Podcast, Running, Training

Run like sub-4 minute miler and pro triathlete Sean Jefferson | EP#23

 May 15, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

Run like sub-4 minute miler and pro triathlete Sean Jefferson | EP#23

Learn how to improve your running from one of the fastest runners in the sport of triathlon.

Sean Jefferson is a former professional mid-distance runner with a mile personal best of 3:56. Injuries forced him to quit running, and instead, he ended up becoming a professional triathlete. We also talk about how to get started swimming and improve quickly when you have absolutely no swimming backround, just like Sean when he first started out.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • The type of run training Sean suggest triathletes do for best results
  • Whether you should focus on run technique or not
  • How to become a fast swimmer quickly when you have no backround in swimming
  • Sean's background and story, growing up as a runner, turning pro, and then switching to triathlon


Sean's background

3:40 -

  • Currently a professional triathlete
  • Former sub-4 minute miler​
  • Ran for the Nike professional running team based in Eugene, Oregon
  • Grew up in South Florida, played sports all the time including baseball, soccer and a (very) little bit of swimming
  • Got into running in high school and middle school and excelled at it

How did your professional running career work out for you on the Nike team in Oregon?

4:58 -

  • ​I was there for three years. For me, professional running did not really work out. That is why I transitioned into triathlon. I had more of my success in my last couple of years of collegiate racing.
  • For me, I was always injured when I was running for Nike and I did not have a lot of consistency. After three years of being consistently injured, I got into triathlon.
  • I started racing triathlons as a way to stay in shape while dealing with a big injury and I ended up pursuing triathlon.

What year was that, and since then, what happened in your triathlon career?

06:44 -

  • I started racing triathlons in 2009, and 2010 was my first professional season. When I went into triathlon I looked at training to make the Olympic team and I focused on ITU straight away and for the last six years I raced ITU.​
  • Coming from a non-swim background, it is tough to race on that level. My career highlights in ITU were probably my best finish, a top-20 at a WTS race, which was 18th in Stockholm a couple of years ago. I’ve had a couple of top-20 World Cup finishes but nothing that compared to when I was running.
  • A lot of it was a hit or miss on the swim so some races I was completely out of it and some races you end up making the pack and get to the front and like the one in Stockholm I finished top 20. That was always my battle with ITU, I was always trying to make the pack.

What are your goals now for triathlon?

08:50 -

  • I got hurt early last year in March. I started racing the World Cups in Australia and New Zealand and got hurt in the middle of it and that pretty much ended my Olympic chase for last year. I know I was on the borderline long shot anyway.
  • I was training a lot but I was trying to refocus and decide on what I want to do and ended up doing my first half Ironman at the end of last year. I think that is more of what I will do this year like Oceanside and St. George and get into more of the half distances this year and get a little bit more away from ITU which I am pretty much done with now.

What was your run training like through your career?

09:50 -

  • The things that I think worked the best for me in running was transitioning from a really good high school runner to a really good collegiate runner where I run 3:56 for the mile. I broke our school collegiate record at Indiana which is where we have had maybe 5 or 6 Olympians who were at Indiana before me, and I broke some really stellar guys' records like Bob Kennedy, Jim Spivey, and these were Olympians competing and trying to win a medal and I broke their school record.
  • I was a good miler but I was also a three-time All American in cross country, so I could run 10k on the grass and still be competitive. I had a pretty good range from the mile up to 5 and 10k.
"Most of my collegiate training was based on threshold running, so I was a miler and pretty much raced only the mile or 1,500 but I trained more like a 5k, maybe even a little bit 10k training."
  • So I was running 80 to 90 miles a week in cross country season, 75-80 during track season and most of my training was built around threshold instead of high end intensity.
  • This is more of the stuff that got me injured when I got into Oregon track club. It was trying to combine too much of the intensity with higher mileage. I kept my mileage the same when I went to run for Nike and I was running 70-85 miles a week, but I doing three track sessions a week.
  • Like I said, it would be 4, 5 or 6 months at a time being healthy and then I would crack and break, get injured and then have to start over. It just did not work for me, it was too much building intensity while doing too much volume which was not a good mix for me. Some people could handle it but my best success was when I was doing a lot more threshold running and then sprinkling in high intensity occasionally, not all the time.​

Can you give us a couple of examples of your bread and butter threshold workout that you did?

