‘Somehow everything I do turns to feet,’ says Schuster. ‘I’ve never been bored’
Most of New York podiatrist Richard Schuster’s patients are runners. Not the casual jogger in chic polyester warm-ups but runners—those skinny fanatics who cover at least 25 miles a week.
Many go too far too fast too soon. Then, explains Schuster, 62, “the body begins to break down. It’s like an old jalopy: good enough to get you to the supermarket, but if you try to run it in the Grand Prix, it’ll fall apart.”
The body’s reaction, of course, is not always that dramatic. The runner may only suffer painful knees, a sore Achilles tendon, shin splints or blisters. Whatever the complaint, Schuster tells his patients to look at the delicate piece of human machinery encased in their $35 running shoes. “The foot,” he says, “is the foundation of the body. Foot problems can cause knee problems, groin problems, back problems and even problems in the shoulders and arms.”
Schuster—one of perhaps only 300 running doctors in the country—believes that most runners’ ailments can be treated by “balancing” the foot. After carefully measuring a patient’s legs and feet, he constructs shoe inserts to adjust for such factors as mismatched legs. “Most people,” he explains, “are born with one leg shorter, usually by about one-quarter inch. When a runner pounds his feet against the ground 5,000 times an hour, the effect is an imbalance equivalent to three-quarters of an inch. That can result in physical aggravations.”
Among Schuster’s satisfied patients is Dr. George Sheehan, the New Jersey cardiologist whose books (the bestseller Running and Being is the latest) have made him a kind of galloping guru. After consulting Schuster for a foot problem in 1971, he began sending other runners to the podiatrist, who recalls, “That’s when the floodgates opened.”
Schuster now treats about 50 runners a week and has to refer at least 100 others to colleagues. One reason for Schuster’s popularity is that he almost never tells a runner to stop cold turkey. “If he or she hurts at 30 miles,” the doctor says, “I tell them to run 20.” (Many runners, he observes, are “transfer addicts” who have shifted their addiction from tobacco, alcohol or drugs to the road.) Schuster only occasionally prescribes X-rays or medication. “I’m more concerned with relieving pain than eliminating the problem,” he says, “since most problems—shin splints, corns, blisters—come back anyway. A runner should experience annoyance, but he should not endure pain. His body is telling him something.”
Working out of a small office in Queens, Schuster uses a tape measure, a carpenter’s level and a mirror, among other tools, to amass 80 pieces of information about the ailing foot. He then makes a mold from which he builds a shoe insert of leather, cork and rubber that may elevate the heel, roll the foot inward or protect sensitive areas. The visit and insert (called an orthotic device) cost an average of $100.
Schuster’s father worked in a factory that made leg and foot braces and Richard always wanted to specialize in the field. He married his wife, Grace, after graduating from the New York College of Podiatric Medicine, where he now teaches. Podiatrists, although not M.D.s, study for four years, followed in some states by one year of residency. The Schusters have one daughter and five grandchildren (Granddad made bronze casts of all their feet at the age of five weeks, which are displayed at home).
“All he thinks about are feet and his grandchildren,” says Grace fondly. Schuster also has worked extensively with brain-damaged children whose balance system is not functioning properly. His shoe modifications and inserts allow many afflicted children to walk with increased stability. “That’s the exciting work,” he says.
Schuster writes a column for Running Review and experiments with running shoes, such as improved heels to guard against Achilles tendon damage. That leaves little time for running, but then Schuster, afflicted with asthma and minimal interest in all sports, never jogs more than four times around a small block.