thigh height. You have to do thousands and thousands of simple and easy ones until you master the movement pattern.

Before you apply strength and power, master the pattern first. I think we’re speaking the same language because I know you’ve posted similar things. You’ve go to do it correct first.

Jeff:                 Of course, yes.

Mark:              Take months to take it to that higher box jump. I’m still just springing around at low level because that’s I think all I need to do because I’m well. Yes. It’s a great question and one that there’s clearly know exact answer because everyone is different. I think the one area that I think we’re all missing a lot is kind of that invisible training time. I don’t know about you. I get up early and I can get an hour of run and I’m pretty happy. I’m on my feet the rest of the day. If I’m on my feet during the rest of the day, I mean, in a hardly dysfunctional shoe that’s elevating my foot and bracing it, not letting it do its normal thing and then well, I’m going to try to go run now.

I think what you do, if you’re trying to get your foot back to health, and this helps you running obviously but you’re just trying to be a healthy person who won’t need a knee replacement at age 60 is you get flat all day. You get the very minimalist shoe all day with walking because it is very difficult to hurt yourself walking. You will make all those adaptations in the tissue lengthening and a lot of strengthening just by walking in a very minimal shoe to work.

Luckily now, there’s some shoes that you can actually get away with that look semi-corporate that are like basically five fingers with the closed toe box. It’s amazing. I didn’t even understand any of that stuff until three years ago, Vivobarefoot sent me one of their first samples of a shoe called [inaudible 0:22:19] which was like a work shoe and I was like, I get it now because two weeks in that work shoe, I couldn’t put anything else on my foot because I felt horrible because I had energy. My foot felt, it was three millimeter rubber between my foot and the ground. I don’t understand reflexology at a scientific level but I got it because I felt good. I mean, my foot felt the ground. I felt it at the end of the day. My running felt better. I was, “This is more important than the running shoe.”

I think anyone who wants to be well should get … you could wear your heels at the desk but as soon as you get up and walk, there is nothing good going on and it’s a piece of footwear that cramps your toes, elevates your heels and put your back and get this horribly, abnormal posture. Because what I see clinically when I assess people, even when they get in a flat running shoe and you do the posture pull down test, most folks are still in what we call that back seat position because their body’s default is a lumbar lordosis which is kind of leaning back because the body has to do that in a heel. It just has to because … any heel fascia is going to pitch you forward. Unless you want to fall in your face, you’re going to go back and that’s complete non-negotiable. That is just what it is and that is true. It is impossible for a human to stand in a normal posture in an elevated heel. Running, walking, standing, you can’t do it because you’re out of alignment.

Anyone who wants to run back there needs to get out of elevated heel corporate shoes. The rest starts to really take care of itself pretty quick.

Jeff:                 Yes, that’s a great foot step.

Mark:              Now, back to what running shoes for you, I mean, that again it all depends. Everyone has a different goal, Jeff, I mean. What’s your goal in running? Most people just want to go out for a run and not feel hurt and get some fitness. Their goal is not to run barefoot. There’s the small segment whose aspiration in life is I want to be a barefoot runner. Too many of them do. I don’t know, do you?

Jeff:                 Not really.

Mark:              Yes. Yes, but there are some.

Jeff:                 They’re out there but I don’t know any.

Mark:              They’re motivated, they want to do that for whatever reason it is. I will do it barefoot running. I love it because it’s fun. It adds this other layer but I don’t think that that’s for everybody. Most people just want to go run and feel good. There’s this whole area of transition shoes which are very safe place to put people to run. Shoe like Newton shoes. It’s a safe shoe. It’s flat but it has protection. Convora that type of shoe which has some protection ultra is a really good shoe but it has protection. Merrel’s coming out so people have new balances that Newton tends with … there’s different shoes that are going to be feel different but they’re not true barefoot style shoes. They have some protection and those are very safe places to put people because everyone will throw me some anecdote or those have their opinion while I saw someone who put a minimalist shoe and they got hurt. Therefore, all minimalist shoes are bad. I’d scratch my head. I’m like well, pretty much every runner, it’s hurt anyway so that’s different.

