Mark Cucuzzella wants a solid foundation for military service members

Mark Cucuzzella gets down to the real basics while talking to a Two Rivers Treads customer. Photo by Nadav Neuhaus
Mark Cucuzzella gets down to the real basics while talking to a Two Rivers Treads customer. Photo by Nadav Neuhaus

Mark Cucuzzella’s highest hopes for running don’t involve him breaking the tape at a marathon. Or posting amazing sales figures at his West Virginia running store, Two Rivers Treads.

He wants every military service member to be able to run injury-free.

Recent military data showed that between 25 percent and 45 percent of soldiers suffer a musculoskeletal injury in the course of a year, despite supervision over their training. This shocked and upset Cucuzzella.

“About six years ago, the military increased the aerobic requirement, making it an indirect cause of injury,” he said. With no standard for military running footwear, soldiers can train and test in whatever shoe they please. Most often, Cucuzzella says, these 18-year-olds reach for a stability shoe because they think this will reduce their chance of injury, where he has seen just the opposite.

Cucuzzella, now a lieutenant colonel in the U.S Air Force Reserve, also serves on the faculty of the West Virginia University School of Medicine and, as far as footwear goes, is an avowed minimalist.

While running for the University of Virginia, Cucuzzella had his fair share of injuries. While he was focusing on setting his marathon PR, an impressive 2:24, his body began to show warning signs that the wear and tear of his running habits was taking its toll. He developed arthritis, his big toe joints fused and he was plagued with painful bunions. When he had surgery in 2000 to remove the bunions, he heard the words that every runner dreads — “You cannot run anymore.” In true runner form, Cucuzzella took these words with a grain of salt, and he is proud to admit, he didn’t stop running and those old college injuries were his last.

Combining his medical knowledge of anatomy and biomechanics with a penchant for research, Cucuzzella believes that what human beings have been doing for thousands of years — moving with no shoes and connecting with the ground — set the standard for safe and healthy running. He has been working hard to get all runners into the right footwear for a long time. He eschews any running shoes that bulk up the heel and is a huge proponent of zero-drop shoes. To get his message out to more people, in 2010, Cucuzzella opened Two Rivers Treads, the nation’s first minimalist shoe store, in Shepherdstown. At the shop, Cucuzzella and his staff teach movement, assess customers for foot strength and function and sell what’s right for the customer, not just what’s popular on the market.

“I’m a doc and I wouldn’t sell soda even if people wanted it,” Cucuzzella said.

With emphasis on healing runners and keeping them injury-free, Cucuzzella explains that he’s not running the store as a place of business, but rather a place of necessity.

His goal is to teach running form and injury prevention.

“Running is your means so you don’t hurt yourself,” said Cucuzzella. “Take it from the perspective of a soldier. Running isn’t their job, but they have to pass the (fitness) test. To deploy is their job. We think running causes injuries, but done right, running should make you injury resilient.”

Two Rivers Treads is Cucuzzella’s outreach to the community to advocate for good running form and injury prevention, but his passion remains taking these messages to his beloved U.S. Air Force.

Cucuzzella’s aim for the Air Force is to see that all soldiers have a shoe that will “do no harm.” He referred to an American College of Sports Medicine article published two years ago that details the best make-up of a good running shoe — no drop, light, flexible and not too soft. These are exactly the characteristics that Cucuzzella promotes in his shop, in his videos and in his own incredibly successful running career.

At the time statistics about injuries sustained during military fitness training were being released, Cucuzzella was in the Air Force Reserve, giving presentations on healthy running. He was approached by an exercise physiologist who asked him if he’d like to build something for the Air Force, given the alarming rates of injury that were being documented.

Much to his delight, Cucuzzella got a six-month sabbatical to write, film and build the modules on healthy running and injury prevention that are now on his website. The modules are broken into three components, including an overview of principles of aerobic development, a module for providers of Physical Training Leads, and finally, a module for runners to teach specific mechanics.

In the same 2010-2011 timeframe, Cucuzzella visited about 30 Air Force bases to give two-day seminars. He was able to deliver this vital information first-hand to the source he wants to have it the most.

Cucuzzella’s work has already trickled into the uniformed services’ basic training, and he couldn’t be more excited. In April of 2016, there was a policy change to the aerobic training portion of the military Physical Fitness Test. Dynamic training was adopted with functional movements and they have changed the demands of the training runs.

“Rather than running for time during training, we have turned that model upside down and have made it self-paced, just able to talk and breathe comfortably,” Cucuzzella said. “The focus is on easier running and aerobic development.”

With a combination of proper training technique and footwear, Cucuzzella believes the military can drastically reduce the number of injuries sustained by soldiers.

When he is not advocating for better military practices, he remains a competitive runner, winning the Air Force Marathon right before his 45th birthday and at 50, he is a mainstay in the top echelon of Marine Corps Marathon finishers. He’ll be running it for the 24th time Oct. 30.

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