Are triathlons safe?

By: Jill Jaracz
Is there any risk in running a triathlon?
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If you read the headlines, a triathlon might seem like a death sentence. Titles like "Warning Over Triathlon Death Rate," "Recent Triathlon Deaths Have Experts Looking for Answers" and "Sudden Death Risk Looms in Triathlons" might catch your eye, especially if you just unwittingly signed up for the big race [sources: Laurence, Aschwanden, Warner]. Are triathlons really as dangerous as they sound?

The triathlon challenges athletes to swim, bike and run, in that order, without stopping. It's rising in popularity, with nearly two million participants a year [source: Triathlete]. Yet, between 2006 and 2008, 14 people died in the U.S. while competing, all but one during the swim portion. When compared to the number of participants, this death rate is almost twice that of marathoners [source: Warner].


This endurance race can test any athlete. An Olympic distance triathlon is a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike and a 10K run. While putting together the U.S. Triathlon series in 1983, triathletes Jim Curl and Carl Thomas established the race distances by stringing together standard accepted distances in each discipline.

The order of the disciplines came about for safety reasons. It might sound like a good idea to end with a cooling swim, but by the end of the race, you're more in danger of overheating. During a run, if you overheat, you can cramp up and fall over on the ground. Cramp up during a swim, and you can drown. The swim leg also spreads out racers for the bike leg. Because the swim leg is not many athletes' strong suit, having it first helps separate racers, lowering the risk of collision.

Like all sports, triathlon still has its dangers. During the open water swim, swimmers risk injury from being kicked by other racers or stung by sea creatures. Drowning is also an inherent risk. In the cycling leg, bikes can get tangled up in each other, and crashes may be a risk. On the run, racers face the risk of dehydration and cramping.

With so many risk factors, training for a triathlon is extremely important, especially if you're not a strong swimmer. Triathletes with pre-existing medical conditions, especially heart problems, should check with their doctor before competing, because swimming can affect certain types of heart conditions that may cause fatal arrhythmia.

Triathlon race directors do have ways of dealing with medical issues during a race. Read on to learn more about triathlon medical staffing.


Triathlon Medical Staffing

Drowning during the swimming portion of a triathlon is a potential danger.
David Madison/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

When competing in a triathlon, it's best to look for a sanctioned race. This means a governing body has examined and certified the course and plans for race day. In the U.S., USA Triathlon is this sanctioning body. The International Triathlon Union also puts together race guidelines. To be considered sanctioned, a triathlon must have on-site medical personnel, lifeguards and a comprehensive event plan. The race director must also sign a contract with USA Triathlon, committing to these plans. USA Triathlon also requires that the ratio of swimmers to lifeguards be 35-to-1 in ocean swims and 50-to-1 in all other bodies of water [source: Martin].

Most sanctioned races in the U.S. also require the athletes to have medical insurance. One way of doing this is mandatory membership in USA Triathlon, even if it's just for the one day you're racing. This gives you additional medical coverage and makes sure that all racers have sufficient insurance while they're competing in the race.


Sanctioned triathlons also have medical directors who make sure the race has a comprehensive medical emergency plan, including adequate medical staffing along the route. Medical directors pay attention to race day weather conditions and can alter the race for various conditions. If the weather is too hot, racers aren't allowed to wear wetsuits to help them during the swim. Likewise, the swim may be shortened or canceled if the combined air and water temperatures are too cold.

In the event that a racer is badly injured and needs medical attention at a hospital, sanctioned races also must have a medical evacuation plan in place. The race's medical director establishes this plan and makes sure it's executed on race day.

Even though competing in a triathlon can sound like a health risk, its benefits can outweigh the risks involved. The training required to successfully complete a triathlon can increase your body's overall fitness level. Making sure you train properly for all legs of a triathlon will also increase the likelihood of having a safe race. While the race itself can cause any number of accidents, a sanctioned triathlon will have measures in place to minimize those risks and keep the sport as safe as possible.

Read on for lots more information about triathlon safety.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Curl, Jim. President, Event Media, Inc. Personal interview. (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • Harris, Kevin M.; Henry, Jason T.; Rohman, Eric; et al. "Sudden Death During the Triathlon." International Triathlon Union. "ITU Competition Rules." January 2010. (Aug. 6, 2010)
  • Martin, John. Media and Communications Manager, USA Triathlon. Personal correspondence. (Aug. 3, 2010)
  • Triathlete. "Triathlon Participation in the U.S. Continues to Climb." May 21, 2010. (Aug. 6, 2010)
  • USA Triathlon. "USA Triathlon Competitive Rules." 2010. (Aug. 6, 2010)
  • Warner, Jennifer. "Sudden Death Risk Looms in Triathlons." April 6, 2010. (Aug. 6, 2010)