Again, using my stories and experiment because I learn from people, you can read to research but real people is where it’s at. I don’t know how many hundreds and thousands of flat shoes were sold out of our store easily, a few thousand. I have yet to have a customer come back and say, “I am hurt and I think it’s your shoes that did it.” Because I think there’s this fear factor in the running market and running retail as, well, if I try to go there and they get hurt, then they’ll going to come back and blame me. My manager or someone’s going to get mad because I had this conversation but we have not sold a single elevated heel shoe out of our store in over two years. My inbox is not full of people wanting to return their shoes.

It can be done, and the education we give is very simple. Start slow, alternate your shoes. If something is a little uncomfortable, that’s okay. I think this is important, too, Jeff. People need to read their bodies. I think if we are going to understand some basic signs of how the body is wired, you become your own intuitive coach.

What structures in our bodies feel pain? This is important. You go out and run. You’ve never run in a minimalist shoe. You go outdoor a half mile in a Vibram. It’s totally different. You’re going to wake up the next day and you’re going to be a little sore. Is that bad or good? I had a neurologist send me this nice, little video because they did this and really helped me understand because I’ve heard it from a person who had gone through this.

There’s … he’s a neurologist, smart guy and understands how the body’s wired and had running injuries and I told him, “Get a flatter shoe and get it real slow.” He sent me this video and this was his story. He’s like, “Yes, did that in the first day, I worried. Those flat shoes, I felt a little sore. Right then, I’ve realized that that was good because muscle tendon units feel discomfort and I was waking up muscle tendon units that needed to be woken up. He understood, too. He says, “Well” because he sees all the same problems I do, the arthritis and stuff because everyone’s got this stuff. He’s like, “Joints don’t feel pain.”

That’s a good thing I would feel some discomfort because what I see clinically, it’s nice to have them on my foot, I had pretty much no toe joints left, and I didn’t feel that. Knee arthritis, hip arthritis, so these runners are pounding another ground everyday, they’re not feeling that pain but the damage is happening. Casey Kerrigan will share her research with you. She was at UVA now, has a shoe company because she was so passionate about this called OESH.

That’s important because people will ask me, “Well, if I’m not feeling, I felt not hurt, should I get out of that heeled shoe and heel strike pattern?” My answer is, “Yes, get out of that because you’re still doing harm to yourself. You’re not designed to move like that. Now, you make it away with it. I see plenty of 50 and 60-year-old runners who now have significant knee and hip arthritis. That’s different than plantar fasciitis. You can get rid of that.

We, as coaches and docs and running shoe wear house people and stuff, we say, ‘Well, that’s not a running injury. That’s just, I mean, it should happen. You’d get arthritis.” That’s not true because on [inaudible 0:29:18] societies, they don’t even know what knee and hip arthritis is. They don’t know what back pain is. These are the layers of kind of invisible injuries that the whole minimalist movement, I think the people that understand it, that’s really the heart of it is let’s get people moving in the way they’re designed to move. They’re not ex-runners. For their health, they really need to be out moving. It’s a long answer to kind of a simple question but it’s not as simple place to go.

Jeff:                 No, it’s not. That’s what makes it so difficult when people ask questions about it especially when they shoot you an e-mail and then it’s difficult because it’s, well, I need to know all these information about you and what your plans are but I appreciate that you did a great job in terms of not necessarily generalizing it but explaining the real scientific background on what’s going on and what’s really the mechanism behind it. I think that will really help people to better understand what their progress needs to be on an individual level. I think that was a great answer. Just to follow up on something real quick. You mentioned a great place to start for people is a shoe that has offered some protection. How do you feel about the shoes that are kind of like the three-millimeter gear to kill drop that are kind of I guess marketed as those transition shoes. I think Brookes makes like the pure line of shoes are usually are like three-millimeter drop. Do you consider those to be a transition shoe or do you think people should generally go to a zero millimeter if they can?

Mark:              I think it’s all … it depends on where you are in that pre-assessment. I think if you’re ten-year-old and you’ve got plenty as mobility everywhere, go to zero and never leave there. Really, whether it’s four-zero is I think the only people that really notice the difference between four and zero are people that are the like the true barefoot runners. They put any elevation on and they can sense it. Anyone coming out of 12, 14 millimeters going to four is … or whatever is a great first place to go. As long as they are working on form because … this is probably the most important part of this because you can put on, say you put on a Brooks Pure and it’s flat. It’s got a lot of soft EVA foam. You can still smash it on the ground just fine in your heel in that shoe. That is not going to make you a better runner. Everyone is trying to learn this should do some work and I believe that everyone should go out do some little bits of barefoot running, 200 meters because you’ll start to develop a proper movement pattern just by learning how to do that.

