Triathlon is a unique sport that allows competitors to showcase their abilities in three different sports: swimming, biking, and running – in that order. How does someone get into all three sports at once? Most often, new triathletes have a background in one or two of the sports, yet start as a beginner in the other(s). Utilizing strengths to build confidence and attacking weaknesses head on is a great way to approach triathlon, yet jumping into new competitive activities without experience poses increased risk of injury. Let us review some of the common injuries in each aspect of triathlon as well as ways to avoid them.
Shoulders are a huge part of swimming, especially in a triathlon when you hope to conserve your legs for the bike and run segments. Racers use a freestyle swim technique because it is the fastest stroke for most people. The four rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis) stabilize the shoulder joint, and are vital in the mechanism of freestyle swimming. If technique is poor, or if there is a sudden increase in training volume, these muscles can be overstressed leading to tendonitis or even bursitis (also known as shoulder impingement). Simple stretches and strengthening exercises with a flexible workout band can build stability in rotator cuff muscles. Internal rotation, external rotation, flexion, and extension are all key movements of the shoulder supported by these muscles, which are vital to a successful swimmer.
The longest portion of the race is typically spent on the bicycle, where racers pound away at their pedals with the leg muscles they have been honing in throughout their long training rides. Legs are constantly flexed and extended, utilizing special clip-in shoes to not only generate force pushing down with gravity, but also to
engage lower leg muscles and hip flexors in adding upward, forward, and backwards force on the pedal. The iliotibial (IT) band is a thick tendon stretching down the outside of the thigh, attaching at the top of the shin bone, and it plays an important role in leg and hip stabilization. The constant knee and hip flexion and extension motion seen in bicyclists makes it a prime candidate for injury. IT band syndrome emerges as athletes advance their training too quickly, and the insertion of the IT band onto the tibia becomes inflamed due to the repetitive friction of flexion or extension, or over the lower end of the femur as it rolls back and forth over the lowest prominence. Slowly increasing mileage on the bike, rolling out on a foam roller, and performing exercises to increase hamstring and quadriceps flexibility can help to prevent IT band syndrome.
Initially after jumping off the bike and starting those first few steps of running, the legs feel like a ton of bricks and take some time to loosen up from the constant work of pedaling. Many triathletes train with a bike workout followed immediately by a run in order to get their body used to this initial stiff sensation. This type of workout is called a “brick” as it combines multiple events into one period of exercise – you can combine any events in any order to be considered a brick workout. Running proves to be the most mentally challenging for most triathletes, as it requires the grit to push through the fatigue of both the swim and the bike in order reach the finish line. Consistent training provides a strong base during the race, however this repetition not only builds a race ready body, but also contributes to injury. The Achilles tendon is vital to propelling us forward, as it connects our calf muscles to our heel bone. Inflammation and tiny micro tears can occur if we work this tendon beyond its comfort with overuse in distance or speed training, leading to achilles tendinitis or tendinopathy. Similar to bike training, if a triathlete does not increase their training regimen too abruptly, an overuse injury like this can often be avoided. Additionally, if some pain begins to appear in the achilles, ice along with rest can aid in reducing any progression of the irritating inflammation.
Triathlon races are an exceptional way to assess an athlete’s ability to develop multiple skills and challenge their endurance. The recovery process is equally as important as a rigorous training program in order to avoid the common injuries that plague many triathletes each year. Increasing the demand on your body progressively, while listening to fatiguing muscles can aid in success when race day rolls around. While these injuries briefly highlight what triathletes often present with, it is important to understand that there are a number of other common injuries in swimming, biking, and running in single-sport athletes.
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Millet GP, Vleck VE Physiological and biomechanical adaptations to the cycle to run transition in Olympic triathlon: review and practical recommendations for training British Journal of Sports Medicine 2000;34:384-390.
By Max Jiganti and Alee Vladyka