By T.J. Murphy
“The athlete who uses the zombie-like method lacks all the creativity and spontaneity that he was gifted with as a child.”
This quote is from Larry Myers in his biography of the late Percy Cerutty, the Australian coaching great.
Cerutty’s personal story was as compelling as his coaching methods and success. He sure didn’t seem born to be a a runner. When he was six, he suffered from double pneumonia, causing partial paralysis of his left lung.
But it didn’t stop him. In 1913, at the age of 18, he raced his first race, a 1-mile run, and won it. He would race 36 more times in the next five years, a period where he began to develop specific ideas on running technique and training theories.
According to Myers, Cerutty’s ideas stemmed from two sources—one was trying to navigate around collapsed lung and he had spent a lot of time watching race horses being trained.
In a remark reflecting his belief in value of movement quality, Cerutty said, “I have learned more from watching racehorses than any runner I’ve seen in the Olympic Games.”
But until Cerutty was 43, most of his thinking in terms of movement and human performance just talk, as he had quit racing at the age of 23. Oddly enough, it was an illness that seemed to be driving Cerutty to an early grave when he lost his job as a civil servant. Migraine headaches were eating him to the bone and Cerutty’s only respite was watching his favorite horse, Ajax, go through a workout at the track. Cerutty apparently took Ajax as an omen and resumed running himself.
Not just running, but Cerutty overhauled his diet, started doing some rather funky looking running drills, and eventually took up basic gymnastics and weight training. In his mid 50s, he started coaching.
Herb Elliott would be Cerutty’s most famous pupil. Elliott never lost a mile or 1500-meter race in his career. In the late 1950s, the Australian would become the most dominant middle distance runner of the time period, capturing the mile world record (3:54.5) and winning the gold medal (and the world record) in the 1500 meters in the 1960 Rome Olympics.
The great Herb Elliott
Back to the quote: “The athlete who uses the zombie-like method lacks all the creativity and spontaneity that he was gifted with as a child.”
My wanting to work with Brian MacKenzie in writing a book on CrossFit Endurance is staked in this thought. Between 1989 and 2011, the training programs I followed were, in every instance, pinned on mileage levels. There were tempo, track, hill workouts and some supplemental strength things, but the centerpiece was always on weekly mileage level. I actually loved all the easy-to-medium intensity base building runs, especially on the trails, but in my case, it was too much of one thing, and I’m sure my mechanics had everything to do with the dozens of injuries I collected over the years.
One thing CFE isn’t is zombie-like. It’s not easy and it’s not a short cut to anything. The CrossFit component alone involves constance variance and obsessive attention to learning new movements well. One of MacKenzie’s guiding principles in CFE is to avoid that rut of favoring workouts that you’re good at. He exhorts athletes to confront the workouts, exercises or movements that you suck at. By doing so you can convert weakness into performance and root out problems that typically express themselves in the form of an injury.
I can’t help but see Brian MacKenzie’s work and the CrossFit Endurance experiment that’s going on as similar to Cerutty’s vision back in the 50s and 60s. MacKenzie’s program promotes strength and conditioning work from the status of being supplemental to being central. When you can, you walk around barefoot and you avoid sitting as much as possible. Nutrition—as it is in the CrossFit model—is foundational. And the first priority of training in the CFE method is technique. Moving well is the key step in becoming “Unbreakable.” There are many differences between Cerutty’s program and CFE, but the central vision of health and performance is the same.
Cerutty–back in the 1950s–had concluded that modern civilization was the bane of runners. He had Elliot and the rest of his athletes running barefoot on the dirt roads around Portsea to restore their feet. He had them work on the movement of running the way a world-class swimmer fine-tunes a swim stroke. They avoided processed foods, did gymnastics, lifted weights, and experimented.
Over the next few months, my intent is serve up as much reporting as I can on what CrossFit Endurance is, what it isn’t, who it’s working for and who it’s not working for. And not only what’s going on in the CrossFit Endurance world, but in some of the history leading up to it and the future of all training methods.
Like Percy Cerutty’s methodology (and like Arthur Lydiard’s program when it first hit the map), CFE is different compared to how most people are training in this day and age to compete in distance running. It’s controversial, but it should be. As the book Unbreakable Runner suggests, it’s not for everyone, but for those runners who are looking for something different, or trying to solve the injury-mill problem or have been stale in regards to their performance, it might be worth checking out and trying. In my case, it has allowed me to be an athlete again.
“The athlete should learn to be his own coach during the conditioning period,” Cerutty said, in a nod to his belief that an athlete should do his or her own experimenting and have some fun with it. As I mentioned, CFE has prompted experimenting by runners across the country and around the globe. It’s my intention that this blog can report some of what’s happening as it’s put to the test.
In his new book, Unbreakable Runner, CrossFit Endurance founder Brian MacKenzie tears down old-fashioned run training traditions to reveal the new rules for fast, powerful running.
Unbreakable Runner includes CrossFit-based training programs for the most popular running race distances from 5K to ultra marathon.
Find Unbreakable Runner in your local bookstore, CrossFit gym, or from these online retailers: VeloPress, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo, your local bookstore