Our website, we’ve put out a couple videos that show some drills and show the movement because you got to learn the movement and then go push you on. The shoes going to give you protection to whatever grain texture of road. Can you control your foot? If you can’t control foot motion, you need some shoe to help you out at least until you develop that through drills and specific exercises. It’s all good if it’s keeping one in a progression of strengthening their kinetic chain.

Getting out of the elevation I think is the first step. Now one property of shoes that I think is real important that I think most people really don’t get is they’re just talking about the drop of a shoe and the amount of stack height is probably the term. How much between the ground and your foot is soft as not a good property of a shoe. When you put a shoe on and you walk around and it’s nice and soft and most of the time, that’s like, yes, that feels good. That feels nice and cushiony. It’s like most things were kind of learning about everything. The opposite is true of everything that you’ve been taught.

I mean think about how you land. If you land on an extremely soft, soft, soft surface, your foot appropriate reception is how you balance yourself. It’s the fastest way we balance ourselves. Most people are visually dominant because we have all these cushion and foam between our foot in the ground is that you’re relying your eyes to stabilize yourself. Pro-perceptions much faster. If you run in a marshmallow and you hit the ground, your brain doesn’t have the signal that it’s on the ground and you of course, stabilize really quick to get off the ground. You got to apply three times your body weight, stance is about .12 to .15 seconds. You’re not feeling the ground, there’s this delay, you’re gonna apply force to the ground and you’re going to be all over the place. Firm, it’s so is good.

Now having some protection for most people feels better than being completely barefoot for a longer run if they want to reduce their mileage. Probably, the firmer shoes out there, for example, the Newton shoe has a TPU top plate, it’s not EVA foam. I’m an advocate of that type of material because your foot will sense the ground better than soft and the durability is better because if you just land and hit real hard on the EVA foam, couple of hundred miles it’s losing its properties at the area that you actually need it most.

Say you’re forefoot front formation, you’re going to have pronation when your heel is off the ground and that’s actually when pronation occurs most is in the forefoot area and you’re a forefoot pronator. Couple of hundred miles you’re starting to divot inside, the big toes side of that shoes. Now you’re starting to develop kind of an offset and the shoes going to start to deform where you needed to protect you most.

Everyone … I think you’ve posted some stuff about shoe wear because it all depends, too. It’s like a tire. If you’re running real efficient, you’re going to get a lot more miles at any shoe. If you’re running really efficient, really unaligned, I’ve seen people trash shoes at 50 miles and the same if someone else could go a thousand miles in. Yes, really soft is not a good idea in running shoes. You want a firmer material between your foot on the ground. It’s like the gym mats. They’re not mushy-mushy soft. They have some compliance to them. The foot needs to feel the surface so the kinetic chain can activate and stabilize the landing.

Jeff:                 Yes. That makes a lot of sense. Speaking of that point in terms of running … shoes running out of wear, one of the questions that I get a lot and actually don’t know the answer, too is, is there a general idea of when you should replace minimalist shoes? Is it based on kind of what you’re them like in terms of your foot strike? Or is there … do they need to be replaced quite as often because they are usually not going to have as much support and padding for the most part?

Mark:              Okay. That’s a great question. Getting it all comes, it depends. The pure barefoot style shoes, the ones that I know EVA would never need a replacement till you’ve … they’ve fallen off your foot because there’s … I think you’ll see a lot of people even with the … with the shoes are … that kind of put shoes in the three categories, kind of transition shoes, shoes that have protection but are flat, wide toe box has properties of the minimalist shoe.

Shoes I’d categorize as minimalist that would be like a New Balance MT10 Trail. It’s got some protection to it. A lot of … will find that after they’ve run 200, 300 miles in that shoe and actually they like it better. They’ve compressed the EVA. At the same time they’re strengthen things. People can put hundreds of not … I have type of people with a Newton shoe. For example, myself included, a couple of thousands miles and we tested a pair of thousand miles out of the UVA gait lab and had no decreased properties because it was not EVA foam. I was running pretty efficiently in the shoes. I didn’t have like outside it was worn out of the 45 degree angle. It’s hitting pretty flat every time.

