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Percy Cerutty - On Training and Life

The Cerutty Legend
Published in Terry O'Halloran's Australian Runner Magazine in 1994
Terry and wife, Joan, are directors of Runners World Magazine 
and Start to Finish Event Management 
Article written by Tony Wilson 
Proofread by Herb Elliott

The Cerutty Legend - Percy's Ideas on Training and Life

50 years ago Percy Wells Cerutty was a man before his time - a prophet in the realm of human endeavour. Regarded as an ecentric by many, his philosophy of fitness conditioning still stands the test of time.

Weakly Beginnings
Born in 1895, Percy Cerutty grew up as a weak and sickly child. He became a better than average athlete recording a 4.32 mile. However, Percy was ill throughout much of his pre publice life and in 1939 suffered a nervous and physical breakdown, necessitating six months of complete rest.

It was during ths time that Percy had time to read and think. He developed a new approach to his life. To overcome his nerves and develop confidence he aimed to dive off the ten metre high tower at St Kilda baths. St Kilda is a bayside Melbourne suburb. In two years, after gradually increasing the height of the dives, Percy succeeded. He went for long mountain walks, swam in Melbourne's Yarra River and began to lift heavy weights. He realised the more one pampered oneself, the weaker one became.

Experimenting with his training, he achieved great success; running the marathon in under three hours and covering 100 miles in under 24 hours - both at the age of 48. We must remember that these feats were achieved shortly after a breakdown and at a time when long distance running was considered ludicrous. Percy made himself an energetic, confident and knowledgeable man.

He is most famous for coaching Olympic champion Herb Elliott, and establishing a training camp at the seaside retreat in Portsea, Victoria, where he introduced to the world his disciplined lifestyle, uncompromising views and sand hill running.

Cerutty believed that everybody should seek out an activity at which they are best and then develop it to its full potential. He believed a person should not settle for a particular discipline unless they were sure they would eventually excel at it.

If, after honest assessment, an athlete decides he can't excel at his chosen undertaking, he is best to move into another field. Percy didn't achieve happiness until his success as a coach.

"We can become what we believe we can become". This is one of Percy's most fundamental beliefs. Many of us hope, may passionately hope, that we run an exceptional time or even set a World Record or win an Olympic Gold Medal, but do we truly believe it? Percy's strength lay in inspiring his athletes to believe. When the belief is deeply embedded in the consciousness, then the achievement of it can be attainable.

He saw a deep thinking mind and a powerful personality as the only factors that can make for the uppermost levels of success. Ceaseless thought and experimentation are what Percy saw as necessary. Cerutty did not believe in half measures. He expected 100 percent commitment from his athletes.

Training was basically broken up into three phases: conditioning (five months), race practice (three months) and racing (three months). All three phases merged into each other. Cerutty acknowledged that success can be achieved in different ways but he thought intensive training was best.

Phase 1: Conditioning
This period is devoted to long, hard runs usually between eight to sixteen kilometres (occasionally as far as 32 kilometres, say once per month to develop confidence), fartlek around golf courses (with fast efforts varying from 100 to 150 metres) or parklands, hill running, and repetitive runs up sand dunes (sometimes for as long as an hour).

Training is often to the point of exhaustion at this time. Percy stressed that half hearted efforts or months of long slow running never achieved much. During all phases, but in this one particularly, the athlete must be guided by his feelings and experiences. He believed the spirit could be broken by overdoing the "will" or adhering wrongly to a schedule that is too difficult.

Now is a good time to mention that Cerutty stated that he had to hold back the more dedicated from training too hard. This view is supported by Herb Elliott. Leading up to the 1960 Olympic, Percy cut the training Albie Thomas set himself by 50 percent. Percy said that many athletes did not acheive the success they could have, simply because they did not allow sufficient time for their organism to recover.

Lighter training days are necessary. The serious runner is advised to train to exhaustion three times per week.

Sixty five to eighty kilometres per week was suggested for the 800 metre runner, with 160 kilometres recommended for the marathon runner. If the marathoner runs further he risks becoming a plodder. Percy agreed with Jim Peter's training, in running a fast eight to ten kilometres in the morning and a hard sixteen kilometres at night.
Heavy weights are lifted two or three times per week for up to two hours, and other exercises such as chin ups, press ups and sit ups are performed throughout the week.

Phase 2: Race Practice 
As the heavy conditioning work tapers off, race practice begins. Conditioning work always continues, and is performed when you feel you need it. There are two main parts to this second phase - with equal time devoted to each. 

1.Training at the speed at which you hope to race.
For example a 1500 metre runner would run various distances from 100 to 1200 metres at full race speed. This session may last between 40 to 60 minutes with the rests between efforts being as long as circumstances demanded, and not for predetermined times.

The session is often not planned and the distances of the efforts in each session often varied. For example, a miler may run 800 metres followed by 400 metres of slow jogging. Then run three by 400 metres with 200 m jog recovery after each, followed by three 200s and you could finish off with a 600 , then a few 100 metres sprints. Or you may wish to to do 10 x 400s. The choice is the athlete's. This work is usually performed on a track.

2. Running exhausting efforts for the time you hope to run in the race.
Using the 800 metres as an example, the athlete would run repetitive efforts for 1.40 to two minutes. This is to accustom the body and mind to be able to maintain intensity and effort during a race. The athlete runs, rests, and repeats the run until he is no longer running quickly. This session is performed on golf courses or grassy slopes - not on an athletic track.

