Profiles in Coaching: Percy Cerutty
Percy Cerutty (1895–1975) was a controversial Australian running coach in his time, and his unconventional approach to training sparks some debate even today. Yet Cerutty produced some of the best middle-distance runners of his era. The most accomplished was Herb Elliott, who won the 1960 Olympic gold medal in the 1500m and set world records in both the 1500m and the mile. Cerutty took Elliott from a 4:20-miler at age 18 to a 3:54 world record by age 22. He also trained other middle-distance athletes, including women, which was not widely accepted at the time.
Unlike other track coaches in the 1950s and 1960s, Cerutty insisted his athletes eat a diet of natural foods, do plenty of high-intensity training (often avoiding the track), and commit a tenacious mental approach to both training and lifestyle. He described the expectations he had for his athletes this way: “The greatest success cannot be measured by medals or records. No, the greatest success is found when we achieve victory over ourselves—victory over our own nature, weakness, our lazy tendencies, and misleading thoughts.”
Not one to mince his words when it came to other coaches’ criticism of his approach, Cerutty expressed himself in a manner that others saw as contentious. All of this made him somewhat of an outsider.
A familiar method refocused on high intensity
Much of what Cerutty had his athletes do in training was similar to Arthur Lydiard’s widely accepted run training methods. For example, he placed an emphasis on aerobic base development through high volume running and long runs. His view of aerobic base training early in the season, however, was quite different from Lydiard’s low-intensity, 100-mile weeks. Instead, Cerutty focused on relatively high-intensity long runs. His first seasonal period of training with an emphasis on high-quality long runs preceded a routine muscular strength training period largely comprised of hills, again, much like Lydiard did with his athletes. Cerutty had his runners do this work on short but steep sand dunes on his multi-acre, beachfront property in Portsea near Melbourne, where he conducted running camps. High-intensity training a few weeks later in the third and last period of the season included many race-pace-specific runs. Again, this is fairly well-accepted today as it was then. Training, however, was intended to be fast not only in preparation for racing, but throughout the season. Running slowly was not on Cerutty’s agenda. Elliott commented in his memoir that four out of his six weekly workouts were quite hard. Also, Cerutty taught his athletes that the pace on these and other runs should be variable rather than steady. Interestingly, this particular methodology is quite similar to how East African distance runners train today.
In hindsight, Cerutty’s training methodology was not significantly different from that of Lydiard, or what is commonly practiced today. Perhaps the most unique aspect of his program was the inclusion of weight training and “gymnastic” exercises, such as leaping, bounding, and one-legged jumping. Such activities, particularly weightlifting, were considered a huge mistake for endurance athletes at that time. Now they are both quite widely accepted.
Breaking away from conventional training
While Cerutty’s coaching methodology was not significantly different from that of his contemporaries, he taught his athletes to execute their training in a way that was all his own. For example, while most track coaches had their middle-distance runners working out primarily on the track, Cerutty’s athletes largely avoided track workouts. He believed rigorous track training would result in boredom, burnout, drudgery, and loss of motivation to train. Instead, Cerutty sought out “natural” and less inhibited training venues for his athletes, such as sandy beaches, forest trails, and woodchip paths, and he was a proponent of barefoot running. Only in the third and final competition period would Cerutty send his athletes to the track. By this point, their training was focused on race pace and race strategy.
Cerutty studied horses and other animals and applied what he learned to the running technique and training of his athletes. For example, he observed that horses ran less fluidly on hard surfaces, in a manner that seemed to protect their bodies from damage. This was yet another reason why he preferred natural settings for training rather than pavement (that said, tracks were made of cinder at that time, so they were certainly not hard surfaces).
Finally, outside of the competition period, Cerutty never used a stopwatch to time intervals or short bursts of high intensity. He believed that timing workouts, or even doing fartlek-type intervals, caused the runner to compare current and past performances, which was likely to damage their self-confidence.
The “Stotan” approach to physical and mental toughness
More polemic than his coaching methodology or practice was the philosophy Cerutty brought to coaching—and life. He sought to change his runners’ lifestyles to be more like his own, which he referred to as a “Stotan” (stoic + Spartan). It required that the athlete be not only physically but mentally tough. Lifestyle was central to achieving this goal. Cerutty believed that everything in the athlete’s life played a role in determining performance. Success depended on much more than simply hard run workouts. For example, nutrition played a major role in Cerutty’s Stotan lifestyle. He advised his runners to avoid sugar, refined starch, milk, highly-processed foods, and drinking fluids with meals. Also prohibited were alcohol, cigarettes, and late-night partying. At his beachfront training camps in Portsea he prepared meals with measured portions of low-fat animal protein, fruits, and vegetables. Fruit juices and water were only consumed an hour before a meal or 90 minutes afterward. Food was to be eaten either raw or with minimal cooking. Such rigid practices in the 1950s and 1960s confirmed to other coaches and the general public that Cerutty was a “crazy old man.”
Also unusual for running coaches, he did not prepare weekly training plans for his athletes. They did their own planning. He saw his job as a coach as one of strictly providing guidance. By preparing their own workout schedules, he believed the athletes would “own” the plan and train harder and with more enthusiasm than if he wrote the program. He saw his role as being that of a teacher—he would teach his athletes how to succeed and then get out of the way to let them do just that. While he certainly had strong ideas about training, he left it up to his athletes to decide how his concepts should best be applied within their own lives. According to Elliott, “He would just inspire you and then leave you pretty much to your own devices.” Elliott added, “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.”
There’s no doubt that Cerutty’s way of preparing athletes for competition was distinctive and ambitious. He was as intent on preparing tough people for life as he was on producing fast runners, setting world records, or winning Olympic medals. The athletes who trained under Cerutty were reported to have said, “You came here with the objective of running more quickly, and achievement in running, but really it was an education in life…You got a whole philosophy of life and attitudes.”
Successful athletes are successful people
There is no doubt that even though he was controversial then and even somewhat now, Cerutty was ahead of his time in his perception of life as well as his coaching. His coaching philosophy was largely aimed at producing successful people as well as successful athletes. To do that, they had to believe in themselves. His coaching philosophy was rooted in the athlete’s self-belief, and he cultivated this belief in the minds of his athletes. I would suggest that this accomplishment, not the medals or records, is what made him an exemplary coach.
Cerutty thought of himself as someone who could inspire his athletes to great achievements, and along the way he also helped them understand running mechanics, muscular strength, full-body power, healthy nutrition, and his unique physical and mental approach to training and racing. Between 1959 and 1967 Cerutty wrote six books on his training methodology and philosophy, many of which espoused the merit of outworking the competition, both with mind and body: “Success is the result of deep thought. There is nothing lucky or fortunate about success. Great success is never easy and is usually earned by dedicated efforts the masses are not prepared to subscribe to.”
Cerutty likely saw himself as a coach of successful people who happened to be runners.
1. Cerutty, Percy Wells. Success in Sport & Life. London: Pelham Books Ltd., 1964.