The title of Dr. Mark Cucuzzella’s new book, “Run for Your Life,” aptly describes his approach to life, fitness, nutrition and all the choices humans have as they go about their daily lives.
As a medical doctor and competitive runner, Cucuzzella is an expert on what helps people lead healthful lives. It takes commitment, not a quick-hit solution or miracle drug.
“People want some kind of hack — I hate that word,” he says. “But you can’t really hack human physiology. There are things to can do in the short term. You can’t hack a running injury. The body was designed pretty perfectly. You just have to allow the body to work, and facilitate with proper nutrition, rest and recovery.”
Cucuzzalla practices what he preaches. He has run competitively for nearly four decades, finishing more than 100 marathons and ultras. At home in West Virginia, he owns a running store — Two Rivers Treads — dedicated to minimalist footwear. He also developed and implemented the U.S. Air Force efficient running program.
“Exercise is such a powerful drug,” he says, noting that it changes the brain to seek out more movement and fitness.
Even though the title specifies running, Cucuzzella focuses on healthy living — nutrition, movement, rest and recovery, and more keys that apply to everyone. “Eighty percent of the book is about keeping people healthy. If you want to run, run. If you want to ride a bike, ride a bike, If you want to play golf … “
The book, published in the fall by Knopf, provides runners, walkers and others easy-to-digest information, recommendations and even drills to test yourself. In the roughly 300 pages, there are dozens of tips and resources that can be used to better oneself. They all fall under his approach — using exercise snacks, breathing and relaxing, constantly moving and finding time to recover.
A learning experience
While a freshman in college, Cucuzzella lost half his blood related to an ulcer. The experience served as a catalyst for his quest to find better solutions for athletes suffering injuries.
“It alerted me to the standards of things we were doing for patients in pursuit of helping these athletic injuries,” he says. “If something hurt, we looked at it as an anti-inflammatory issue. We didn’t get beyond treating the symptom of pain. Certainly far more harm has come from these anti-inflammatory medicines than any good has. The risks of these meds are huge.”
While common in the United States, other nations take a better approach. Cucuzzella says a European researcher invented nonsteroidal medicine for a specific need. “He was blown away that they were approved for over-the-counter in the U.S.”
He points out that common maladies for runners such as plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendonitis are treated with anti-inflammatories.
“Those aren‘t inflammation in the way that autoimmune attack or infection, or rheumatoid arthritis,” says Cucuzzella, an Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel. “Those are true inflammatories. What runners take these for are a degenerative process. Runner’s knee, which is not an infection. They don’t play a role in rebuilding strength. They actually inhibit the remodeling of these tissues, which you want to happen.”
Embrace good stress
Cucuzzella focuses on more than injured runners. He encourages everyone to take steps that will lead to a healthier lifestyle. It’s a work in progress.
During a layover at the Atlanta airport, I read part of the book. At this particular airport, I could not find any of the “stand-up” work areas that have grown in popularity elsewhere, yet there were several rooms where smokers could light up. So how, I asked Dr. Cucuzzella, do we get society to subscribe to these basic steps that will help American live healthier lives?
It reminded him of an obesity conference he attended where he noticed the experts gravitating toward the escalator and forsaking the stairs.
“We just have to get people to understand that our modern world is designed for our immediate comfort,” Cucuzzella points out. “But we need stress every day — not bad stress about jobs, bills or sick family members. We need physical stress every day. If you create a bubble around yourself where you are convinced that comfort is the goal, you are going to get weak. You have to take ownership of your day so that you get some good stress. You need to pattern yourself to resist that.”
For his part, Cucuzzella is a leader in his community when it comes to promoting fitness.
“Community ranks right up there with sleep and good nutrition, and daily movement,” he says. “It’s something that affects health and happiness. There are so many people out there who are isolated and don’t have a community or tribe. Getting into a community is where you start helping people on a larger scale. To have people stay well and healthy — and find that contentment — you have to have a community.”
Protein vs. fat vs. carbs
In today’s world there is confusion about the best food choices. There are proponents of the keto diet. Others promote low fat, high carbs — or the opposite. Vegans and vegetarians have their own nutrition advice.
As could be expected from a medical professional, Cucuzella relies on data and facts to build his case for eating health fats and limiting carbs. He says he hasn’t had bread in six or seven years.
He points to a recent survey from the University of North Carolina that revealed that only 12 percent of Americans are metabolically healthy. Metabolic health is defined as having optimal levels of five measurable factors: blood glucose, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, blood pressure and waist size — without the need for medication.
Poor metabolic health could lead to more Americans developing Type 2 diabates, cardiovascular disease and other serious issues — all further stressing the health-care system.
Cucuzzella says most adults have metabolic syndrome, which is an intolerance for carbs. “If you have any component of this, your body will benefit by reducing carbs,” he recommends. “The most important question is whether you are healthy. If you are not metabolically healthy, then you will have to look at reducing junk foods — highly processed foods and sugary drinks.”
Most of the Americans who fall into the 12 percent grouping are younger, usually in their 20s, and not necessarily athletes. “Most runners are representative of the U.S. population. They just happen to be signing up for races.”
‘An amazing fat burner’
Instead of carbs, Cucuzzella promotes fat as a fuel-burning sources.
“The human body is designed to be an amazing fat burner,” he says. “It’s a system that you can adapt by training in a low-carb way to get your body to become efficient. ”
He compares it to fueling for cars. An electric Tesla, for example, would be like burning fat. But a car that burns exhaust is like a sugar burner. “It’s really not what you want for long-term health and endurance. You want to be a mean, clean, fat-burning machine.”
He recommends using high-quality oils like butter and olive oil, eating vegetables, cheeses — ancestral foods without grains and sugars. “Most people who try it for a few weeks or months wake up feeling good and with plenty of energy. The body will tell them if it works for them.”
Once the body has the proper fuel it needs and it has proper conditioning, something magical happens to the runner.
“The joy of running comes during that phase when you are just doing it because it makes you feel good, there is not intrinsic goal like lowering your blood pressure. You are just doing it to do it. You know it is doing a lot for you.”
Name: Dr. Mark Cucuzzella
Hometown: Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Number of years running: 40
How many miles a week do you typically run: 40-50
Point of pride: Being inducted into Marine Corps Marathon Hall of Fame
Favorite race distance: Marathon, it’s a challenge and always a bit of adventure.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I use UCAN race day but every day I run on fat.
Favorite piece of gear: My running sandals — fun.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I rarely listen to music but when pacing friends in ultras I will blast AC/DC’s "Highway to Hell" and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” if there is some needed inspiration.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Healing comes from within.
Where can other runners connect or follow you: drmarksdesk.com and runforyourlifebook.com will take you to all my places.