What are the injury risks in Triathlons?

Triathlons of late have become very popular of late. Whether this is down to it largely being a free way to train since COVID struck – lots of people taking to the streets on run, getting their bike from the shed or just availing of their local waterway for a dip. Or because people nowadays are just that bit more into their overall fitness and want to challenge themselves – who knows!!?!

It is thought that triathlons have less injury risk due to the combination of different disciplines and exercises. However, there are an array of different triathlon lengths throughout the world, with many variations of hills, sea versus river swims etc. This unfortunately means that injuries can occur on an individual leg of a triathlon or a combination of the three.

What are the most common injuries?

A study (1. Bertola, IP 2014) looked to profile injuries of those competing in a Triathlon. It found that a whopping 79% of those who reported injury, occurred while running, 16% Cycling and 5% Swimming. The most injured region of the body reported in this study was the calf – 39% of these happened in TRAINING and 46% in COMPETITION.

Runner with knee injury

Up to and over half of injuries reported in some studies that the most common types of injuries are muscle injuries, followed by tendons and ligaments and lastly bones. Another study (2. Minghelli. B 2020) shows that 43.1% of injuries were down to over training. This shows that the emphasis should be on the training, and arguably more so on the running side of things, to keep injury risk down.

Top Tips to Avoid These Injuries

Like most things, prevention is better than cure – and the best way to avoid these is to train smarter, not harder.

Give Yourself Enough Time

Typically for your first Triathlon, you would need to be giving yourself between 5-6 months training.

Train Harder and Smarter

Generally speaking, in terms of intensity; research suggests the 80-20 rule to show best performance and least injury risk. This sees 80% of the time at Lower Intensity and 20% at Higher Intensity. So, a little bit of HARD training is essential. The pitfall, which does not help is logging miles at mid intensity – neither high nor low. This is where training falters, and injuries occur.

Appropriate Increasing of Running

ALLLLLLLLL the time we see someone come in who jumps from 5km jog up to 10km IN A WEEK!! This is just a general NO-NO the best advice we could give to this is to increase your jog by no more than 30% or at a max 1.5 times in any given week. For those not so quick on math here (like me) that is increasing your 5km up to 6.5km. This way the body adapts to acceptable loading in a safer manner.

Strengthen Your Body

While we don’t recommend becoming a balloon animal of muscle, or as strong as the “mountain” from game of thrones, we do recommend having a good baseline of strength to begin with. Your body needs to be able to tolerate loads in three different disciplines. These can be in home circuits or full-on gym-programmes. Not only does strength help reduce the risk of injury, it has also been seen to benefit performance in these events. Hit every body part, the legs need to earn the right to run, as the arms and shoulders have to earn the right to swim.

Do not Over Prioritise Stretching

Often tight muscles can be weaker muscles. OR they are tight because they are the ones doing allllll the work. Therefore stretching it may have a less than desired effect. Instead work on the global strengthening of the body, so that your muscles work in an efficient manner. We’re not saying ignore stretching, but don’t be over doing it, especially if you are finding you’re constantly stretching and finding no improvement in the “tightness.”

Eat Enough/Keep Hydrated

Much like any form of exercise, nutrition is key. You may need to increase the intake of healthy food as your training increases. You can easily fall into a slippery slope of RED-s (Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome). This is where the athlete has fallen into a calorie deficit and their energy levels are being used up and depleted. Long term neglect of this can lead to various endocrinological health issues (Hormonal issues) as well as lead to weak bones and increased risk of stress factors. With that, you may need to introduce energy gels or some energy drinks too.

No New Equipment on Race Day

Unless absolutely essential that your bike has been stolen, your shoes have walked off you and your wetsuit ripped. Keep to the things you know and keep them in good order. Make sure your bike is a comfortable fit. Use runners that you have built up some miles in and are comfortable.

Race At Your Pace

Specific Swimming Advice

  • Strengthen the shoulders as mentioned above.
  • Keep your thoracic spine mobile. The middle part between your shoulder blades. Often the stooped position on the bike leads to a stiffness in the mid back. This stiffness can lead to an altered swimming technique and a decreased range of motion in the shoulders. A mobile thoracic spine keeps the body better able to rotate during breathing in swimming and allows for better stroke rhythm.
  • Stretch Your Hips
  • Mix up your strokes in training. Using various techniques can help distribute load through the shoulders. Even loading reduces overuse injuries.
swimmer in a triathlon

Specific Bike Advice

  • Avoid excessive neck strain. This can be linked to keeping the mobility of the mid back, and maintaining the strength over all. Combining the two correctly can lead to less discomfort felt during and after the cycle.
  • Get the bike fitted for you, make subtle changes over time.
  • Work on your lower back and hamstring strength in all ranges. A common injury in bike riders is Proximal Hamstring Tendinopathy. We want to keep this at bay by having strong efficient hamstrings. The lower back will often take slack if the legs aren’t doing their work, leading to strain. Keep strong. Sensing a trend yet ?
2 men cycling

Specific Running Advice

  • Don’t switch up your shoes too quickly. Do not go from minimalist straight back to maximum or vice versa – both are linked to increased injury risk. If change is necessary, do it over time incrementally. The best advice for shoes however is (Drumroll please) Go for whichever you find most comfortable – Science has proven this.
  • Keep running in all weather and terrains, but again do not over do it. The tendons love load and respond well to different stimulants. Keep some level of running through at the end of each block. Often Achilles tendon injuries are seen when returning to harder running after brief seasonal breaks.
Tendinopathy Causes and Treatments
  • Be mindful of bone health. Linked to energy levels, and general over training.
  • Build volume before speed. Higher chronic training loads before beginning speed work. Once speed work has begun, and well tolerated, add in different terrains.

Hopefully, this has highlighted some useful information for you on your journey into triathlons. If you are suffering with an injury despite the above advice, feel free to have a look at our other blogs on tendon and muscular issues. 

Or contact the clinic so we can best help you on your road to recovery!!

Source: Bertola IP, Sartori RP, Corrêa DG, Zotz TG, Gomes AR. Profile of injures prevalence in athletes who participated in SESC Triathlon Caiobá-2011. Acta Ortop Bras. 2014;22(4):191-196. doi:10.1590/1413-78522014220400895