Percy Cerutty was an eccentric, yet often overlooked coach, in a historical context. He trained many of the greatest distance runners of his time. His most prominent athletes was Herb Elliott who captured both the 1960 olympic gold medal and a world record in the 1,500 and mile. Cerutty also trained numerous other succesful runners such as Albert Thomas who once held the world record in the 2 and 3 mile distances and Dave Stephens who held the 6 miler world record. But why are his training methods not widely taught or recognized throughout the world such as his New Zealand contemporary, Arthur Lydiard who was leading his athletes at a similar time. Is it because Lydiard wrote his schedules and suggestions in book form? Not likely, as Cerutty himself wrote six books on athletics and training and let Larry Myers wrote another summarising his training method after Myers spent a year with him at his Portsea training center. The main reason why his methods aren’t widely praised or known is because Cerutty was seen as eccentric or crazy to the public. Many of his ideas on running or training were considered extremely unorthodoxed and eccentric. This probably led many to believe he was a crazy old coach. With all the success his athletes had, surely it would be beneficial to analyze his entire training program and identify the reasons for his athletic success.
The first thing that you notice about Cerutty’s system is that when training for a race your whole life is part of the training. You have to fully develop your body, not just run. He also emphasized doing everything the natural way or primitive and uninhibited. This covered every thing from running schedules, to eating, to running form. Running form was perhaps one of the biggest items that Cerutty focused on. From early on he studied the movements of animals and would later try and use these in human movements. Based on his observations of animals running and later studying of young children’s movements he came to the conclusion that most runner’s perform Zombie like running. He said that runners ran too tense and weren’t uninhibbited as nature intended them to be. The tenseness and zombie like running form led to a vastly reduced ability to inhale oxygen into the lungs, about 1/2 of their true capacity. Cerutty claimed that with his method an athlete could fully fill the lungs with oxygen, thus leading to great running performance. This led Percy to come to the conclusion that an athlete should work on what he termed the five basic movements.
Beyond his emphasis on biomechanics, Cerutty was an advocate of weight training. This was pretty revoultionary in his day because many felt that such an intense strength training session as Percy suggested would lead to too much unnecessary bulk on a runner. Contrary to many popular ideas on weight training for distance runners, Cerutty said the extensive, high repetition with lower weight, would cause the athlete to bulk up, while intensive training, low repetitions of maximum weights, would lead to an increase in tensile strength with no added bulk. So all of Cerutty’s weight training was what he called intensive, as he suggested that the athlete never exceed 5 repetitions. He suggested that weight lifting take place three times a week during the conditioning phase, and then slowly taper off to one session per week, then none during racing. There were five basic lifts to his program. They were one-arm swings, cheat curls, bench press, dead lifts, and sit ups. These are pretty self explanatory as many are used today, so I won’t go into great detail. In the arm swing you swing one arm in an arc along the side fo your body, making sure to keep the arm straight. 1/3-1/2 of your body weight should be used in this lift. During this he stressed that breathing was crucial and should be done where you fill your lungs as the weight is being lifted, and exhale when it’s being lowered. The curl is simply a curl of a weight that’s as much as 3/4 of your body weight. The bench press should be done with the athletes full body weight. The dead lift should consist of using your legs to lift twice your body weight. The athlete should be in a sort of squatting/sitting position with his knees bent with his back bent at a 45 degree angle and his head looking straight ahead. Then you simply lift with your legs and stand up. It should be noted that the weight suggested by him is the ideal weight. The athlete should work up to these levels, not start at them if they’re not capable of it. Sit ups are ust what they sound like. However Percy suggests that the traditional way, knees bent hands clasped behind head, is inefficient. He suggests doing them on an incline board while holding a weight behind the head. He suggests 3 sets of 20 as a good number. After weight training or hard running percy suggested to cool down an athlete should hang limply from a bar for three minutes. He believed this relaxed the muscles and kept them from shortening.
