Since it started in the mid-late 1970s, the triathlon has become a popular pursuit amongst professional and recreational athletes alike. While distances do vary from one event to the next, participants are routinely required to swim distances of up to 1.5km, cycle up to 40km, and run up to 10km, although many of the ultradistance events like Ironman cover much greater distances. Clearly these types of events and the level of training that is required is not for the faint of heart!
Injury rates and types amongst triathletes
According to the results of a study conducted by the British Journal of Sports Medicine in which 174 triathletes were monitored over a 26-week period, at least 56% of participants had some form of over-use injury at any given time. During the same period, 87% of participants presented with an over-use injury and over 50% reported ‘substantial’ injuries. It is clear therefore that training for endurance events like triathlon and Ironman carries a high risk of injury.
While the rate of injury amongst triathlon and Ironman competitors is high, the location and type of injury varies considerably. In the above BJSM study, 18% (88 cases) of the over-use injuries presented affected the shoulder, 17% (84 cases) the low back, 18% (88 cases) the thigh, 22% (106 cases) the knee and 22% (106 cases) the lower leg. While other studies have reported injuries affecting the ankles, foot and toes to represent between 9% and 35%, this study found these to account for only 3% of all reported injuries.
What is clear from these findings, and the findings of similar studies, is that injury can and will present in almost any bodily area as a result of triathlon training and competition. Aside from accidents like a collision or a slip, it is worth remembering that injury is really just the outcome of dysfunction, and pain is the body’s way of signalling to us that this dysfunction exists, so that we can change our course of action and prevent further damage.
Instead of looking at injury as some catastrophic barrier to competition, it is possible to see it as the body’s way of revealing to us our weaknesses, so that we have the opportunity to overcome them. Dysfunction leads to more dysfunction and so it’s important to intervene early, ideally before the pain even presents. As the old adage goes, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’, but most people only seek help from a doctor, sports scientist or physiotherapist when they are injured. Often by this time there are multiple factors at play. A thorough movement screen and biomechanical analysis is key to identifying dysfunction early.
There are also a number of simple yet effective strategies that can be introduced into your training in order to ensure that the body is better able to cope with the demands of ultra-endurance training. In no particular order, we’ve provided 3 key strategies below.