In the first study of its kind, swim-bike-run triathlons have been found to cause a little more than twice the risk for sudden death than marathons. This was recently discovered in the first study done on these type of competitions.
It was found that the risk comes mainly from heart problems that arise during the swimming part. Even though the risk is very low – 15 out of 1 million – it is still substantial, according to the study’s author.
Triathlons are becoming extremely popular, particularly as fundraisers and charities. Many people, who are not used to such challenging exercise, are attracted to these types of competitions. Approximately 1000 of these sports events are conducted every year and thousands of Americans participate in them, often without a medical checkup to make sure there are no existing heart problems.
A cardiologist from the Minneapolis Heart Institute at Abbot Northwestern Hospital, Dr. Kevin Harris, piloted the study and disclosed the results at an American College of Cardiology conference in Florida on March 28. The study was sponsored by the Minneapolis institute’s foundation, which records athletic-related sudden deaths in a national registry.
In November of 2007, marathon-related deaths were brought into the spotlight when a 28-year-old man named Ryan Shay died while competing in the men’s marathon Olympic trials in New York. According to statistics, four to eight deaths will occur out of every million participants in these 26.2 mile running races. The new study found that for triathlons, the rate is alarmingly higher – 15 out of every million. The swim portion, usually the first event, was found to be the most dangerous, because almost all the deaths happened during this part of the competition.
So what makes the swimming part so dangerous? Well, first of all, cold water constricts blood vessels, which causes the heart to work harder and irritates any pre-existing conditions. It can also bring about an irregular heartbeat. Then add the stress of the competition and you’ve got trouble.
Unlike bikers and runners, swimmers can’t as easily motion for help. Observers seem to have more trouble noticing someone in jeopardy from a large group of swimmers in a lake, river or ocean, where these events are usually held.
Researchers used records on 922,810 triathletes for the study. They competed in 2,846 USA Triathlon-sanctioned events that took place between January 2006 and September 2008.
There were 13 deaths that happened during swimming, out of the 14 total deaths. The other death was the result of a bike crash. Six of the autopsies revealed underlying heart conditions. Two others had hearts that appeared normal, but they might have suffered from a fatal heart rhythm problem.
Before participating in a marathon or triathlon, there are some precautions one should take. Probably the most important thing to do is to get a checkup to see if there are any heart problems. Training should begin long before the event and should definitely include open-water swims, especially if the training is for a triathlon. It is also important to get used to the water temperatures before the race, and wear a wetsuit if it is just too cold. Do not participate in a race unless there is a medical staff and defibrillators.