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Smooth Transition: Interview With Runner-Turned-Triathlete Sean Jefferson

Sean Jefferson, a 3:56 miler, took up triathlon after running injuries forced him off the track. He gives advice to other injured runners moving to triathlon, and tells about his successes and struggles in multisport.

The 3:56 miler took up triathlon after running injuries forced him off the track.

Written by: Aaron Hersh

Sean Jefferson, 3:56 miler and six-time NCAA All-American runner, started racing triathlon in 2009 after debilitating running injuries forced him off the track. Aaron Hresh of caught up with Jefferson, who spoke about his successes and struggles in multisport, gives advice to other injured runners starting to race triathlon and answers the question, “how fast can the best triathletes really run?” When and why did you switch from running to triathlon?

Jefferson says he is better able to stay injury-free when competing in triathlon as opposed to running.
Jefferson says he is better able to stay injury-free when competing in triathlon as opposed to running. Photo courtesy of Sean Jefferson.

Jefferson: I started doing triathlon in the early part of 2009, February or March. I just left the Oregon Track Club (an elite, Nike-sponsored team) because I didn’t run for about a year due to injury. I had a stress reaction in my femur and one in my talus [foot bone]. Out of eight months, I ran for one and a half. It was pretty depressing not being able to compete because it’s one of the things I love to do the most. I was doing a lot of swimming and cycling just to stay in shape. I moved back to Florida from Oregon and I was planning on training [as a runner] with my college coach. My mom had been doing a few triathlons and I wanted to see what I could do in a local sprint triathlon. I did pretty well. I think I was fourth overall. So after finishing fourth in that one, I signed up for another maybe a month later and I was second. You were only an amateur triathlete for about a year before turning pro. When did you realize you had the talent to become a pro?

Jefferson: Just for fun I wanted to do USAT Age Group Nationals and I ended up getting second overall. I was 10 seconds away from winning the whole thing. That’s when I started to think maybe I have a future in triathlon. I had been healthy for a year and had no real injuries. The reduced running, less pounding, was a little easier on my body and I was enjoying getting back to competing again. At that point, I had to decide if I was going to go back into running or continue with triathlon. I decided because I had been healthy and had some success to stick with triathlon. How did your first pro season go?

Jefferson: It went well. It’s a totally different level. I wanted to see where my swim was compared to other elites because I wasn’t really sure where I was. Getting into that first pro race and coming out two minutes behind the leader was a pretty big eye opener. I took to cycling quickly and my run off the bike has been good. My main focus last year has been to swim more like a swimmer. I had a couple top-15 finishers at major races like St. Anthony’s and I won some of the smaller local stuff. I’ve been focusing mostly on ITU-style racing, which was a little harder for me since it’s such a swim-focused race. Coming out behind and trying to play catch-up the whole race was a little tough. Being by myself or with two or three other guys was tough. It was an up-and-down season, a little frustrating at times, but a huge learning experience. What was the highlight of that year?

Jefferson: Winning Ixtapa ITU Triathlon Pan American Cup race. It got turned into a duathlon. That race was another motivator to get my swim to where it needs to be because it showed me that I could bike with and outrun the rest of those guys. It was a motivator to get in the pool to see where I could finish if I stay with the main packs. I also got ninth at ITU Duathlon World Championships. When you started racing triathlon in 2009, you were completely new to swimming. How would you recommend an age grouper in the same situation approach the swim?

Jefferson started swimming within the last couple of years.
Jefferson started swimming within the last couple of years. Photo: Sean Jefferson.

Jefferson: When I initially was injured running-wise, I was in the pool making it up as I went. The thing that helped me the most was swimming with other people or a masters group. Swimming with more experienced people who can teach you about technique and can push you in the pool is really important. It’s so much easier swimming with other people doing the same workout. It just makes the workout easier and makes swimming more enjoyable. That goes for all three of the sports, actually. When you’re trying to learn and get into the sport, find group rides, group track practices and masters groups. Training with people that have done it before and have the experience, that is the most beneficial. What are you doing to improve your swim?

