MAF, Hof and Cerutty

Percy Cerutty is one of the forgotten coaches of the 20th century. His most notable protégé was Herb Elliott who won the 1,500m gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics and knocked six seconds off the world record for a mile, that’s pretty good to have on your resume. Cerutty’s methods were consider eccentric and bizarre yet I found some commonality between what he coached and the work of Wim Hof and Phil Maffetone. It’s useful to understand their common ground as, while Hof and Maf aren’t specifically coaching runners, the underlying principle is important to all distance runners and building health. Let’s begin by recapping Maf and Hof!

Phil Maffetone

I’ve discussed Maffetone’s work at length previously. While he wasn’t a running coach, his work as a chiropractor helped many long distance athletes improve their times. His main concept is to build the aerobic system so exercise becomes fuelled by burning fat. Athletes do this by training to a heart-rate calculated using their age, muscle-testing for weakness and changing the diet to eat fewer processed foods, grains, dairy products and animal fats while eating more vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.

Coming up with a definition of health is an interesting conundrum, because when you when try, it ends up being defined by a negative. The negative being the absence of illness, injury or any other way the body may be malfunctioning. Just saying health is the perfect functioning of the body doesn’t say much.

Maffetone’s method is about eliminating or reducing, to an allowable level, those things which cause ill-health. When many athletes train they often do so with too much intensity which causes the parasympathetic nervous system to rev up, create adrenaline and generally cause the body to become unhealthy due to the waste products caused by anaerobic metabolism. Maf focuses them on improving the aerobic system to delay the anaerobic system from kicking in and lower its overall use.

While he never specifically coached athletes, he helped them get healthy by improving their aerobic base. His best known success is Mark Allen, who went from runner-up in multiple Hawaii Ironman races to being a five-time winner.

Wim Hof

I recently read and wrote about Hof’s book “The Wim Hof Method” and the three core tenets of his system. Improving the aerobic system by taking cold showers, breathing deeply and mentally focusing to achieve goals. Like any good system of improvement, his method starts off with small challenges and gradually increases so you can contend with more.

Hof is not a running coach either and while he has run a marathon barefoot up Mount Everest and swum 200m under sea ice; I consider his most impressive achievement to be the story of how researchers injected him with E-coli virus. In 16,000+ previous trials participants always developed mild flu-like symptoms from the injection – yet Hof didn’t. A subsequent experiment then saw him train twelve people in his method who also remained healthy despite the E-coli injection. The scientists were amazed yet it seemed natural to Hof.

Like Maffetone, Wim Hof explains the benefits of his method as coming from building the aerobic system up. He talks about how an improved aerobic system keeps the body functioning in its naturally alkaline state whereas anaerobic metabolism pushes it into an acidic state. He explains how deep breathing suppresses inflammation and cleans out waste products in the lymphatic system.

While their descriptions of the specifics may differ, the underlying principle is the same of improving the aerobic system to maintain health and create a strong immune system.

Percy Cerutty

So that’s an outline of Phil Maffetone and Wim Hof’s methods and rationales towards keeping your body healthy. Now we look at Percy Cerutty and how through his own experiences he discovered similar principles and put them into action to turn Herb Elliott into the world record holder for the mile and 1,500m as well as remaining undefeated in thirty-six mile races.

Herb Elliot and Percy Cerutty running barefoot strides

In Beyond Winning, Gary M. Walton writes “Born in 1895, Cerutty grew up in a working-class suburb of Melbourne. He was a weak, sickly, and underprivileged child. When he was six years old, he contracted a case of double pneumonia that caused partial paralysis of his left lung. For years, heavy exercise and especially running caused sever discomfort. He suffered from chronic migraine headaches and was usually sick after races. [Cerutty entered mile races, winning ten – one in 4:32] When he quit running in his early twenties, his health continued to slide. By the time he was 43, he had suffered from a nervous and physical breakdown requiring a six-month leave from his job as a telephone technician.”

This is a man who was clearly struggling with his health but during his six-months off, Cerutty decided to challenge his mind and body. It was do-or-die. He rebuilt his confidence by building up to diving off the high tower at St Kilda Baths, took up weightlifting, hiking and swam in the icy Yarra River near his home. He was beginning to develop his back-to-basics, no comfort Stotan philosophy – a mixture of Spartanism and Stoicism.

He created a weekend training camp at Portsea where runners would come to live in bunkhouses, run up sand dunes and eat raw foods. Walton states breakfast was “rolled oats, nuts, dried fruits, bananas, raw cabbage, brown bread and cheese”. But it wasn’t just about physical exercise, in the evenings they would talk and read books of philosophy and poetry, a purification of the mind.

A typical day at the camp:

  • 7am – 5 mile run before breakfast wherever they wanted to go
  • 8am – breakfast (as detailed above)
  • 9am – swimming, surfing or outdoor chores like chopping wooding, painting, carpentry
  • Noon – training and lectures followed by another swim
  • 2pm – lunch – fish and fresh fruit
  • 3pm – siesta
  • 4pm – weight training (a new concept in the 1950s)
  • 5pm – 10 mile run along dirt roads ending at the sea
  • 7pm – tea and general discussion on a variety of topics led by Percy
  • 11pm – lights out

One of the features of the Portsea half-acre training camp was a 60⁰ sand dune rising 80ft which the record to run up was 11 seconds and which Elliott had run up and down forty-two times on a another occasion. There was the Hall Circuit – 1mile 285yds – which Elliot had covered in 5min21 – as well as a ¼ mile Stewart Circuit which ended up a steep hill. Training wasn’t solely around the camp but also took in the local dirt roads, parks and golf course.

