‘A Body Built on Pain’

The Training of Herb Elliott

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I find that orthodox training is drudgery because it’s so unnatural to run for hours on end on a circular track.”    Herb Elliott

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In 1954, running a trial for Percy Cerutty in Perth (Western Australian Newspapers Ltd.) -From ‘THE GOLDEN MILE’ (c)


Personal Bests

  • 800m: 1:46.70 (estimated from 880 yard time of 1.47.30)
  • 1500m: 3:35.60
  • Mile:  3:54.50


  • Olympic 1500m Gold, Rome 1960.
  • Commonwealth Games Gold One Mile, Cardiff, 1958.
  • Commonwealth Games Gold 880 yards, Cardiff, 1958.
  • Former world record holder over 1500m and Mile. Held the 1500m world record for 9 years and the mile world record for 4 years.

“I like to vary my training venues day by day, running on a golf course one day, the next day in a park, then on a racecourse, up and down the hills flanking the Shrine in Melbourne, along the Yarra River and even over cow paddocks. The change of scenery, the music of the birds and the sight of grazing cattle and sheep is soul-freeing and makes a training session real joy.”  Herb Elliott

Base Training

“I train eleven months of the year, half that period being devoted to strengthening work. Here is one of my typical weeks when I was eighteen years of age. (Younger athletes perhaps should not attempt quite so much and older ones a little bit more. It’s really a matter for personal judgment.)”  – Herb Elliott

Monday: A ten-mile run at any pace I felt like setting, always finishing hard over the last two miles or so.

Tuesday: Six or seven miles in the morning. Weight-lifting in the evening.

Wednesday: Ten miles hard against the clock.

Thursday: Six or seven miles in the morning. Weights in the evening.

Friday: Rest.

Saturday: Faster ‘fun’ work-out at lunch-time on the track. A hard five miles or so in the evening.

Sunday: Eight to ten miles in the morning. Eight to ten miles hard in the afternoon.

As Elliott matured, base training consisted mainly of long hard runs of between 8 to 16 km. The occasional (once a month on average) 32km run was also completed. As were sand hills (more below).

The estimated average mileage during this period was 60 to 80 miles per week.

“In the winter and spring of 1957 I must have run 2500 miles in training and lifted thousands of pounds in weights”  –  Herb Elliott

Sand Hills

“Another severe test is an eighty foot sand hill, grade one in two, close to the ocean. It took Percy five years to build up enough strength to run to the top. My peak effort was forty-two times up the hill and down in succession. Ian Beck has doubled that number”.  –  Herb Elliott

This particular sand hill, with a grade of 2 in 1, plays a vital part in the normal Portsea training routine – From the ‘GOLDEN MILE’

During Elliott’s training stints at Portsea, under the close eye of Percy Cerutty, sand hill repetitions played a large role in strength development. These sessions were usually completed during the winter phase, but would sometimes be performed closer to races.


“The ideal way of strengthening without producing bulk is by lifting heavy weights for a minimum time.

At Portsea and at Frank Sedgman’s gym, when I prepared for my comeback to athletics, my practice was to employ one of the heavier weight exercises in three sets, with three to five repetitions. If I couldn’t do the exercise three times I knew the weight was too heavy; if I lifted the weight more than five times it obviously was too light. In this way I added further power to the upper part of my body, which already was strong from my rowing days at Aquinas, thus adding to my confidence and aggressiveness for the battles ahead.” –  Herb Elliott

Herb Elliott and Percy Cerutty -From ‘THE GOLDEN MILE’ (c)

Herb, and his coach Percy Cerutty, were massively into weights. Herb’s physique makes most current day runners look rather scrawny.

Training Leading into Races

“My training immediately before the racing season is featured by more intensive pace work” – Herb Elliott

Below is a sample week of Herb’s training just before a competition period:

Monday: Between six and ten 440s or 880s followed by two or three miles of free running.

Tuesday: Five miles flat-out on the tan course outside the Melbourne Botanical Gardens.

Wednesday: Train with sprinters – a relaxation.

Thursday: Thirty minutes or so of sprint-jogs. (In a sprint-jog you jog round a track, build-up speed for fifteen yards, then sprint for thirty yards, slow down and jog again, performing this routine twice in every lap.)

Friday: Rest

Saturday: Three to six miles fiat-out on the track.

Sunday: Ten miles hard.

Breasting the tape in the Victorian mile championship at Olympic Park, Melbourne (The Herald and Weekly Times Ltd., Melbourne) From ‘THE GOLDEN MILE’ (c)
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  1. Years ago I read Herb Elliott’s “The Golden Mile,” later entitled “The Herb Elliott Story,” and found it very inspiring. Herb’s training was mostly off the running track and designed for the mental toughness and not the physical development. He declared that during a training run if he thought he gave-in one bit to pain and agony he’d deliberately run harder to punish himself more. He said regardless of right or wrong it was his attitude at the time. Elliott like mostly to train alone because just the thought of another person with him distracted his concentration. Every individual is different and his or her training should be designed in accordance to that difference. Whatever Herb Elliott did during training it worked for him enabling him, like heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano in boxing, to retire undefeated in the mile and 1500 meters.

  2. I have an original copy of “The Golden Mile” and love its insights. Great comments by Herb on lifting heavier weights for upper body strength. A good guide to go by, esp for middle distance runners. A lot of guys lift light weights or don’t lift weights at all for upper body. A missing ingredient for many.

  3. When you’re the best in the world at a given sport, it is a truly small club – a club of one. And when it is in an endurance running (or solo rowing or cross country skiing or other solitary hard sport), the club gets very, very particular. It’s all about what training regime fits that outstanding individual, what makes them tick. In that sense, Herb Elliot was in a club of one, although with a great coach, some fierce competition in Australia and internationally, and likely a loyal hometown audience.

    One can see parallels in other sports than distance running. When Tiger Woods swings the golf club, Sidney Crosby handles the puck or Serena Williams hits a hard shot from the baseline, they’re similarly focused and coming from a place most athletes can’t even envision – they’re at the top, sometimes way above the competition, and what they do is a product of intense training and ruthless pursuit of excellence, over years, decades.

  4. Hii…im malaysian and also national record holder for 1500m, im so inspired by Herb Elliott’s story was given me so much pride be a metric miler, not only about endurance but also the mental toughness and also planning racing strategies one of the most important mission for every distance runner.
    Herb Elliott is one of the person who teaching us about, the important of mental toughness and to break the mental barrier to next level in metric mile.

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