Jefferson: I’ve worked a bit with Sara McLarty (McLarty is one of the fastest swimmers in the sport). She watched me swim and gave me some drills and tips. For the first two or three weeks, all I did was drills and technique work. I swim with a masters group two or three times a week and sometimes with a kids swim team. I’m swimming more with people rather than by myself, and more yards. Hopefully over the next couple of years I can get my swim to where I can stay with ITU packs. It will be a process, building the amount of yards I can handle.

Learning how to race open water is going to be my biggest challenge this year. It’s hard to learn, since you do so much training in the pool. Swimming in the pack takes time to learn. I want to get in more of those highly competitive non-drafting races in. How many yards a week are you currently swimming?

Jefferson: Swimming 30-35K a week will be as high as I go this year. If I can keep that yardage this year, I’ll build on it next year. I’m seeing improvements this year. I was swimming more like 18-20K last year. I’m doing more long days, three times a week with intensity and then totally technique-focused days between. I’m swimming longer and doing threshold sets three times a week instead of swimming moderate shorter sets four or five times a week. Do you have a normal job or are you a full-time triathlete?

Jefferson: With the level I’m at, it’s hard. I don’t make enough money to support myself. I work 20 hours a week and the only way I can compete is through sponsors. I only have a couple smaller sponsors right now. It’s such a different sport than running. I’m trying to find sponsors to get me to races. A lot of track meets will pay for athletes to come race, and you never pay an entry fee, so triathlon is quite a different experience. Plus, all the gear is expensive. It’s a lot harder for athletes entering into the sport. I’m sponsored by Litespeed Bicycles, Oakley, Saucony, Pacific Health Labs—they maker Accelerade and Endurox R4—J-Town Bikes and Wildside Racing. Without Wildside, I wouldn’t be able to go to races. They help pay for my plane tickets. What is your race schedule for the year?

Jefferson: I have my year split into two seasons. The first half of the year, I want to concentrate more on non-drafting races so I can take the next three to five months and focus on swimming and cycling. The way I look at it is this, I know right now I’m not ready to race ITU events yet, but with this type of swimming, I’m hoping to see a nice improvement in my 1500m time and transition into ITU-style racing for the second half of the season. I’m planning on doing St. Anthony’s, Miami International Triathlon, Nautica South Beach and a couple smaller local races. June and July I hope to race Continental Cup events and to compete at a world cup level by the end of the year. I want to do the Huatulco ITU Triathlon World Cup race and finish on the podium at the Duathlon World Championships. With your elite running background, do you blow through the best runners in triathlon?

Jefferson: Some of the top triathletes are really good runners. I train with Jarrod Shoemaker, and when we train together, we’re always running together. If you compare me and Jarrod, I was a faster runner in college. But, when you factor in having to swim and cycle before a run workout, it’s much more about how well you can preserve your energy and how your body reacts to those other workouts. I never feel good [during a run workout] like I did when I was just running. On certain workouts he’ll be ahead, others I’ll be ahead. It’s more about how you can run off the bike than what your PRs are. Most of the races I’ve done, I’ve had just about the fastest run split. I was one second slower than Greg Bennett at St. Anthony’s last year. I am competitive with the top guys in the sport, but it’s not like I’m blowing them away. A lot of these guys can run. You have a unique ability to answer the question, “How fast can the best triathletes really run?” So, what do you think?

Jefferson: I would say, based off how I compare to Jarrod [Shoemaker], my knowledge of my own fitness and the difference between his splits and the top ITU racers, I would have to think that Alistair Brownlee and Javier Gomez could probably run in the area of 13:4os for 5K (4:21 mile pace) and then probably under 29:00 (4:36 mile pace), high 28s, for 10K. It would be interesting at the end of the year if they set up a track meet with the ITU guys and have all the good runners race and see what their actual times would be. Then there wouldn’t be all this talk about how fast can they run. It would be cool to see all those guys go at it.