Percy Cerruty and Trail Running

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

Trail running by nature should be exploratory and not overly prescriptive. Trail runners are typically more motivated by life meaning and the freedom of exploring nature rather than solely performance goals. Therefore, for many trail runners, a prescriptive training program oriented around training paces and arbitrary mileage goals in the working week may not be appropriate. However, if the trail runner is truly looking to maximise their potential, then a training approach must be applied in order to progress. The training philosophy of Percy Cerutty is a useful approach for the sport due to its holistic and exploratory nature.

Percy Cerutty was an eccentric, yet often overlooked coach, in a historical context. His most renowned athlete was Herb Elliott who captured both the 1960 olympic gold medal and a world record in the 1,500 and mile.  Cerruty's training methods are not widely taught or recognized throughout the world in comparison to, for example, Arthur Lydiard who was leading his athletes at a similar time.  This is because Cerutty was seen as crazy to the public and he did not travel the world promoting his methods like Lydiard. However, his core principles may be extremely useful for many trail runners to enjoy and improve at their sport.

Holistic training

Cerutty’s system revolves around the whole lifestyle of the athlete. Cerruty believed that how you think, eat, sleep, think and train all affect your running. This holistic approach is substantiated by scientific research and anecdotes of athletes worldwide. Cerruty believed you have to fully develop your body and mind, not just run.  Interestingly, Cerruty also emphasised doing everything in a natural and primitive manner. This covered everything 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 uninhibited as nature intended them to be. 

This is highly applicable to trail runners who may need to adapt to their environment and scramble uphill, downhill, descend technical terrain and use a range of movement patterns. Moreover, many runners have tight hips, poor mobility and robustness due to sedentary lifestyles such as working at desk. Therefore, learning to move effectively is essential to prevent injury and enjoy running for life.

Strength and Conditioning

Cerutty was an early advocate of weight training for running.  This was pretty revoultionary in his day because many felt that strength training would lead to too much unnecessary bulk on a runner and Arthur Lydiard was a huge proponent of this belief.  Interestingly, Cerutty advocated weight training with heavy weights and with less than 5 repetitions. This is a traditional approach today in high performance strength and conditioning for runners and 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. Moreover, because of the varied nature of trail running, S & C is essential.

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 with easy controlled jogging as recovery. 

Gymnastics exercises were also used to develop an athletes strength and coordination.  He suggested using exercises such as chin-ups, rope climb, parallel bars, vaulting horse, roman rings, skip rope 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 for low impact cross training.  These are all effective in enhancing ankle stability and stiffness, pelvic stability, power, postural control, running economy and in helping a trail runner have along running life.

Running natural

Cerutty was very big on avoiding the track and other unnatural places for working out such as a treadmill in a modern context.  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.  This is highly applicable to off-road runners such as trail runners who mainly do the sport to be on the trails and in nature. Running natural and using fartlek at its purest are essential for a true trail runner to stick to the sport and improve.

Running by feel

Herb Elliott described Cerutty when saying “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".

Evidently, Cerruty installed autonomy in his athletes which is essential for the typical trail runner who may want to adapt their training to their lifestyle. Cerutty did not like fixed training schedules. and 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 fluctuated and isn’t consistent.  You never know what day you will feel great and what day you feel tired.  He truly advocated the equation of stress plus rest equals adaptation.

Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, it is clear that the coaching philosophy of Percy Cerruty aligns with the traditional values associated with trail running. Cerruty advocated a holistic approach that connected to nature. He emphasised the importance of conditioning to sustain running for life and that the runner should be a well rounded athlete. He was a pioneer to many extents, and the emphasis on the natural environment, biomechanics, strength training, listening to the body and the overall holistic approach are all very useful concepts for a trail runner to enjoy and thrive at their sport. Using some of his approach in developing your own training philosophy may help you enjoy trail running and fulfil your potential.