While Cerutty trained Elliot and other runners to world records, his aim was not specifically to win titles or run times. It was about getting the absolute maximum out of oneself. His Stotan creed was about removing the crutches and supports that people of the era were beginning to let creep into their lives. When he toured America, Cerutty was appalled at how Americans were flabby, drinking and smoking too much. While this may have been judgemental and critical we should remember he believed in what he preached and went from constant ill health in his younger years to being able to run a sub-3 marathon at age 50 which set the Victoria state record at a time when the world record was 2hr26.

All information on Cerutty taken from Walton’s “Beyond Winning” published in 1992.


It’s clear there is a similarity between Wim Hof Method and Cerutty’s training camp using nature to harden the mind and body. Swimming in cold water is used by both as a way to strengthen the will; but Cerutty probably never realised, unlike Hof, that it is strengthening the aerobic system as well. Even so, running on sand, up and down dunes would have had Cerutty’s runners breathing deeply just as Hof recommends. The overlap between their methods seems notable.

While there is less immediate commonality between Cerutty and Maffetone, both recommend a careful diet which involves natural foods and avoids processed ones. Cerutty’s diet though tended to be more carbohydrate-based whereas Maffetone’s doesn’t. But Cerutty was training runners like Herb Elliott for middle distance events where carbohydrates are the primary source of energy whereas the Ironman triathlons Mark Allen took part in need fat to be a key fuel source.

What Cerutty was discovering in his training camps was how to build the aerobic system through a combination of daily distance running at a time when these things were rarely understood. The daily regimen of running for half an hour in the morning, another hour in the evening as well as cross-training with sea swims or surfing would certainly have left athletes tired but improving their aerobic system. The overlap with Wim Hof’s Method is clear and Hof’s method has clear overlap with Phil Maffetone.

All distance runners will improve their times and capabilities by building their aerobic capacity and endurance. While the Stotan approach of Percy Cerutty is no longer necessary, it is easily achieved with a committed approach to modern training methods. If you’d like to me to help you become a healthier, better runner – please contact me to discuss online coaching, training reviews and plans.

Going anaerobic

I remember when I was in my twenties, and I knew absolutely nothing about how to train for running. I just thought you ran as fast as you could for 10-20 mins and assumed you’d get faster. Compared to now, there was a dearth of information on how to train although there were books on it; but anyone who was decent learned how to run by the osmosis of running with others at a club.

These days there’s more information, jargon and approaches to getting better than ever before. Although it wasn’t running, I remember meeting some rowers – which as another endurance sport mirrors running – and one of them talking about “going anaerobic” and “oxygen debt”. These phrases were about as technical as people got in those days and while “anaerobic” still gets bandied around; the concept of oxygen debt is one that’s rarely mentioned these days.

My understanding of going anaerobic back then was based on the idea that sprinters use anaerobic energy while distance runners use the aerobic system. It was one-or-another in my head and anaerobic equalled the breathlessness of sprinting. The truth is more complicated as both groups use varying degrees of aerobic and anaerobic energy in their events. This post isn’t going to break that down but it’s taken me some years to get closer to the truth about when we go anaerobic. The fact is any breathlessness, which can happen for an untrained runner at paces as slow as nine or ten minute miles involves anaerobic metabolism. You don’t have to be running at high speeds to go anaerobic.

When you read running books that mention anaerobic training there is much confusion as different authors define it differently. Again, I’m not going to dive too far into that debate other than to say some authors see it as what happens when you exceed V̇O2max. Others believe it is what happens when you exceed Lactate Threshold / Anaerobic Threshold (or whatever term they use to name the point where you begin to exhale harder and faster). Whereas I believe it starts much earlier than that, back at what may be called the Aerobic Threshold, but is confusingly also called the Lactate Threshold by some groups, and consequently I refer to as the First Threshold to try and avoid confusion. Even then I’m not entirely correct about when it happens – it’s simply a nice approximation.

What I can say with confidence is that going anaerobic happens any time your aerobic system is overwhelmed. If you’ve been sitting quietly on the sofa and suddenly jump up and run upstairs; your heart doesn’t have time to speed up to supply more oxygen so you have to go anaerobic to meet the demand. For a while you go into “oxygen debt” until the body is able to handle the exertion – which is partly about getting to the top of the stairs and stop the high intensity work; and partly because the heart races and you breath hard in response. Another example is the start of a run, you’ll be using anaerobic energy until the body can meet the demand; once you’re settled in every thing steadies up but if you come to a hill and start to get out of breath going up it – yep, you’ve gone anaerobic again.

All of this is simply background information setting up my next post on how the body responds to going anaerobic. It’s very easy to get bogged down in the detail, I’m trying to keep it simple but if you have questions please do ask in the Comments.