12:41 -

  • One of my favorite workouts is a 6-mile progression run. I start it at 5:30 per mile pace and try to cut it down to 5-minute pace. That is just a moderate run, not a high intensity hard run. This is done during the early part of the season and your base building phase.
  • I view those workouts as more strength building and aerobic, like pushing your aerobic threshold instead of running so you’re completely exhausted at the end. Ideally you finish that run and feel like you could have gone another mile or two.
  • Then during the course of your base building season, you're progressing that run to a little bit longer depending on which races you are preparing for in the race season. If I was racing ITU, I would probably use a progression run of 6-8 miles. Someone who is doing a half marathon or full marathon at the end of a triathlon, I would be building that even further into 15-16 miles.​

How does your run training these days fit into the big picture of triathlon training?

14:22 -

  • With ITU, I was so focused on swimming that even my running took a backseat to everything. It was all swim focused.
  • Going into the non-draft half Ironman stuff it is much more bike-run focused. So instead of swimming 5 or 6 days a week, I am swimming 3 to 4 days now. Biking has become more of the main focus over this past year.​

How much do you train and what are the proportions in the three disciplines?

15:10​ -

  • The duration of training hasn’t changed much. I was probably training 20 to 25 hours a week last year and I am probably training the same hours this year. It is just the proportion of hours spent.
  • When I was in heavy swim training I would swim 6 to 9 times a week, and now I am swimming 4 times but I am spending much more time on the bike, building specific bike strength instead of trying to get faster in the pool. It is much more of maintaining the gains I did make over the years in the pool and then just really working on building strength on the bike.​

If you consider different scenarios: a competitive short-course triathlete, and a mid-picker or even beginner triathlete, how would a generalized run program look for somebody like that?

16:38 -

"The biggest thing with a triathlete of any level is knowing paces and how to pace himself, so that I think is the biggest thing to learn with triathlon."
  • If you go to a spin class, you ride really, really hard and you come out of that class saying that it was so hard and you feel that you made big gains in it. With running, if you do that you will continually get injured.
  • The most important things for the running progression path for any triathlete I think is one, it's something their body can handle physically and two, something that fits into their schedule and it actually makes sense.
  • If you are a good runner, naturally you may not need to run as much as someone who really needs to work on it.
  • It is one of those things that people get caught up with. With triathlon it is not that important. It is scheduling in two to three quality sessions a week and a long run and everything else is preparing for your main sets, your main sessions. It is hard to put a cookie cutter program for anyone.​

​How important do you consider running form and technique for age group triathletes?

21:09 -

  • I personally don’t try to correct anyone’s form.
  • My philosophy is there are things that can help correct form such as running hills, doing strides, just working on faster turnover for short periods of time.
  • The biggest part I think is consistency and building up on volume in a responsible and smart way, so someone isn’t consistently getting injured.
  • I find it that it tends to be inefficient if someone thinks about trying to lift their knees higher, do faster cadence that is not efficient for them personally. I think each person will end up eventually with the right amount of training and find the form that is most efficient for them. Trying to force something that is not efficient for someone is not going to make them faster.​

Key takeaway

Don’t try to force running form upon yourself, let it come to you naturally, by staying consistent and using things like hill running and strides.

Talk about swimming, what was your baseline level and then your progression like?