In addition to this strength training Percy also suggests using gymnastic exercises and hills for strength. One of the key features of his program was running up extremely steep sand hills or sand dunes. Like in weight training he suggested that hill running be done intensively, meaning full effort. The hills that he used were extremely steep and had a 1-2 raise, meaning 1 foot rice for every 2 feet. They were short in length too, as the main hill used in his training camp at Portsea were only 80 feet in length. His recoveries consisted of easy controlled jogging. Gymnastics exercises were used to develop an athletes strength and coordination. He suggested using exercises such as chin-ups, rope climb, parallel bars, vaulting horse, roman rings, and trampoline jumping. These exercises were meant to develop the strength while breaking up the monotony of running. In addition to this he suggested other exercises such as swimming to break the monotony. These exercises should be done during his conditioning period when you are building an aerobic base and then they should slowly decrease as racing season approaches.
It seems as if Percy believed in teaching his athletes how they should run and what different types of elements to include in their training, but he let the athlete ultimately control his own running schedule. This allowed the athlete to run how he felt and to be more in touch with nature. A good quote by his star pupil, Herb Elliott describes this well “He would just inspire you and then leave you pretty much to your own devices. He’d check on the sort of intelligence of your training, to make sure that it made sense, but he just seemed to know that you were committed or you weren’t committed. And if you were committed, he walked away from it at that point.” Also Percy said in Training with Cerutty on page 12 that “I always encourage the athletes who come to Portsea to be independent in their training. This can only be accomplished when the person makes his own schedule each day in terms of what he wants to accomplish his life. When any coach gives a schedule to an athlete, it seems to take all the fun out of athletics. I only counsel the athlete who seeks my help on running technique, or asks me to evaluate his training diary.”
Cerutty was also big on progression. This can be seen by his “Inclined Saw-Tooth Theory.” The basic idea behind this is to work the athlete progressively harder throughout a cycle. During this cycle, the athlete is worked hard, and then given a lighter training session to recover. He said that “To subject the organism to a continous and unremitting strain is to invite ultimate breakdown (Training with cerutty 9).”
Cerutty Training for distance events
Cerutty’s most succesful athlete was without a doubt Herb Elliott, whose primary event was the 1500/mile. He developed Herb from a 4:20.4 miler as a high school runner to eventually a 3:54 miler. In training for distance races Cerutty was a huge advocate of varying the paces throughout almost every run. He believed that this was the way man was meant to run, as energy comes and goes during running and races, so the pace should adjust accordingly. He despised the “zombie-like” metronome running that most runners do, thus a majority of his training was done at varied paces. The training for the distance events included breaking the training into three periods. The first period was the Conditioning Period which lasted 6 months. This was to be followed by the Race-Practice period which lasted 3 months. Then finally the Competition period which lasted 3 months.
For training for the mile Percy suggested a high mileage build up of 60 to100 miles per week. The focus on this period is to build a huge aerobic base. In addition to just running, supplementary exercises to work on strength should be used such as hills, gymnastics, and weigh lifting. It should be noted that Cerutty’s idea of aerobic running didn’t mean slogging through miles. Based on a couple of sources it seems as much of his athletes running even during the conditioning period was of high quality, meaning it was high end aerobic and faster most likely. During this period it seems as though his athletes would run 3-10 miles in the morning. Then in the afternoon they’d do another run and supplementary exercises. Uphill sprinting for 30-45 minutes, and fartleks ranging from 3-8 miles were included. Also there was a long run of up to 20 miles on saturdays at varied paces. So as you can see there was a great deal of quality throughout his conditioning period. After this period came the race practice period. During this period even more quality was introduced. He believed that timed intervals should be run 1-2 times per week. In addition to this all runs should be at varied paces “to prevent staleness.” One example of a workout given in the book Training with Cerutty was 10 minutes of hard running, then slow running until they recover, then 10 minutes of hard running. It says that some of the runners kept this pattern going for an hour and a half. To emphasize the importance of quality, he said that about 80% of the training should be fast, at race pace with an emphasis on running intervals faster throughout the year. I believe this means that 80% should be run at current race pace, and as your race pace improves, so should the interval speeds. Elliott has said that 4 out of 6 training sessions per week were very demanding and of high quality. A sample week of training from the race practice period for Herb Elliott was:
Monday: morning – seven miles, varied pace.
afternoon – circuit running (long cross-country intervals)
evening – easy five miles.