Yes, they do not lose their properties in the same way as someone running in a very soft shoe with a bad form because then they’re going to heel load and forefoot load. What hits the ground going to come off the ground. They tend to put a lot more heel hitter puts actually more pressure on the forefoot than the heel because equal and opposite reactions, they’d lose all of their motion. It’s like try skipping or jumping rope and then landing on your heel, you basically … you’ve lost everything. You have no storage of energy. Now you’ve got to push off to get off the ground again versus throwing and releasing energy. The EVA, the more EVA the sooner the shoes going to wear out. The less EVA, I’ve haven’t seen my Achilles hasn’t worn out yet. I don’t think … I mean your body is designed to take the load, the more it’s transferred to that.

Jeff:                 That’s interesting. That would definitely my theory but I but I wasn’t sure and I was like, “This is definitely a question I need to ask Mark about because I want to able to get people the right answer.” I’m glad you had good answer.

Mark:              One the first EVOS. The first pair of plan of EVOS, it’s like three years old. It’s beautiful. It’s still like just as it was. It’s a [inaudible 0:38:52] sole. The sole hasn’t went through and the upper [inaudible 0:38:57] has got some tears but it’s the same exact thing that that I wore for three years ago when it first came out.

Jeff:                 Yes. Good. That’s pretty awesome.

Mark:              I actually grown because [inaudible 0:39:10] I’ve grown up. Yes. It’s a little tight when it used to be really lose. That’s another kind of funny thing about all this is you actually start … it’s like a lumberjacks hand, the more you start to strengthen your foot you can’t fit a normal shoes anymore because they’re all cut like all normal wet shoes in America are really normal is weathered foot. All these people that are figuring out this minimalism, they can’t buy anything but … they can be skinny guys and skinny gals and they need wide shoes. It is, yes, they come in and they’re like that they can’t fit like the women go the men’s because it’s a wider less and the men need the ease.

Jeff:                 Okay. That’s pretty funny. Actually I didn’t realize that was the result of it. It makes sense. I mean your foot’s getting stretched out and it’s getting stronger and-

Mark:              [Inaudible 0:40:06], yes.

Jeff:                 Exactly. Going back to something I wrote down on the note here about runners who … sometimes I’ll see runners out when I’m on the trail or whatever and I’ll see them in minimalist shoes and they’re definitely heel striking. For those types of runners that are still heel striking when they’re running minimalist, you’re suggesting to them would be to do some drills and exercises in order to relearn or practice or learn maybe for the first time their correct movement patterns and lining patterns?

Mark:              Yes. I think a lot of people actually need to see some of the kind of do an assessment so they can … they could look at the running times video we did. There are stuff that’s kind of hardware and software, some of them are just is not cueing the right movement patterns say they’re lifting versus pushing. They’re doing the high knee lifting and putting their foot out in front of them because they’re just trying to kind of kiss the ground or something and that’s not efficient versus someone who’s using more the posterior chain and the glutes. That’s just a quick fix by telling, “Okay, just push not lift.” Someone who has no hip extension say they’ve got really tight rectus femoris sialica so as and they just can’t get their leg behind them. They could cue the right things but they just can’t do it. Does that make sense?

Jeff:                 Yes.

Mark:              I think that it can be fixed just by, do that.

Jeff:                 No, that make sense. I’ve always been curious.

Mark:              Yes. That’s where … it takes eight to ten weeks. Say your Achilles area is really tight and that’s inhibiting you from loading in the correct way. It needs to be identified and then given a correction. Stay up to kind come out of both ways and that’s why I’m not a big fan of like arm chair video analysis because I will refuse to look at someone’s video and say why they’re doing it because I’ve no clue.

I might be able to see what are they doing but why they’re doing it, that probably cause more harm than good just over in a YouTube video or something trying to make some judgment of that. Like the video, we put out kind of explains it on the Natural Running Center. It explains a lot about what these proper movement patterns are and that someone can use pretty intuitive, can kind of watch that a couple of times and go out kind of play with things themselves.

Taking the shoes off is really good first step just to try to learn how to land softer. Shorten your stride before you’re going to try apply a lot of power, land softer, shorten your stride, land with your foot closer to underneath you. Running is like a pogo stick motion. You think of a pogo stick. If you throw it out in front of you it’s going to come right back in at you. You have to apply the force and the right factor. It’s got to kind of go behind you at a nice angle and that’s hip extension and glute strength. Throw it behind you, it’s going to pop forward. Throw it straight onto the ground because you have no hip extension you’re going to pop right up. We see a lot of runners with the ton of vertical motion or developing work around but watch the canyon and they’re just like kangaroos but then watch what’s going on and they’re hip reaching and then you’ll understand why they’re doing that.

