This story was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine.
You’ve trained, purchased and checked the gear, picked out nutrition and know exactly when to eat and drink.
But do you know what steps you should take to stay safe?
Since triathlon combines three disciplines, athletes experience physiological and environmental demands greater than a single marathon, century ride or open water swim. Examining the topic of safety in triathlon, a review article concluded, “In general, the physiological demands of triathlon competition appear to exceed those of comparable length single-sport competitions.”
In other words, it’s less demanding to run for 2 hours than it is to swim-bike-run for that same period.
“Triathlon involves three different sports, each with their own set of risks, making the overall risk additive and slightly greater than other endurance sports,” said George Dallam, a researcher and expert in triathlon safety at Colorado State University, Pueblo.
While that overall risk is low — calculated as 1.75 deaths per 100,000 participants in a 2017 research study in the Annals of Internal Medicine — triathletes can take active steps to ensure they have a safe training and racing experience.
Find the Right Race
“Probably the most important safety factor is to become a complete athlete before considering [increasing race distance],” says Gareth Thomas, coach and former director of the UCLA Triathlon Club, “In the past athletes gradually progressed to longer distances only after working their way up.” Too often, athletes want to try to take on the biggest races first — the half and full IRONMAN distance races.
“Sometimes coaches have to have the tough conversations about race goals,” says Thomas. Dropping from an Olympic- to a sprint-distance or ultra-distance to a long-course event might feel demoralizing but it might prevent injury or a long recovery.
Talk to Your Doctor
Dr. Kristin Wingfield, a sports medicine specialist in San Francisco, uses a three-part evaluation — general health, cardiac health and orthopedic history — to clear athletes for racing. While athletes don’t have to have a perfect medical history to consider multisport, any medical or health issues should be addressed and under control before attempting to train and race.
Cardiac health: Wingfield, who has served on medical teams at the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, looks for any cardiac risk factors in prospective triathletes: chest pain, shortness of breath, passing out, or family history of cardiac disease. Triathletes with those risk factors might require a more thorough workup before participating. Physicians may recommend a coronary calcium scan, which detects arterial plaque, or a stress test. In the “Annals of Internal Medicine” study of triathlon safety, almost 50 percent of those who died had cardiac abnormalities.
Orthopedic health: any orthopedic problem should be resolved before beginning significant training. You can’t train hard, or race, with a sore knee or back. Fix it first.
General health: “any history of allergy, asthma or serious medical conditions (such as diabetes) should be considered before participating,” stresses Wingfield.
Handle the Load
Defined as possessing good endurance, strength, power, speed, biomechanics and technique (in open water swimming, bike handling and running), Thomas believes that triathletes need to be complete athletes to be fast.
Though not possible for every triathlete, Thomas also likes to have his athletes physiologically tested before starting to train. Not only can physiological information help establish readiness to increase training load, it can also occasionally detect more serious conditions. “I try to test as many of my athletes as possible,” says Thomas, “and I’ve found several with heart abnormalities. Perhaps that’s the reason I haven’t had a catastrophe, because the physiological testing can sometimes detect a problem.”
While there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to tackling longer races, Thomas stresses the importance of a holistic approach to increasing training. “A training program needs to systematically build you, keeping you healthy as well as fit,” he stresses, “Numbers on a power meter don’t take sleep, nutrition or other important life factors into consideration.”
Racing vs. Finishing
Dallam notes that for some, there’s a perception that “you are only valuable if you compete in [IRONMAN distance] races.” Dallam, a former National Teams Coach for USA Triathlon, recommends completing at least three to five years — preferably more — of training and racing shorter distance events before attempting an ultra-distance race (140.6 miles). After enough experience, a triathlete can do more than just finish a long event, they can aim for a specific time and “race” the event.
Because attempting a race that you aren’t ready for might lead to injury or just generally a poor experience, Dallam believes that a gradual start might lead to a longer multisport career. “What I suspect is that those who are too aggressive in moving to the IRONMAN distance drop out of the sport sooner than most,” says Dallam. “[They are] getting the short-term benefit of finishing but losing the long-term advantage of a lifetime of healthy activity.”
Since many of the safety issues in triathlon occur in the swim, when anxiety is highest, familiarizing yourself with race conditions is very important. Thomas recommends that triathletes get accustomed to the unique aspects of open water swimming, including swimming in cooler water before racing at a cold swim venue. In fact, some races require proof of open water proficiency.
Penni Bengtson, the race director of Tri Santa Cruz, recognizes that, when organizing race safety, swim safety is the biggest issue. “The swim is hard because we can’t tell if someone is prepared,” says Bengtson. Because a prepared athlete is a safer athlete, Bengtson conducts pre-race open water swim clinics — on the race course — to make sure everyone is comfortable in the cold Pacific Ocean and to teach open water skills such as sighting, cold water acclimatization and swimming in a group.
Practicing in the water can do more than just help performance. According to experts, open water swim practice that simulates crowding and physical contact may lessen swim anxiety in a race.
Even if your area doesn’t hold an open water swim clinic, many races have pre-race informational sessions to detail the race course and likely conditions. “We hold both a pre-race informational session on Friday and a mandatory athlete meeting on Saturday to familiarize athletes with our course and logistics,” says an Escape from Alcatraz race official.
Too many triathletes don’t fully learn how to ride before they race, says Thomas. Use these steps to get ready for the ride:
• Learn how to take command of the road and anticipate problems before they happen.
• Riding two bikes — a road bike and a triathlon bike — means that you will likely adapt to neither. Thomas prefers that triathletes only have, or at least ride, one bike, the one they are going to use when racing.
• Get used to riding the race distance.
• Unless you are going to commit to fully learning bike maintenance, find a shop and keep your bike professionally maintained.
• If you don’t know what you are doing, don’t try to take apart your bike and reassemble it in a hotel room in the night before the race.
• Don’t just try to cram a couple of rides in the weeks before a race.
• Be careful adapting a road bike into a triathlon bike. “A beginner will take a slack geometry bike, put on aero bars, and push the seat forward to try and create an aerodynamic position,” warns Dallam. “This can put too much weight on the front of the bike, making it harder to control.” Dedicated triathlon or time trial bikes are more stable.
Research on triathlon safety emphasizes the importance of warming up in the water prior to the race as it helps eases anxiety and tension. Because cold water conditions are common to Pacific Ocean races like Tri Santa Cruz, Bengtson puts extra resources in place for the swim.
“To make sure everyone is comfortable, we provide a swim warmup before the race,” says Bengtson, “and we also increase the number of lifeguards in the water to 1 per 20 athletes. We feel it’s more representative for an ocean swim in this area.” Tri Santa Cruz also has two jet skis in addition to the usual kayaks and surfboards of the lifeguards.
The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon puts a mixture of boats, kayaks, lifeguards, and water safety teams out on the water during the swim. Grabbing onto a boat or kayak to rest or re-orient won’t incur a penalty or disqualification, stresses event organizers. Of course, those safety teams are also there if a swimmer is in distress or cannot continue.
For races without a warm-up swim, like Alcatraz, an active pre-swim warm-up onshore will promote blood flow to the arms and legs.
According to Bengtson, a USA Triathlon Level 2 Certified Race Director and USA Triathlon Certified Coach, triathletes should use the following protocol when in need of help in the water:
• Signal for help by raising an arm out of the water.
• A paddler will approach.
• Swimmers can rest but are not permitted make forward progress if they intend to stay in the race.
• Lifeguards and water safety personnel can radio for additional help. All lifeguards are ALS open water certified.
The Swimit (a triathlon swim safety device): though Tri Santa Cruz does not allow the use of towed flotation devices, Bengtson does allow the use of USA Triathlon-approved devices such as the Swimit. Similarly, though they have yet to have a Swimit used in the Escape from Alcatraz event, race organizers say they would allow the safety device.
However, when a device such as the Swimit is deployed, the user is disqualified. Bengtson and others also worry that the device, or ones like it, might be used in place of adequate training and open water experience, leading to overconfidence. “Perhaps it’s a tool best used for open water training,” she says.
Though coaches, race directors and athletes all play a role, self-accountability is a big part of safety. It’s the athlete’s responsibility to do more than just hope for the best. Take the necessary steps to stay safe on race day.