Tuesday: morning – five miles, varied pace.
afternoon – repeat hill training
evening – weight training
Wednesday: morning – seven miles.
afternoon – six miles, varied running and sprinting
Thursday: morning – seven miles, varied pace.
afternoon – fifteen miles.
Saturday: morning – five miles, varied pace.
afternoon – weight training
evening – five miles, varied running and sprinting.
Sunday: morning – six miles;
afternoon – intervals, golf course.
(source: Training with Cerutty by Larry Myers, page 94)
Another sample week presumably from the race-practice period taken from Herb Elliott’s book, “The Golden mile”:
A Week in 1956, when he was 18:
M-6-10×400 or 800
T-8k at “peak speed”
T-30 min of sprint 30 sec, jog 190 sec
S-4-10k on track
After the race practice period, the athlete would enter the Competition period. During this period Cerutty says that you have already built your endurance so the work should be almost all quality. In addition to this, weight training and supplementary training should be stopped. He believed that while racing all that is needed is a low volume amount of work with sharpening work, so that the athlete would perform his best in races, not in practice. The amount of work done during this period was limited. The athlete may only work out 4-5 times per week max, with most being sharpeners. He said that the training should be cut by 50% of what the athlete was doing during the Race-practice period. This shows that Cerruty understood the need to “peak” for races. He understood that by this time of they year, the work was done and all that was needed was some sharpening and resting to get the athlete ready for peak performance.
Although the periods were the same as for the mile, there was some slight variations in Cerutty’s training for the longer distance events. He said that as the distance gets longer, the longer distance runners should run more faster paced varied runs and longer repeats. During the conditioning period the runner should run as much as 100 miles per week. Like Cerutty always mentions, you shouldn’t be jogging but “at a fast varied pace.” As with milers, he reccommended that the runner run double 5 times per week, with a single longer run on saturday and a rest day on sunday. The long run should be built up to 20 miles at a varied pace. In addition to the schedule found below, Cerutty would sometimes suggest doing a “60-mile weekend.” This would include 15 miles twice a day on Saturday and Sunday. Weight lifting, gymnastics and hill sprinting should be supplemented during this time. A basic schedule is as follows:
Monday: 30-60 minutes of intensive weight lifting
Hang limp on the horizontal bar for 2 minutes
Fartlek, 7 miles
Run in place for 10-15 minutes
Tuesday: 1 hour of gymnastics
30-45 minutes of uphill sprinting
Run in place for 10-15 minutes
Wednesday: 30-60 minutes of intensive weight lifting
Hang limp on the horizontal bar for 2 minutes
Fartlek, 8 miles
Run in place for 10-15 minutes
Thursday: 15 miles of varied pace running
Friday: 30-60 minutes of intensive weight lifting
Hang limp on the horizontal bar for 2 minutes
Fartlek, 3 miles
Run in place for 10-15 minutes
Saturday: 18 miles of varied pace running
(Source: Training with Cerutty by Larry Myers, pg. 108)
During the race-practice period, intervals and much more quality are introduced. Just like in training for the mile, the point of the intervals was to run portions of the race at or faster than race pace. During the surge training that is listed below where runners surge for distances ranging from 110 yards to 880 yards Cerutty said that this training “should be tiring but never exhausting (Myers 110).”
A sample week of the race-practice week for a 5k and 10k runner is as follows:
5k: 3-6 miles at varied paces and 30-45 minutes of intensive weight training 2-3 times per week
10k: 4-8 miles at varied pace plus above mentioned weight lifting
Monday: 5×1 mile intervals at faster than race pace (5k runners) or 4x 2miles at faster than race pace (10k runners) with easy running in between the repetitions.