Jeff:                 Yes, definitely. I mean, yes, you can definitely see the movement patterns very good especially when you watch the East Africans running. You can see the power that coming from the hip. If they don’t know what we mean by effort or anybody in the audience is listening. If you don’t know we mean by that check out the YouTube video of … maybe the Olympic 10K or Olympic 5K and watch the Ethiopians and watch their hip drive, it’s pretty incredible just to see the power that they’re getting in. That’s not something that’s unique to them. I mean if you develop the strength that’s something that you can do as well in terms of running with your form.

Mark:              I was curious, Jeff as you look at how sprinters have trained for years and years in football players. Any sport that involved speed, they’re doing tons of drills, sleds and pulling things to activate the glutes. They’re doing a skips properly. Most runner do skips, they do them wrong. They do the high knee thing versus push. What sprinter do is skip that’s a totally different thing. This in turn as we’ve kind of ignored all that first reason, we just go run but all the stuff but none of this is new. This stuff has been done. Sprinters spent at least half of their time working on technique at least. Yes. The rest is specific strength but it’s all about the glute, it’s what it is.

Jeff:                 It is very true. It is very true. It’s amazing how much the glute and glute activation is important in the running mechanics. It’s really a powerful muscle. I probably know the answer to this question but I definitely get it a lot and I’m sure you do, too. Is there some type of plan or that you guys especially with the Natural Running Center, maybe you’d send out or give to people who are one of the transitions to the minimalist movement in terms of how much of their mileage that they should be running on a daily basis as they build up week to week, month to month? Is there some type of template or pattern that you have or is it very individual the way that you will get it?

Mark:              Yes, we have like on our website We have a tab called transition zone and it has a number of articles but I don’t feel … I mean people going to apply a 10 percent role but I don’t think giving a specific prescriptions the right way to go. I think if everyone understands where they are and what they’re trying to do and listen to their body, I think what’s important for people to understand is fascia recovery because running is a fascia activity. Meaning, the fascia is like Achilles plantar fascia, it’s collagen.

When you’re making these transitions, you’re putting a different stress on the Collagen Matrix and if you look how at collagen recovers and that you think how runners have trained through time and they all did this without knowing the science but no one through the history of distance running could run really, really hard with powerful workouts everyday. They all knew that they needed to take one or two ridiculously easy days, the harder they run because it takes fascia 48 to 72 hours to recover. You go apply a load to any tissue that’s a little above what kind of your normal threshold.

Now that’s training effect applied just enough stress above your capacity, just a little bit more than 48 to 72 hours, you’re super compensate. That’s getting better. When you’re going into minimalist shoes you’re doing anything with your training. You can’t fool that rule. You apply just like my friend who said he has … everything was a little bit sore after just a half mile in the flat shoes the first time they wore them. I said that’s a good thing, you’re not going to go out the next day and kind of repeat.

My recommendation is really go into the new shoes every 48 hours. Go back to your other shoes then increase that a little bit as your body senses. It could be 200 meters the first day out if you’re really tied everywhere but if you’re a kid … I mean the first, no kidding … I did follow up with these rules because there were no rules. I was working with Brooks on the minimalist projects November of 2007, 2006 and they sent me some Brooks Burn which is a really nice shoe leveled.

Basically hacks sold out to be zero drop and send a couple of pairs, I just go run in these and I did it all to my trainers when I’m running in them. Immediately, it was like, “Wow that feels great.” I never put on a heel again after that, first day because I’ve done a lot of the form work and now I’ve only had a shoe that was like now the form work like worked better. You can hear that from a lot of people that are already doing a lot of good form stuff is they finally getting a flat shoe and it’s like, “Wow, I’m good.” This is just fine. Stay there and never go back. I always like out of a store certainly first thing we want to do is do no harm.

Being conservative with anything is good because I know most runners are type A. I can make it real … to be cautious. Maybe some of them won’t listen but I know they all get the exuberance syndrome. Their vibrant exuberance syndrome barefooted exuberance syndrome because they start to feel real good but their tissues, metabolically they’re fit but their specific tissues haven’t adapted yet but they feel way efficient and all it takes is one little tissue you stressed over the edge and it can cause injury.

