Triathlon is a great sport to keep active, but it is also one of the most physically exerting sports out there. The combination of running, cycling, and swimming can really push your body to the limit, and sometimes past its breaking point.
Injuries are commonplace in triathlon. Triathletes expose themselves to the full spectrum of sports injuries, particularly those that involve muscle overuse and overtraining.
7 Common Triathlon Injuries
Let’s take a look at some of the common sports injuries triathletes have to deal with.
1. Knee Injuries
A large percentage of sports injuries involve the lower body, and most of them are knee injuries. There are several types of knee injuries, but some of the most common in triathletes, are the following:
Iliotibial Band Syndrome
One of the most frequently-reported injuries among triathletes is the Iliotibial Band or IT Band Syndrome, which is characterized by a sharp pain or tightening on the area outside the knee, just below the joint.
Since the IT Band plays a major role in stabilizing the leg, it becomes near impossible for bikers and runners to perform when these tissues flare-up.
The Patellofemoral Syndrome is caused by the repetitive movement of the patella (kneecaps) against the femur (thigh bone). The constant movement damages the tissues underneath the kneecaps, causing pain and discomfort.
This type of knee injury is common not just among triathletes, but also in people who engage in basketball, swimming, cycling, football, and running. It can take up to six weeks to heal with proper rest, treatment, and sometimes therapy.
Another common injury that also affects the kneecaps is Chondromalacia Patella, or what you may know as runner’s knee. This occurs when the cartilage under your kneecaps gets roughened or worn down due to overuse.
Runners and cyclists are more at risk of developing Chondromalacia Patella than any other athletes. This type of injury, however, can be prevented through strength training.
ACL tears usually happen when the anterior cruciate ligament that connects the leg bone to the knee gets hit, experiences extreme and sudden pressure, or suffers from too much stress. Athletes often tear or strain their ACL when trying to cut, pivot, or change directions.
Slight ACL strains can be healed with rest and ice, while a completely torn ligament, typically characterized by the dreaded popping sound, is likely to require surgery and a few months of recovery time with physical therapy.
2. Shoulder Injuries
The shoulder is one of the weakest parts of the body and has the tendency to get injured when subjected to a great deal of force during physical or athletic activities.
Shoulder injuries, including misalignment, dislocation, muscle strains, and ligament strains, cover about a fifth of all sports-related injuries. Tennis, swimming, baseball, basketball, and weightlifting athletes are prone to shoulder injuries because their sport requires a lot of overhead movement.
Triathletes should take the time to exercise and strengthen all their shoulder muscles to prevent shoulder injuries, especially during swimming. This can be in form of dumbbell exercises or using an overhead press machine to help strengthen the shoulder.
3. Ankle Sprain
Almost everybody who does sports is very much familiar with ankle sprains and the discomfort they bring. This injury typically occurs when the foot gets turned inward, causing a stretch or tear in the ligaments around the ankle.
Most ankle sprains are minor injuries that can be healed with home treatments. If your ankle becomes very swollen or painful to walk on, however, it may be more than just a minor sprain, so be sure to seek professional medical attention.
Proper treatment and rehabilitation will help prevent the risk of re-injuring your ankle after a severe or high ankle sprain.
Tendonitis, the inflammation of tendons, can occur in many different parts of the body. Triathletes often experience tendonitis in the shoulders, feet, and knees because of the types of sports they engage in (swimming, running, biking).
Although tendonitis can be caused by a sudden injury, it is more likely to stem from repeated movement and stretching of the tendons, which leads to tiny tears that eventually become inflamed.
While you cannot always prevent tendonitis, you can help reduce your chances of a tendon injury by warming up before exercises, stretching afterward, and wearing proper footwear.
5. Stress Fractures
Stress fractures develop when you train intensively or dramatically increase your training volume without allocating enough time for rest and recovery. The shockwaves that you experience during training can fracture your bone if you don’t give your body time to repair itself.
In triathletes, stress fractures mainly take place in the hips, the tibia, and the feet. The symptoms may include pain and swelling around the affected body part.
Stress fractures take time to heal. You may have to rest for at least six weeks to let the injury heal completely.
6. Hamstring Strain
There are three muscles at the back of the thigh that make up the hamstring, and they often get pulled when you overuse or overstretch them during activities like running and hurdling. Hamstring muscles are susceptible to strains because they are naturally weaker and fatigue faster than most muscles in your legs.
Hamstring injuries take a really long time to heal (around 6-12 months). Even walking can cause a lot of stress on injured hamstrings and prolong the recovery period. To avoid hamstring tears and strains, always remember to stretch and warm-up properly before training.
7. Shin Splints
Athletes with shin splints often complain about the shooting pain down the front of their leg. This condition often occurs during high-intensity training and is common among runners and triathletes who are just starting out.
People tend to suffer from shin splints when they increase their workout intensity too fast, too soon. Weak muscles around the shin, improper form and training, and repetitive workouts are also other possible causes.
Rest is the best way to recover from shin splints – typically about two weeks. However, if the pain persists even after weeks of rest, visit a sports injury clinic at once. Left untreated for long, shin splints can develop into stress fractures.
Prevention is Better than Cure
Warm muscles are more flexible1, while cold muscles tend to be stiff and prone to overstretching. That being said, you can avoid most sports injuries if you always take the time to warm-up and stretch.
Also, don’t forget to:
- Use the proper technique when training or performing a sport.
- Wear the right shoes and athletic protection.
- Let your body rest and recover.
- Cool down and stretch after your activity.
- Take it slow and gradually increase the intensity of your training.
Treating Common Sports Injuries
Getting injured is one of the worst things that can happen to a triathlete – or anybody, for that matter. Aside from having to deal with the pain and the limited range of motion, it also eats up precious time that could have been spent on training.
If, however, your injuries are not getting better after a few days of PRICE therapy and taking over-the-counter pain medication, it’s probably time to seek professional medical attention.
Post Contributed Dr. Charles. R Kaelin
Dr. Charles R. Kaelin received his medical degree from the University of Louisville, Kentucky, and completed his orthopaedic training at Orlando Regional Center in Orlando, Florida. Dr. Kaelin also received training in Sports Medicine at Alabama Sports Medicine with Dr. Lemak, specializing in sports medicine and workmans compensation injuries. He has been a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) since 1990. He is a charter member of the International Cartilage Research Society, Founding member of the AAOS Education Enhancement Fund (AAOS) and past editorial board member for the American College of Sports Medicine Health and Fitness Journal.
1. Petrofsky, Jerrold Scott et al. “Effect of heat and cold on tendon flexibility and force to flex the human knee.” Medical science monitor : international medical journal of experimental and clinical research vol. 19 661-7. 12 Aug. 2013, doi:10.12659/MSM.889145
Endurance athlete, professional off-road cyclist, and avid blogger, Tyler Tafelsky participates in long-course multisport and cycling events. Today, Tyler competes in ultra-distance cycling races at the professional level. Since starting Better Triathlete in 2014, he has been the head of content for the site's editorial team. Learn more about Tyler