10-15 minutes of running in place after
Tuesday: 1 hour of uphill sprints
2 miles at a varied pace for 5k runners or 5m miles at a varied pace for 10k runners
Run in place for 10-15 minutes
Wednesday: 8 miles at a varied pace with 110, 220, 330, 440, and 660 yard surges for 5k runner
12 miles at a varied pace with 220, 330, 660, and 800 yard surges for the 10k runner
Run in place for 10-15 minutes
Thursday: 1 and a half hours of varied pace running including six 660 surges for 5k runner Or same time with six 880 yard surges for 10k runner
Friday: 6x 2mile intervals with easy running in betwen for 5k runner
5x3miles with easy running in between for 10k runner
Run in place for 10-15 minutes
Saturday: 20 miles of varied pace running
The last period is the competition period. Just like in mile training, the emphasis here is on sharpening. Cerutty suggested also practicing surging techniques during this period. To accomplish this, one suggestion was to run up and down hills that weren’t as steep as the normal 2 to 1 ratio hill he suggested for uphill sprinting. As mentioned before, the emphasis during this period is sharpening and resting up for races. As Cerutty said “Any unnecessary stress put on the runner in this part of the season will only detract from his competitive performance (myers 111).”
Cerutty’s Natural Diet
Looking at the training done by Cerutty’s athletes only gives you half of the picture. To fully understand why these athletes succeeded you need to go beyond their training and look at their unique lifestyle. Diet was one of the more important things. The diet wasn’t so outrageous as some make it out to be, but it seemed to include almost all natural food and none of the foods high in preservatives or highly processed which is commonly found in most modern diets. He believed that without the proper nutrition intake the athlete would not recieve optimal training benefits. Cerutty advocated a natural diet and was against such foods that were high in animal fats, white flour, white sugar, salt, pepper, and any refined or processed foods. Almost all of the foods were to be consumed raw with little to no cooking done.The meals at the Portsea camp looked something like this:
Breakfast: bowl of raw, rolled oats, raisins, sultanas, nuts, and fresh fruit
Lunch: small meal with some fruits, cheese, coup or a vegetable, rice, and celery salad. OR fish and vegetables
Dinner: either Liver, chicken, fish, and occasionally mutton or beef.
In addition to this, he believed that no fluids should be drunk with meals. He believedthat the consumption of fluid would impair digestion and contribute to ulcers or acid in the stomach. He said that they should be drunk 30 minutes before the meal or an hour and a half after. The only exception was that a glass of wine could be drunk 15 minutes before the meal. For suggested fluid intake, he thought that natural fruit juices were the best and that milk should not be drunk because it had dangerous chemicals.
Running Natural and avoiding the track
Cerutty was very big on avoiding the track and other unnatural places for working out. His reasoning was simple as he said that it was not natural, restricted our movement, and killed the spirit. Cerutty believed that too much running on artificial surfaces made the athlete unhappy and not as willing to work hard. Running on the track also restricted the athlete and made running feel more like a job, instead of an escape. Also he said that this led to the athlete thinking of training as a tiresome grind, instead of accepting the hard work and enjoying it. Besides the mental reasons for not running on tracks, Cerutty also provided physical reasons. He said that when watching horses as a youth he saw that horses did not enjoy running on hard surfaces at all. The horses instinctively disliked it and tried to get off the hard surfaces. When they were forced to run on these surfaces, the horses responded by shortening their strides. Also, after running on the hard surfaces, they took a longer time to recover before they would run them again. Because of these observations, Cerutty decided that running on such hard surfaces was bad for the athlete. It limited his stride and made it short, choppy, and unnatural, instead of free and flowing. Herb Elliott did not train on a hard track ever in addition to not wearing shoes for many of his runs.
Running by Feel
Although Cerutty has given samples of his training weeks for all to see, he did not like fixed training schedules. In fact he said that “nothing must be dictated, fixed, or regimented. When an athlete goes out to train, his body should dictate his needs and he runs according to its capacities and demands.” This shows that he very much advocated running by feel. The athlete should decide how and what he is going to run that day and it should be flexible. Cerutty believed that the athletes energy levels flucuated and isn’t consistant. You never know what day you will feel great and what day you feel tired. Thus, he said that the training program should not be regimented and that your runs should coincide with how you feel and the rise and fall of your energy levels. The athletes running should not be regimented, because running is a natural and free activity. To restrict this is to kill many of the benefits of running. This belief put much of the burden on the athlete to decide what to do and how to train. It’s doubtful that this method would work unless the athlete was highly motivated, which it appears as Cerutty’s athletes were. But if an athlete is able to do this type of running by feel, then the benefits were no doubt great. By letting the athlete decide what he wanted to do, you will most likely get a higher effort out of that run, then if some coach decides for you. Your more inclined to run harder if you enjoy the run or workout you are doing. This is the genious of the Cerutty system. He taught his athletes what was needed for success and then left it up to them to ultimately decide what to do. This meant that every athlete was involved in planning his own training, probably leading to more enjoyment. I think that this might be one thing that is missing in many of today’s training systems. The athlete doesn’t have enough input and is trained to almost blindly follow whatever their coach prescribes.