22:29 -

  • When I first started, I just went and joined a masters club and was just swimming. I had no idea about paces and times. I did not know the difference between a 50 meter pool and a 25-yard pool and that there are big time differences. I thought that if you swim a hundred in a 25-yard pool and a hundred in a 50-meter pool the time should be the same. That was back in 2009.
  • I joined a training group Clermont, Florida and they had a couple of pros in it and we were just doing workouts. I don’t think I was able to hold a 1:25 yard pace. I wasn’t even making a 1:30 pace for 100 meters. 
  • We did not have a lot swim technique coaching either, I just jumped in and started swimming with a couple of pros and doing what they were doing. Eventually I realized that I need more technique and I probably need to swim more yardage than the other pros that have been doing this for a long time.
  • So I joined like a kid’s swim team, like the high school team that were swimming in Clermont, and swam with them 3 days a week. My longest session before joining them was like 4,000 yards. I then started swimming with that team 8,000 to 10,000 meters, three times a week, so it was a drastic jump for my three main sessions.
  • That made a big difference but I still wasn’t getting enough personal attention or specific training that I felt like I needed because all the kids and masters swim teams still do a lot of non-freestyle and work on technique like kicking which I didn’t need.
  • Eventually I found Gerry Rodrigues and moved to California to train with him, and I've trained with Gerry for the last four years. My first two years is when I made my biggest improvements.
"That is when I was swimming my 50 to 60 thousand yards a week. I was swimming twice a day three times a week, and once a day all other days except for Sunday and put pretty much everything else on the back burner."
  • I was still biking and running but it was such a low level that I was just trying to survive those 60k weeks. That and the combination with the open water training that we do here is kind of what made for me all the difference in really learning how to race and draft and how to sight. Pretty much all the things that pertain to triathlon swimming that you can’t get in a pool.​

What were your main takeaways? What helped you improve the most?

25:45 -

  • ​One is consistency. This is a key to if you want to be good at something, you have to do it consistently.
  • Having a coach that is committed to having you get better and really care about what you are doing and not just there standing on deck, shouting a workout but actually cares and will plan out what is going to make me the best. There wasn’t anybody else doing 60,000 yards a week in our program, it was just me. He (Gerry) was giving that to me because that is what I needed. It was specific to me.
  • If you are committed and you have a good coach and you follow the program then I think that is the smartest way to get faster and better.

Key takeaways - how to get better at swimming

  • Be consistent
  • Have a good coach that plans your training for you and your needs

For both running and swimming, are there any mistakes that you feel that you made that did not work out for you?

27:02 -

  • ​Definitely swimming. If I could go back, I would have found a swim coach that checked all the boxes that I was looking for straightaway when I turned professional. The first few years, I was out with a coach who was remote, so he wasn’t even there. I was just getting a worksheet that was on a piece of paper and going to the pool and doing it with three other athletes. It was not even written specifically for me, it was written for a group of people. If I could go back, I would find a coach who would give me the specific things I need straightaway and I probably would have saved two years of trying to learn on my own and figuring out through mistakes.
  • It is hard to say with running. I was not happy with how my professional career went. I just think it was part of the sport. In running, when you take risks you end up getting injured. You can either take risks and be injured or sometimes don’t end in injury and you are really, really good. Unfortunately for me, I ended up being injured in some critical times of my running career where I had friends who were on the same program who ended up making the Olympic team. It is one of those things that you ride such a fine line. Unlike biking and swimming, if you go over the line in running you get injured. Whereas in biking and swimming, you may be just really, really tired for a long time or for a couple weeks. You take a couple of easy weeks and you can come out of it, but in running, injury. I was out for close to a year in 2008 with two running injuries. It is a much finer line to tread and harder to pinpoint when you should pull back and when you should press forward.

Rapid fire segment

29:50 -

  • What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? I don’t know if it is a habit but I really enjoy sleeping and taking a nap during the day.​
  • What is your favorite piece of gear or equipment? In swimming, paddles. In cycling, my bike S-Works Venge.
  • What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to triathlon, running or swimming? The Tower 26 podcast.

Workout of the week - 200s on the track

  • Perform a full 20-30 minute warm up, including jogging, some dynamic movements and openers, and strideouts. 
  • Choose your number of sets based on current ability. Intermediate 4-6, advanced 6-8, elite 8-10.

    Example with 8 sets:

    8 x (4 x 200 meters, 20 seconds standing recovery), 1 minute extra recovery between sets.

    Run the 200s at roughly your open 3k race pace, or simply as fast as you can sustain for all the reps.
  • Cooldown 10-15 minutes

Links and resources

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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