Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Injury Rates Among Triathletes

Injury is unfortunately part of the triathlon training and racing package. Over a five year period, “traumatic injury was sustained by 43.1% and overuse injury by 72.2% of the British Senior Squad,” according to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2010 (Vleck, et. Al.). On average, each member of the group sustained one traumatic and two overuse injuries during the five year study period. The purpose of this research was to compare the types of injuries sustained by experienced Olympic-distance (OD) triathletes as compared to Iron-distance (ID) triathletes.  (image from physioroom.com)

Thirty-one athletes (12 OD; 19 IT) retrospectively recounted their injury histories, a task made easier by the fact that 79% of them kept detailed training logs throughout that time period. The most startling difference between the groups was in terms of Achilles Tendon injury occurrence – 50% of OD athletes suffered this injury but just 12% of ID athletes. Researchers found a correlation with running hill repeats and a lack of pre-cycling stretching.

Top injury sites for the OD athletes included lower back (17.9%), Achilles tendons (14.3%), and knees (14.2%). Among the ID subjects, most injuries occurred in the knees (44%), calf (20%), hamstrings (20%), and lower back (20%). Most injuries were attributed to running and the fewest to swimming. More details can be found in the article.

The authors acknowledge limitations with the study in terms of sample size as well as the lack of uniformity in the way training data was logged and interpreted. However, after analysis of logs, injuries, and training days lost to injury, the researchers offer some practical cautions. Triathletes mistakenly believe that cross-training reduces their likelihood of injury. In fact, there are cumulative overuse effects that carry over among the three sports. Injured triathletes tend not to back off on total training time but increase training time for the sports that are not seen as the direct contributor to the injury. That can slow or impede healing.

My take - 
This study is certainly not intended to be definitive, especially in terms of particular injuries. Where are ITB issues, hamstrings, etc? Regardless, I found the overall injury rates pretty startling and it was a good reminder that overuse injuries are cumulative across the sports. What is it they say about athletes? We are either injured, recovering from an injury, or headed into an injury! The trick is to stay in that healthy zone for as long as possible by being aware of warning signs, responding quickly to issues, and allowing for complete recovery. As frustrating and disheartening as it is to experience an injury, it's difficult to avoid them if we push our limits.

For me, the tricky part seems to be recognizing the warning signs and trying to discern between minor inconveniences and more serious issues. I've managed to push through a lot of things in the past so my tendency is to think I can always do that. Unfortunately, my body tells me otherwise!!

Be careful out there, folks!


Vleck, VE, Bentley, DJ, Millet, GP, and Cochrane, T. (2010) Triathlon event distance specialization: training and injury effects. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(1): 30–36