Not only must the body train at race pace, but it is also necessary to regularly train at maximum speeds. Percy advised running repetitive 200s or running continuously on a grass track incorporating three flat out sprints in each 400 metre lap, ranging from 40 metres to 140 metres. A mature, conditioned athlete should be able to continue such a session for 30 minutes to an hour, without resting.

Also, in both sections one and two, the body must be trained to surge, to maintain faster than race pace speeds and make finishing runs from any distance. 
Weight training is reduced to three twenty minute sessions. Again, the lifts are heavy with low repetitions.

Phase 3: Racing
Little or no conditioning is done during racing. The strength has been acquired. Percy believed racing twice a week was best. Between races, do only enough to maintain condition leaving you eager to compete. Comfortable fartlek runs of five to seven kilometres for 800 metre runners and to sixteen kilometres for the 10 000 m athlete. The training should be sufficiently less exhausting that the other two phases.

Be guided by experience here. Cerutty reminded his athletes that more races were lost through over training than under training during this phase. An average week for Herb Elliott during this period was a flat out eight kilometre run, a night with the sprinters (an easy night), a 16 to 25 kilometre run at a good strong pace, and some track work. Perhaps only training four times a week.

Percy liked to refer to his boys as "leaders" and the general tactic was to "take off" at some point in the race, run the opposition ragged, and have the race well and truly won before the finish. An exception to this is when it is obvious the athlete is not as quick as an opponent and must reosrt to "foxing" tactics to win. Elliott used such tactics occasionally in 800 m races.
Cerutty believed that energy comes in bursts and that the most effective way to race was not at constant speed. The great success of the Kenyans, noting the way they race lends support to this view. He felt that energy ebbed and flowed and that a runner was wise to make the most of it when it's there.

General Comments
The track was rarely used during training. Its main use was during the "race practice" phase in race pace sessions. Percy saw training around a track as drudgery and potentially soul destroying. He believed track training was too regimented, didn't allow a freeing of the whole personality and was likely to produce artificial gaits and false movements. It's worth noting the lack of tracks in Kenya. Training in natural surroundings was best.

A stopwatch was rarely used in training. Percy thought being timed during created inhibitions as to speed and records, and more often than not weakened one's confidence. The watch was used perhaps once each month during the conditioning phase.

Cerutty saw himself as a guide who inspired his athletes and taught them about movement, relaxation, strength, diet and the correct approach to training and racing - mentally and physically. 

He believed training should never be fixed or predetermined. Schedules were never set in advance. A program set days, weeks or months in advance is likely to dampen the spirits of a runner, doesn't take into consideration the feelings and recovery of the athlete from day to day and stifles the initiative of a runner.
His athletes set their own training based on his teachings. These were flexible enough to change during a session. Runners were expected to keep a diary to record their training and reflections.

He spoke about great men who are (or will be) remembered hundreds of years after their deaths. Men such as Jesus, da Vinci, great philosophers, poets and saints - particularly St Francis of Assisi. He strived to deepen his athletes' appreciation of life.

Percy saw the process of achieving your ultimate performance as giving yourself to the task as saints gave of themselves at the stake. There was a surrendering, not to fatigue, but to inbuilt powers, personality and the rectitude of achieving excellence. He likened this surrender to the psychological processes of martyrdom.
Herb Elliott said, "Percy helped me not so much by improving my technique, but by releasing in my mind and soul a power I only vaguely knew existed."

Two areas where Cerutty was particularly innovative were the use of weights and diet.

Percy saw strength training as essential to a runner's development. He blew the myth that lifting heavy weights made and athlete bulky and slow. He advocated heavy weights with low repetitions.

The starting weight was what an athlete could move six times, but not ten (except for the dead lift). As soon as the athlete could move the weight ten times, the weight to be lifted was increased. Also, it was not uncommon for reps of two or three to be practiced.

The basic exercises were as follow: the snatch (to warm up, with a quarter to a third of the athlete's weight), the rowing motion, military press, bench press, curls, the dead lift and one handed swings. The starting weight for the dead lift should be that the athlete can lift twenty times. This weight is lifted in three sets of ten.
Other weight lifting exercises were included, as were sit ups, chin ups and press ups. Sand hills, hills and stair climbing were preferred over weights to make the legs stronger.

His view on diet, as it was on most things, was strict and uncompromising. Raw, unrefined and unprocessed was how Cerutty liked his food. Rolled oats, dried fruits, fruit, vegetables, fish, water (litres each day), milk, nuts and a little meat were the basis of the diet. "Tasty" dishes and processed white bread were avoided. The food was predominantly uncooked.

Much of what is common knowledge and accepted these days was advocated fifty years ago by Cerutty.

Parting Thought
In his books Cerutty recounted many of the "goings on" at Portsea. One warrants special mention. Among the bunks at the camp there was one that was cramped and inferior to the rest. However, this was the bunk that hosted the greats - John Landy, Don McMillan, Murray Halberg, Albie Thomas, Bill Bailie and Elliott.

While others rushed in and took the best bunks, the greater personalities - greater men - ambled in and took what was left. This led Percy Cerutty to the axiom "The first shall be last and the last first"