Cerutty put it best when he said, “When we have had enough we stop. When we want to we have three hard sessions a day. We train as we feel, but rarely feel lazy.”
Interesting Quotes from Percy Cerutty:
• “It is intelligent work that does things–intelligent training methods, new ideas, especially when proved, that can work miracles.”
• “Work does do things, but it is superior work, highly intelligent work, often exhausting, soul-killing work, that gets one out of a rut, makes one a world figure…”
• “Every difficulty carries within itself the means of its own solution.”
• “Nothing worthwhile was ever accopmlished without pain, without full effort, without a price.”
• “While work does do things, it is intelligent work that does superior things.”
• “If you are not improving from year to year until you are 25 or 30 years of age look for the reason.”
• “When an athlete goes out to train, his body should dictate his needs and he runs according to its capacities and demands.”
• “It is a truism to say Elliott never trains on a clay or cinder track and rarely trains in shoes of any kind.”
Looking at Cerutty’s training from a modern perspective:
Although he was certainly an eccentric man, his methods did tend to work and much can be learned from Cerutty. It’s a shame as most of his training ideas and advice have been lost or ignored since the time of his athletes. I really don’t know anyone who still uses a system that is close to pure Cerutty, which is strange considering that some coaches throughout the world still use systems that are the same as other coaches of that era, such as Lydiard or Igloi. The reason is most likely because of his public image. He’s still thought of as a crazy man by most. Looking past his eccentric methods, much can be learned however.
The first thing I noticed about his system is his belief in developing the full body. Not many other coaches of his time believed in distance runners doing such strength training such as weights or gymnastics to aid the distance runner. In almost any modern training program you see such things as plyometrics, weight training, and core training. Cerutty’s system could be thought of as a pioneer for this. He was certainly one of the first distance coaches to notice the importance of a strong core for his athletes and recognized that strength in the upper body and core was correlated with the movements of the legs and lower body. Thus, strength training is one aspect that Cerutty contributed to modern training. Howevr it can be debated as to whether his intensive lifting or extensive lifting is more beneficial to the athlete. This can still be argued today as many coaches use the high reps, low weight method, while others still use the high weight, low reps method described by Cerutty.
Another important part of Cerutty’s training was the uphill sprinting. The hills seemed to be short and very steep and were in sand to add resistance. This hill training was used as part of his strength workouts. It gave the athlete added strength and surely worked on developing and recruiting their fast twitch muscle fibers as these were done at maximum effort. In addition, running in the sand worked and developed different muscles in the lower leg that flat and hard ground running don’t. These short but steep uphill sprints are different than most done around the world at the time. For example, Lydiards hills seems to be longer and have less of an incline.
Besides training, Cerutty brought about the importance of a good diet. His emphasis on natural diet is something that you see in the mainstream now. You see a big emphasis on eating whole wheat breads (staying away from white flour such as Cerutty suggested) and staying away from highly processed foods. Also, the limiting of the intake of saturated fats can be seen now. These are ideas that Cerutty professed over 40 years ago. Although there are definately wholes in his dietary reccommendations, the main concept of eating more natural is a good one. Cerutty knew that a healthy diet would impact the effects that training had and would allow you to train optimally. These ideas can be seen throughout the world now with elite athletes paying more and more attention to diet.
