Triathlon, the Three-Headed Beast

Jenn Turner, BPHE (Hons), DC, CCSS(C) resident
January 07, 2008
Written by Jenn Turner, BPHE (Hons), DC, CCSS(C) resident
Athletic excellence is demanded by triathlon in a punishing combination of three sports.
“Triathlons are so physically demanding that it comes down to who is the smartest.”
—Peter Reid (three-time Ironman world champion, two-time Ironman Canada champion)

Since Simon Whitfield represented Canadian triathlon talent in 2000 by winning a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics, the sport of triathlon has grown exponentially.  There are now opportunities to compete in varied distances of triathlon all year round.

Distance requirements in this swim-bike-run sequence sport starts with a “try-a-tri,” or beginner triathlon, which consists of a 300-metre swim, a 10-kilometre bike race and a 2-kilometre run. A 3.86-kilometre swim, 180.2-kilometre bike ride and 42.2-kilometre run is the ultimate requirement for the legendary Ironman (distance) Triathlon. Due to the relentless endurance demands of this level of competition, most triathletes incur repetitive overuse injuries.  The greater the distance of the challenge, the stronger the risk of overuse.

As a member of the Canadian Age Group National Long Distance Team for the past three years, I have witnessed a number of athletes with a range of overuse injuries.  The demands of triathlon require athletes to train for and be good at three different sports.  The stresses of training are advantageously spread out among muscle groups rather than concentrated on one specific group of tissues.  Though this permits the recovery of one muscle group while the athlete trains for another aspect of the sport, such volume of training can be too much for the body to handle physiologically.  My experience as both an athlete and a practitioner who treats athletes reveals that recovery is the most important factor in preventing breakdown.

It encompasses adequate nutrition and sleep, and periodization of training. Some triathletes don’t recover properly and wonder why they are frequently injured or why their speed is just not there in key races.  They must come to realize that it is just as important to rest and recover as it is to train.

There is relatively little research that analyzes long-distance triathlete injuries.  However, it is known that: nearly 75 per cent of all competitors have sustained at least one overuse injury during their training (1,3); most such injuries occur during training for the running component of triathlon (1,2,3); and the risk of injury is heightened with higher training mileage.(3)  Running generates the greatest impact and stress to the muscles, tendons, bones and ligaments of the triathlete’s lower limbs.(1,3,4).

Reinjury, or the chronic nagging injury that just doesn’t go away, can be largely attributed to improper treatment and rehabilitation, or lack of treatment altogether.  Individuals seeking to have damaged tissues returned to preinjury status, or better, must undergo passive and active treatment.  It is also critical to rest the injured structures, which, typically, triathletes don’t like to do.  Triathletes would also well be advised to evaluate the initial cause of their injury.  Are they simply training too much?  Are they performing a dynamic warm-up and cool-down?  Are they using properly fitting equipment and proper technique?  How about their approach to nutrition?  These are all significant factors in the complete assessment of an athlete’s injury.

I have been fortunate to race at some international events, including the International Long Course World Championships in 2005 in Denmark, and in Sweden the year previous to that.  There, the race distances were 4 kilometres for the swim, 120 kilometres of cycling, followed by a 30-kilometre run.  It is thrilling to wear a Team Canada uniform alongside uniforms from many other countries.  In my case, a fantastically skilled coach overseeing a high-volume and intense training program has helped me to remain injury-free.

In my experience, triathletes prefer the chiropractic adjustment, and its accompanying modalities and rehabilitation exercises, as a method of treatment. They also find soft tissue therapy, such as Active Release Techniques, to be effective for cumulative trauma injuries.

As triathlon’s popularity continues to rise, its relationship with chiropractic should continue to stay strong.•

References:
1. Egermann M, Brocai D, Lill CA, and Schmitt H. Analysis of injuries in long-distance triathletes. International Journal of Sports Medicine 2003; 24(4):271-6.
2. Shaw T, Howat P, Trainor M, Maycock B. Training patterns and sports injuries in triathletes. Journal of Science Medicine and Sport 2004; 7(4):446-50.
3. Burns J, Keenan AM, Redmond AC. Factors associated with triathlon-related overuse injuries. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy 2003; 33(4):177-184.
4. Cipriani DJ, Swartz JD, and Hodgson CM. Triathlon and the multisport athlete. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy 1998; 27(1):42-50.

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