Triathlons are grueling events consisting of three separate endurance disciplines- swimming, biking, and running.
Separately, each discipline comes with its risks for injuries, but performed sequentially; the entire body can be subject to extreme loads and stresses. Whether acute or chronic, injuries within triathlons can stem from multiple factors.
By understanding the stresses put on the body while swimming, biking and running, we can learn ways to help avoid the risk of future injuries associated with triathlons.
Are you new to the disciplin of a triathlon?
Read our beginner-friendly guide to preparing for a triathlon.
Understanding the Components
All three events are performed right after each other. No breaks, no rest times, no stopping until the event is finished.
While distances of triathlons may be different, the standard “Olympic” distance is a 1.5km swim, followed by a 40km bike ride and concluding with a 10km run.
Due to the physical demands and high level of endurance needed to complete a triathlon, terrain, changes in equipment, and transitions between disciplines can be crucial to avoid injury.
Swimming encompasses upper body, core, and lower body movements more so than running or biking. It is literally a full-body workout with every stroke through the water.
While swimmers only have contact with the water, joint and muscle pain are still a common occurrence.
The most common swimming injury is the swimmer’s shoulder.
Swimmer’s shoulder is a generic term, commonly referring to the overuse of the glenohumeral joint during strokes. This overuse causes inflammation, reduced range of motion, decreased strength, and joint laxity.
Pain and discomfort can become worse if the swimmer continues to train at the same level of intensity and regularity as pre-injury.
Swimmers can also develop low back pain over time. The pain is primarily due to the horizontal position along the water that swimmers perform in. As swimming is the first phase of the triathlon, the lumbar spine is placed in an extended position for some time, leading to pain and stiffness
Hell, on Wheels
Entering the second phase of the triathlon competitors are running out of the water to get to their bikes to hit the road as fast as they can.
Participants rush to bike the second leg on open roads, at high speeds, in a large group, all headed in the same direction.
During and after this transition from water to land, triathletes may be more prone to more debilitating injuries at this stage.
These injuries can be a result of impact (crashes or falls), overuse, or even improper technique or bike fit. Injuries due to crashes or falls can be unexpected and unavoidable accidents that can occur amongst the cyclists.
Crashes can cause fractures, lacerations, contusions, concussions, and even death in very extreme cases.
While some lacerations or contusions can be treated quickly with the cyclist returning to the event, severe bleeding, fractures, and head injuries often cause a competitor to be removed from competition for further treatment.
Overuse injuries also pose a common threat to triathlon competitors, often stemming from form, technique, and bike fit.
Common overuse injuries during the cycling stage include neck pain and low back pain from the prolonged bent over position on the bike.
This position can cause postural changes, affecting other muscles in the body. Knee pain is also a common overuse injury.
Knee pain can be great due to the height of the saddle of the bike.
If a saddle is too low, anterior knee pain can present just below the patella, likely due to the hyperflexion of the knee joint, causing irritation and improper tracking of the patella.
If the saddle is too high, you can experience knee pain behind the knee due to the extension of the knee during each phase of cycling.
Running on Empty
Running is the final leg of the triathlon.
As such, the body has already gone through two grueling phases of endurance, still having to finish one more.
Competitors are at peak physical and mental stress from the previous legs, which can cause more fatigue-based injuries in their final event.
Common injuries during the running leg of a triathlon include muscle strains, stress fractures, muscle cramps, patellofemoral pain, IT syndrome, tendonitis, and plantar fasciitis.
These injuries are often caused by overuse, poor mechanics, poor hydration, muscle imbalances, immobility, and even running shoe design.
The lower limbs must transmit constant loads during ground contact during the running leg, giving little rest to the bones, muscles, and ligaments supporting running mechanics.
Treatments: How to restore your body's health
Whether mild or severe, injuries sustained in triathlons call for specific treatment interventions to restore the body’s tissues.
Common treatment interventions include:
- Sports massage- massaging tight, sore muscles can help muscle fibers relax before or after major activity. This can improve blood flow and flexibility during endurance events.
- Ice- applying ice bags, cryo sleeves, or ice baths can cause a numbing/analgesic effect on sore muscles following activity. These treatments should be limited to the recovery stage, lasting no longer than 20 minutes on the affected area.
- Bracing, splints, compression sleeves- for joint sprains, muscle strains, even fractures, braces, sleeves, or immobilizers should be applied to the affected area to reduce stress or movement to the area for it to heal.
- Wound care- for cuts or lacerations during a triathlon, wounds need to be cleaned, and bleeding must be stopped. This can be done with gauze, band-aids, steri-strips, skin glue, etc.
Think Ahead and Prevent Triathlon Injuries
Though triathlons can be very grueling and demanding for competitors, it is important to take the correct protocols well before the event in order to keep future injuries at bay and limit their effects.
The best ways to prevent triathlon-related injuries include:
- Dynamic stretch/warm-up: Getting the body moving before any endurance event encourages neuromuscular firing, loosens muscles, and improves elasticity and flexibility.
- Nutrition: Having a solid diet (carbohydrates, proteins, good fats) can be an important factor in helping the body perform during and recover after a triathlon.
- Hydration: Maintaining proper hydration leading up to and during a triathlon can help reduce chances of dehydration, muscle cramping, and muscle soreness following the event. It is important to monitor the amount of water ingested based on a competitor’s weight to reduce the risk of hyponatremia as a result of overhydration.
- Rest: During your training for a triathlon, it is important to have designated rest days for the muscles and joints to absorb forces placed on them, so they can more easily recover and become stronger.
- Equipment: Properly fitting equipment is an important factor in maintaining your performance in triathlons. Shoe design and fit are important to runners due to their running mechanics. Changes in the shoe can improve or weaken their performance if not properly fit or design. Cycling equipment also plays a role in performance or potential injury.
Overcome the Obstacles
Completing a triathlon at any level is a major accomplishment.
By taking ownership of one’s preparation and recovery, you can achieve this accomplishment without the guise of unwanted injury or pain.
Though triathlons come with many risk factors, preparation and recovery are imperative to a competitor.
For you proper stretching, diet, hydration, training, equipment, and post-race treatments are all key components in reducing the risk of acute or chronic injuries in a triathlete.
Triathlon-related injuries are sometimes an unavoidable, common occurrence in the event. But if competitors are given the right tools for preparation and recovery, they stand a chance to continue a long and healthy career.