The Fight of Sebastian Kienle

The 2014 IRONMAN World Champion Sebastian Kienle has been battling various injuries and setbacks recently but he is determined to push forward. In this interview he talks about his injuries, the rehab, treading lightly, racing, sensitive topics and much more.

Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Sebastian.

Sebastian Kienle: I missed those interviews to be honest. Over the years I thought I become a little tired talking about triathlon. Well, I really missed all aspects of the sport last year.

ST: You have been plagued with various injuries. What is the current status of your physical health?

Sebastian: 90% I would say, I still struggle with a tendinosis in my left Achilles but it is an injury that you can manage very well. It takes time to fully recover and I have to be careful with running volume and intensity, but I don’t have to take a complete break. What bothers me more is that it was really my own mistake this time. In the leadup to Challenge Daytona I got a little too excited and I have to say I just completely messed it up. I’m so disappointed with myself, I felt that I’m on the edge, but instead of telling my coach I wanted to keep pushing. Not a problem, if you’re a first-year pro or 21-years old.

ST: When did the Achilles pain actually start and what have you done to address it?

Sebastian: Three weeks after Daytona. I had calf problems leading up to the race and instead of taking it easy I wanted to push further. If you have one chance you either go all in, because you just have one chance or you play it safe, because you only have one chance. A wise man once said: “there is a thin line between fit and fucked…”

ST: Have you been on that thin line more than once?

Sebastian: Yes, but most of the times I did not know that the line was coming. This time I was standing with one foot on the other side and instead of taking a step back, I did one forward… Injuries are part of the sport. A lot of athletes get taught to harden the fuck up, to suck it up and don’t talk about it. If the sport is a fight against yourself, I don’t see that you win this way. I don’t think I have more issues than others, but I’ve been more open about it.

ST: Last weekend you finally got to race again at the Challenge Riccione and you had a superb run to close out your day. While maybe the whole race did not go as planned, I believe you were still pleased with result.

Sebastian: I have to say it was so great to be on a start line again, pre-race nerves, post-race ice cream, everything felt a little better. You summed it up quite well, the swim was definitely sub-par, the bike was very tactical and the run better than expected. But just the perspective of having races again is quite a good boost for the motivation in training.

ST: Talk about the swim.

Sebastian: It was basically built for me, really calm saltwater, wetsuit and due to the COVID-19 rules we had a wave start: five athletes every ten seconds. I was in the first wave, so you had no stress at the start and there was a second chance to swim in the slipstream of the next wave. Still I managed to not even be close to what I thought I was capable of as I made quite some progress in the water. I think part of the problem is that I’m way too tight before the start. You need to be a little bit relaxed for swimming fast. I think I’m more like a porcupine on a highway.

ST: What about the bike?

Sebastian: The guys rode pretty fair even if there was no referee observing our group. I did not have the legs to just ride away. So it was quite tactical. Trying not to waste too much energy but also keep the front group close enough to still have a chance with a good run. But to be honest, when I dismounted, I was not too happy. I think I tried to be too “smart” instead of just going hard at one point.

ST: Talking about the bike itself, have you added any unique details to it?

Sebastian: I think there are plenty of pictures. I leave it to that. The other guys became quite good with what was a big advantage for me a couple of years ago. But the new Scott Plasma is a very fast bike out of the box, its not that easy to find things you can tune.

ST: With that 1:11 run you caught quite a few of your competitors. Were you at all worried about the Achilles holding up and at what point of the run did you feel confident?

Sebastian: During the run it’s not that much of a problem. I was more worried about the day after. I left transition with Thomas Steger and he was absolutely flying from the start. But after the first two kilometers I checked my watch and I knew that I was going quite well. Catching a lot of the guys gave me quite some confidence and with 10k to go I knew that the podium would still be possible.

ST: I had noticed a pic of you on your treadmill with a support brace attached to it. Do you run often like that and how much impact does that take off your body?

Sebastian: It’s a quite genius idea. We tried to do something similar ourselves, but it never really worked that well. It’s made by a small company from the US named Lever. I usually run with about 85-95% of my bodyweight. I just use a scale to adjust the system. I usually use it once or twice a week. Either to just get an extra session in without putting too much extra strain on my Achilles or to be able to run faster with a lower HR. It’s easy to travel with, so it also helps in training camps. I also found it quite helpful to run with a good technique after I restarted training because you often start to change your natural running technique, if you have pain. By reducing the impact to the amount where I don’t feel pain, I’m able to build back confidence.

