Conditioning with Duke Cross Country

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Learn what it takes to develop an aerobic base specific to running distance.

By: Chad Zimmerman

Despite what you might think, building your aerobic base does not start with marching in place to "Sweatin' to the Oldies" with Richard Simmons and his killer throwback afro.

Instead, Kevin Jermyn, head coach for women's cross country and track distance at Duke University, is the perfect starting block. He has the knowledge it takes to develop a distance runner's aerobic base. Since joining Duke's cross and track programs in 2000, Jermyn has transformed Blue Devil runners.

In 2000, 2002 and 2003, while Jermyn was serving as assistant coach, Duke's cross country team qualified for nationals. In 2004, his first year as head coach, the Blue Devils finished second at the NCAA Championships. Now, in his second year calling the shots, the team ranks number one nationwide.

On the track, Jermyn's athletes have broken every middle and distance relay record in Duke's history. Last spring, the Duke women won their first Penn Relay title, taking home the distance medley crown.

Building his runners' aerobic base is a huge element of Jermyn's success. To boost your base, tap into his expertise. Headbands and leg warmers aren't required.


Pushing too hard during a long run to develop an aerobic base is a basic distance runner mistake, according to Jermyn. "Distance runners like running set courses. Because they're very competitive and driven, they like to try to beat previous times on that course. And soon, aerobic runs become anaerobic."

You might think that's not a problem, but Jermyn disputes the thought. "Aerobic training has two goals," he says. "First and foremost, it helps you recover from hard anaerobic efforts during a meet or workout. Second, it provides a stimulus to increase your aerobic fitness. If you're running anaerobically on an aerobic training day, you won't recover or improve your aerobic base. You'll put too much stress on your body too soon, which can result in decreased fitness, illness or injury."

Jermyn advises gauging your aerobic work by your ability to talk. "To build your aerobic base, you should be running at a conversational pace—where you can hold a conversation. If you can't, you're running too fast, depriving your muscles of oxygen and working in the anaerobic realm."

STACK Says: Aerobic work is low intensity exercise; muscles are fully supplied with oxygen. Anaerobic work is exercise performed at greater intensity levels, where muscles work without oxygen.


To produce the ultimate custom workout, Jermyn suggests one simple but effective tool: a record book. Jermyn used one when he trained and competed in high school, college and professionally, and he encourages his athletes to do the same. "When planning the coming year's training, start by looking backwards," he says. "Base this year's training off the results of last year's. The best way to do this is keep a log of the number of days you ran a week, number of miles per day and total miles per week. But more important than recording numbers is to note how you felt, eventually how you raced, when you got sick and if you were sore post-workout. You can use this information in the future and tweak things to create an even better workout plan."


What can soreness tell you about your training? According to Jermyn, a lot.

1. Frequent post-workout soreness is a sign that volume and/or intensity are too high. Cut back the distance or speed of your runs until there is no next day soreness. Then, gradually increase speed and/or distance to allow your body to properly adapt to the more difficult training.

2. Soreness after a meet can be an indicator of several situations:

a. In cross country – The terrain of a new course can place new or different stresses on your body. In this situation, changing your workouts isn't necessary.

b. In track – Post-meet soreness can result from your mechanics breaking down during a race. This typically happens when you go out too fast and then fatigue early. Work on keeping your pace.

c. For both sports – If post-meet soreness happens regularly, it's likely your pre-season training wasn't effective. Soreness shouldn't result if you've trained hard and smart.

STACK Says: Volume refers to the amount of running performed during a single training session. Intensity refers to the speed at which those run(s) are completed. A high volume, low intensity run is a long run at a slow pace. A 400m sprint is an example of a low volume, high intensity run.


1. Produces a confident runner, and a confident runner always has a mental edge on race day. When you can actually feel the results of your training, confidence abounds.

2. Gives you a competitive advantage, because you know your training is more scientifically based than other athletes'. Your training forced you to get the most out of your body.

3. Eliminates fluctuations in your race and practice times.

4. Allows you to peak at the right time. Training correctly 16 or even 20 weeks before the season—by properly stressing your body, letting it adapt and then giving it the appropriate amount of rest—will help you run your best in the races that mean the most.


Tottenville High School Creds

• Two-time New York State Champion

• Three-time National High School Champion

• Winner of the Millrose Games high school mile

• PR: 4:15 mile

• PR: 9:19 two-mile

Georgetown Creds

• Team captain

• All-East

• All-Big East

• All-American

• Multiple-time national qualifier

Professional Creds

• Ran for Reebok Enclave

• Member of the victorious team at the 1998 USATF Cross Country Championship

• Has a 3:43.56 PR in the 1500m


"If you have trouble determining whether you're running at an aerobic level, you can use percentages of your maximum heart rate," Jermyn says.

For an accurate measure, invest in a heart rate monitor. Then, follow Jermyn's two quick tips for effective heart rate work.

1. "Don't use a formula to determine your max heart rate. Get the real number. Keep track of your heart rate during a time trial or really hard workout. The highest number you see is very close to your maximum heart rate."

2. "Perform aerobic work with a heart rate between 65 and 80 percent of your maximum heart rate."

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock