Triathlon is a rewarding and complicated sport. Combining the three disciplines of swimming, biking and running introduces many challenges for our bodies and minds. Studies show between 68-78 percent of all triathlon-related injuries are due to overuse. The triathlete is more likely to be injured with increased participation in the sport as well as other factors such as history of previous injuries, increased running mileage and inadequate warm-up and cooldown. Lower leg overuse injuries from running are the most prevalent in triathlon. If you are completing your first triathlon or shooting for a spot on the podium, the best way to reach your goal is to remain injury-free. Read on to learn about the most common triathlon injuries and how to avoid any time sidelined.
Watch a video demonstrating form roller exercises.
Swimming requires a great deal of flexibility, and to swim faster and more efficiently, you also need strength and stability. Problems for triathletes usually arise when the shoulder develops an “itis,” preventing you from continuing your training. Impingement, tendonitis and bursitis are all common injuries for triathletes. These inflammations of the tendons, bursa and supporting soft tissues of the shoulder shut down the rotator cuff musculature and create pain. This pain decreases your flexibility and strength making you less able to “hold water” with your hand and forearm.
Commonly, athletes will feel a sharp pinching pain or aching in the shoulder as the hand enters the water and starts to pull back initially. The shoulder is in its most vulnerable position at this point, so good form is very important here. Making sure you are not placing the hand too close to midline or crossing over during your pull should be reinforced in your training. A coach on deck can help with this. As soon as you feel any pain that does not go away, ensure you are working on your flexibility and stability of the shoulders. Using a foam roller to slowly stretch out the anterior shoulder and chest will help. (See T, Y and W stretches on page 37) These stretches can help counteract all the forward flexed and rounded shoulder posture faults that are reinforced all day and assist with your posture.
Cycling injuries for triathletes occur most frequently in the knees. A simple hinge joint, the knee gets its main stability from the hip and pelvis. During the quick and repetitive pedal stroke, the knee can flex and extend over 120 times a minute. That means that over a 60-minute ride any alignment or imbalances in your knees can amplify issues over 7,000 times an hour. This can lead to season-ending pain and injury. Alignment of the hips, knees, ankles and feet is critical and a professional bike fit from a qualified fitter is key, especially for those spending more and more time on the bike. A good bike fit should be based on your body proportions and flexibility. Develop a relationship with a local professional whom you trust and who will follow up with you as you progress.
Connective tissue called fascia can tighten around muscles and form adhesions between and within the muscles. The flexibility of this scaffolding that supports your entire body is very important in the lower extremities of a cyclist. Use the foam roller to prevent and break up these “sticky bits,” especially in the thighs, hips and low back. Roll slowly over the muscle in up-and-down as well as side-to-side motions. Get creative. When you find a tight, sore spot spend some time there, even adding movement to really get in there. Breaking down these adhesions will allow your body to repair and realign itself and decrease future problems.
Running for triathletes is the last leg, often adding intense fatigue to an already challenging task. This can lead to shin splints, plantar fasciitis, runner’s knee, Achilles tendinitis and hip or back pain. Aside from errors in training progression, too much, too soon or too different, most running injuries can be prevented or assisted with core strengthening and pelvic stability. Leaping from one leg to another repetitively while having to support 5-8 times your body weight on one leg requires a great deal of strength and stability. Including one to two sport-specific strengthening sessions per week is money in the bank for triathletes looking to save on injury time. For running-specific core strength use the single-leg deadlift (above) and plank variations shown at www.usatriathlon.org/injuryprevention to invest in yourself.
With any injury it is also important to figure out all of the reasons why a problem has developed in the first place. You don’t want to be reactive when it comes to injuries. You should be proactive, preventing injuries before they happen. Keep in mind, a combination of issues usually leads to pain. Working with a coach to make sure you are not doing too much too soon or training with poor technique is especially important in the swim and running disciplines of triathlon. Training errors can be traced back as the main factors in most triathlon injuries. Working on technique in all three sports, including swim skills, pedaling efficiency and running drills, should be a part of every triathlete’s training. Proper recovery and rest days should be included to allow triathletes to recover fully and perform at their best while staying healthy and strong.
Triathlon can be simultaneously rewarding and frustrating. Flexibility, mobility, stability, skill, strength as well as endurance are all important in keeping you happy, healthy and competitive. Finding a balance among properly planned, challenging training days as well as rest and recovery sessions can make or break your enjoyment of the sport and success. Incorporating stretching, foam rolling and strengthening can help prevent injuries from derailing you.
Tricia Davis, PT, is a USA Triathlon and USA Cycling Certified Coach, wellness and injury prevention specialist and co-founder of Killer Coach.