ST: Do you have to wear special harness or shorts when you use that Lever brace?

Sebastian: Yes, shorts in different sizes out of neoprene with rollers on the side.

ST: How much of your running do you do on the treadmill versus running outside and do you then run on Zwift?

Sebastian: Right now, I run about 25% on the treadmill. I love to run on Zwift, even if it’s not the same as cycling on Zwift, but it definitely makes it way more fun.

ST: Before Riccione the last race for you was Challenge Daytona I believe. I believe you were fully fit and ready but a cold decided to interfere.

Sebastian: The cold was not really a problem. I got a little nervous because I was worried it might be COVID-19 but I got myself tested five times. The last two weeks before the race were just very bad. I had some serious troubles with my left calf but ultimately my left leg went completely numb at the start of the bike. I tried to unclip, get out of the saddle, etc., but it went numb again within a couple of minutes. I was worried that I might have endofibrosis and got that checked after the race. It was strange, the whole summer of 2020 I felt absolutely indestructible, then I broke my collarbone, had an inflammation in my right hip, a calf injury, this numbness in my left leg, Achilles problems. I seriously doubted that my body was still able to do this sport at that level.

ST: Trouble usually has company. But hopefully you got it out of the way now.

Sebastian: Unfortunately, it does not work like that. Often, one problem leads to another one. But overall I’m pretty happy. In 2018 I was not even sure if I would be able to continue after I had to quit in Kona. And both my Achilles where fine till the end of 2020.

ST: Were you at all worried about traveling leading up to Daytona?

Sebastian: Because of COVOD-19? Not really, I knew I need to be super careful, my wife was already pregnant in her third month and I did not want to risk anything. But I think the organization did a pretty good job and at the end it’s always up to you. But I was indeed worried about my calf and about being able to enter the US.

ST: What lesson did you take away from that event?

Sebastian: That I still love the sport a lot, that I still have the burning desire to win races. That I really missed to see all the other guys, that Challenge was able to put on a great event under these circumstances. That the PTO kept their promise to take care about the professionals in this difficult time. That I need to come back. [smiles]

ST: I know you already have had your COVID-19 vaccine. How difficult was it for you to get it and did you get push back from any of your fans when you shared that fact?

Sebastian: Germany took the approach to try to get the vulnerable groups vaccinated first. I was in group 2, which included two close contact persons for pregnant women. As somebody, who is strongly relying on the health and the absolutely top performance of my body, I wanted to use my range to reach out to people and tell those who might be skeptical that the risk versus reward profile is definitely quite good. I got AstraZeneca for the first shot, which had quite a bad reputation in Germany. In Germany some people make vaccination something political. I knew that my post was spread in some telegram groups and some trolls that don’t believe in science started to comment on my Facebook post. Others where pissed because they thought I got vaccinated because I’m a famous sports person, etc. I know, some athletes can’t handle that and therefore they never comment on anything else than sport.

ST: You have always been quite outspoken, and many people really appreciate that. But when you get pushback like this does that make you want to step away from non-sport topics?

Sebastian: It’s easier if you’re 36 and not 21. And you also realize that you have a certain responsibility. But yes, sometimes my wife stops me from getting into a twitter argument during off-season. I guess you have to pick your fights.

ST: What is next for you?

Sebastian: I want to get some races in before the beginning of July. Challenge St. Pölten, the PTO supported middle distance at the TriGames in Cagnes Sur Mer, Challenge Gdansk and either 70.3 European Championships in Elsinore or Challenge Walchsee.

ST: I know you raced mountain bikes before, but what about gravel events? How big are they in Germany and have you had interest along those lines?

Sebastian: Not as big as they are in the US, but you can read my mind. Why not using the engine and enjoying this lifestyle for two or so years after the end of my professional triathlon career? I already have a list.

Images 1-3 © S.Mazzoni | Mitchell Media
Image 4 © Sebastian Kienle
Image 5 © Talbot Cox / PTO
Image 6 © Ingo Kutsche