Jeff:                 Right. Now that make sense and I think listening your bodies is really … I think that’s a fantastic piece of advice and so for everybody out there who’s definitely looking transition forget about the templated type plans and all that kind of stuff and really listen to your body and that makes a lot of sense.

Before we get to our last question with Mark, I want to take one minute to do a quick plug for a new product strength training for runners. If you’re listening to this interview, after this point and if you listened to some of other interviews in the past, you’re definitely interested in learning how to make yourself a better runner. You’ve listened to Mark several times now, talked about how learning to run stronger and engage the right muscles was a transformative point in his running carrier and how he took that stuff to learn and make the changes.

That’s my goal with the Runners Connect in general and our new strength for training for runners product. If you want to learn how make yourself that stronger, more efficient and less injury prone runner and you’re ready to make that commitment to yourself and your running, I urge you to check out We’ve asked every expert we could find, spent months performing research and used the collective experience of the Runners Connect staff put together 18 specific strength routines for runners that will help you run stronger, stay injury free and make the transition to minimalist running if that’s your goal.

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Moving on to our last question, what’s the one of the most common mistakes that you’ve seen runners make when they’re transitioning to the minimalist movement and running barefoot?

Mark:              I mean, you’ve probably seen it too, Jeff. It’s just too hard, too much, too soon, too fast.

Jeff:                 I figured that’s what you would say. That’s something that came up-

Mark:              That thing can’t apply to barefoot or minimalist shoes. I mean that’s just why people get hurt. I mean all this goes back to Arthur Lydiard or they said train, don’t strain. That was all over Bill Bowerman’s book. It’s Bill Bowerman’s jogging book was basically a rehash of everything he’d learned from Arthur Lydiard in New Zealand when he was training the cardiac patients.

Train, don’t strain and it’s on every page of everyone just picked up that 1967 Bill Bowerman jogging book. I think you’d probably throw a lot of stuff away because now this is like new age stuff. Yes because that’s what he said. It’s come to full circle and my monitor is … you run and then finish, it’s a proper training effect as if I feel like I could turn around and do it again. That’s the truth. It really is.

Other than maybe a couple of times a year most unhealthy days of the year probably you’re out there watching the Boston Marathons, a couple of days you race a marathon if you’re runner or the most unhealthy days of the years for you. That is not healthy activity and the body is not designed to that. We all do it to get on the monkey bars and have some fun but no kidding that is not … we’re saying that now in some of the literature showing people well, doing all this high endurance sport are dying sooner and that’s true because that’s out of the healthy window. That’s going the opposite. Too much stressed, die, no stress die. Being somewhere happy in the middle and that goes for minimalist running, non-minimalist running, any activity you do, just train don’t strain, feel like you could turn around and do it again and then you have a good day.

Jeff:                 Okay. Yes. That’s a fantastic piece of advice. I think it’s great.

Mark:              Part like when you feel like you want to run fast, speed up, feel like you want to run slower, slow down.

Jeff:                 That is definitely the ultimate, listen to your body and body training schedule. That’s definitely the way to go.

Mark:              Life is a far like when you get in your 40s.

Jeff:                 I like it. I like it. Well, Mark I appreciate you’ve taken the time to just … went into your brain and give us some knowledge. I mean this was an awesome interview. I learned a lot. I know my audience is going to learn a lot from listening to this and you did a fantastic job explaining some really complicated things very, very easy to do. I really appreciate you taking the time.

For everybody that’s listening, we’ll going to throw up some links at the end of this at the bottom of this post that you can you go to. We’ll check out the Running Times article that Mark reference and then some of the exercises as well as the transition plans that he mentioned that are available on his site. You can check out his store if you’re anywhere in the West Virginia area. Again, Mark thanks for taking the time.

Mark:              Jeff, thank you and I’ve really enjoyed following your site in your almost daily post. It’s really good stuff and you’re doing your homework and attaching to people that are digging into the research and coaching. When you connect to lab and the athlete and the coach I think we’re all moving forward.

Jeff:                 I appreciate it. It’s fun to do. I enjoy it.

Mark:              All right. Well, have a good night.

Jeff:                 Thanks, Mark. You, too.


 Natural Running Center: Transitioning to Minimalism

Natural Running Center: Strength and Mobility

Video: Are you Ready to go Minimal

Strength Training for Runners

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