It almost seems as if the actual training done in Cerutty’s program takes a back seet to the lifestyle. Not a whole lot of attention has been given to his training ideas. This may be due to the fact that he seemed to teach his athletes what was needed, and then let them decide what to do. I like this approach as it involves the athlete in the training process and allows him freedom to decide to do what he likes best and not be a slave to a training schedule. In the actual training of his athletes it’s important to note a couple of things. The first is the big emphasis on aerobic development. He believed in relatively high mileage (up to 100) with 6 months (the conditioning period) spent developing this. During this period, it wasn’t just jogging around. I’m assuming that a lot of it was high end aerobic running at pretty fast but varying paces. Fartleks and uphill sprinting were also included during this time. So some higher quality running was done throughout the year. The uphill sprinting would work on the recruitment of both types of Fast Twitch muscle fibers most likely and probably worked on the anaerobic energy system depending on how hard they did them. The fartleks were probably fairly intense as Cerutty seemed to believe in intensive training. This means they probably hit on developing the aerobic capacity.
Long runs were also included of up to 20 miles. One interesting thing is that most of the runs seem to be at varied paces instead of steady paces. I’m just giving my own opinion, but this might be a reason why his athletes were able to surge better than others and not fall apart in the middle of races, such as Elliott’s 1960 Olympic 1500m victory. Also, looking at the varied paces, this seems to be done by modern day Kenyans a good deal. This is just speculation off of second hand knowledge, but from talking to and reading article by runners who’ve gone to Kenya a good deal of their running seems to be at varying paces, even during easy days. This can be seen in Renato Canova’s training too, as sometimes his athletes do run “with short variations.” If you look at how Kenyans run championship type races, many of the 5k’s or 10ks have varying paces. The athletes tend to vary the pace by large amounts from lap to lap, such as the 2005 Helskini 10k that included laps varying from 61 to 69 during the last 6k of the race. During this race the pace seemed to vary by 3-4 seconds every 400, so that they would run a 63 then a 67, then a 64, or something to that effect. This might tire americans or europeans not as accustomed to varying paces more than it tires a Kenyan of the same ability who practice this pace variation. Thus Cerutty might have been on to something when he suggested varying the paces even on easy runs. This might have good benefits if slowly implemented into a modern training program, so that at first maybe once a week an easy run is done at varying paces throughout.
The next period was the 3 month long race practice period. During this extremely intense training took place. The transition to this phase can be seen in many modern training programs. Athletes tend to transition from a base phase to a more intense phase consisting of larger amounts of intervals and harder runs. This is what Cerutty seems to do too. During this period the emphasis seems to be on quality. Intervals, fartleks and harder runs are done throughout. The intervals are done at race pace for the most part and their is a good variation of short and long intervals or surges. The longer intervals for a 5k or 10k runner can be seen as aerobic capacity, or VO2max, training in modern terms. The shorter intervals of 220 to 880 yards can be seen as a type of anaerobic work. There are also harder runs of 10k in length that probably work a bit on threshold and above. In addition there is some Alactic or sprint training done by the milers, as can be seen in Herb Elliott’s log. Uphill sprints are still included to. So as can be seen his program includes a lot of quality during this period, but it hits on all major systems. There is a good deal of longer intervals for aerobic capacity, shorter intervals for the anaerobic system, sprint training for the Alactic system, and harder long runs for the development of the aerobic system and thresholds. Also uphill sprinting for strength and FT fiber recruitment is done too. So it can be seen that this period of training is very intense, but it seems to hit on all of the systems in a nice blend with nothing seemingly being neglected. During the competition period it seems as if the emphasis becomes on racing with a drasticly reduced amount of mileage and some sharpener workouts. He believed that being well rested was important and that you should not do workouts that take too much away from the race.
- Key points to take away from Cerutty’s training:
• A healthy more natural diet helps optimize training
• A relatively high mileage aerobic base is the key to getting you strength and allowing you to hold up to the intensity required later in the season.
• Training the entire body is essential because all things tie together.
• Mix longer and shorter hard efforts
• A mix of all systems should be done
• The base or conditioning period is not slow jogging, higher end aerobic running and working other systems should be done
• Use steep hills for strength and high fiber recruitment
• You might consider experimenting with varying the paces during some runs.
• To run fast at a race, you must practice running at race pace.
• When you start your main racing portion of the season, you should be well rested for the races and not overtrain.
• Include a Long run of up to 20 miles if you race distance events less than 10k. Run should be up to 30miles if you race the marathon
For more information on Percy Cerutty, I recommend checking out the recently re-released edition of Cerutty’s classic Athletics: How to Become a Champion