(Image: Kyle Cassidy)
Just how common are tri-related injuries? And how can you reduce your injury risk for next season? Andrew Hamilton discusses the latest research
There’s good news and bad news about triathlon training. The good news is that, compared to single-sport endurance athletes, the stresses and strains of triathlon training tend to be dissipated more evenly across the muscles and joints of the body, helping to lower the risk of injury. The bad news is that new research indicates injury rates among triathletes is still surprisingly high.
Injuries can be divided into different categories. For example, acute injuries can include a hamstring pulled during a speed running session or a dislocated shoulder as a result of a fall from the bike. Chronic injuries on the other hand tend to come on more gradually (often due to increased training load) and can be harder to fully resolve. Much of the previous research into the injury risk faced by triathletes has focused on acute injury risks, but a brand-new study suggests that overuse injuries are actually the most problematical.
In one large study just published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Norwegian researchers followed 875 triathletes during the pre-season training period – including 174 participants in the long-distance Norseman Xtreme Triathlon during their 26 training weeks. They looked at the rates of acute and overuse injuries, as well as days lost through illness. Data on overuse injuries affecting the shoulder, lower back, thigh, knee and lower leg were collected every second week, while illnesses, acute injuries and overuse problems affecting other areas were also recorded.
The results showed that overuse-type injuries affected no less than 490 (56%) of the triathletes, the most prevalent sites being the knee (25%), calf and Achilles tendon (23%) and lower back (23%). Of these, 165 triathletes (20%) were classed as having “substantial overuse” problems, those severe enough to result in a week or more of lost training time. The risk of acute injury however was far lower; just 36 cases (4%), mainly contusions, fractures and sprains affecting knee, shoulder/collarbone and sternum/ribs, suggesting falls or collisions. Illness meanwhile affected 156 triathletes.
These results tie in neatly with those from a previous, smaller Australian study on 131 triathletes. This looked at the training and injury patterns over a 10-week period during the race season. But, importantly, a retrospective six-month analysis of the triathletes’ training history and prior overuse injuries was also conducted. It turned out that 50% of the triathletes sustained an injury in the six-month pre-season, while 37% were injured during the 10-week competition season. Once again, it was overuse injuries that dominated, accounting for 68% of pre-season and 78% of competition season injuries reported.
Both this study and an earlier British one suggest that increasing age, high running mileage, increased training distances, a history of previous injury, and inadequate warming-up and cooling-down all increase injury risk. Poor technique and biomechanical imbalances are also significant, while high off-season run mileage is linked to injury during the following season.
So, recent evidence suggests that overuse injuries are all too common among triathletes – not just in the competitive season, but during the rest of the training year too. That being the case, it could be wise to incorporate some overuse injury-prevention strategies (see Takeaway Tips) into your off-season training schedule.
– Always warm up and cool down thoroughly before/after each session
– Increase your training volume or intensity only very gradually. Schedule in regular ‘easy’ weeks during any build-up phase
– Never increase training volume and intensity together
– Choose your running shoes carefully, on the basis of your biomechanical needs. Replace them regularly
– Ensure your bike set-up is optimised to your biomechanical needs. This might involve experimenting with different stem and handlebar lengths and heights, saddle positions, crank lengths and even frame geometries
– Perform regular strength and flexibility training to build shoulder, quadriceps and calf resilience (the most vulnerable areas). Regular core work is also recommended for lower-back health
For more advice on injury prevention and cure, head to our Training section here