Sudden Death Risk Looms in Triathlons
Swimming Portion of Triathlon May Pose Biggest Sudden Death Risk, Study Finds
April 6, 2010 -- Triathletes may aptly be called iron men and women, but a
new study shows they aren't invincible.
Researchers say at least 14 people have died in triathlons between 2006 and
2008. That equates to a sudden death rate of 1.5 deaths per 100,000
participants, double the rate associated with marathons (0.8 per 100,000).
Of the 14 deaths, 13 occurred during the swimming portion of the race and
one during the biking portion. Drowning was the declared cause of death in each
of the swimming deaths, but seven of nine athletes who had autopsies had
cardiovascular abnormalities that may have contributed to their deaths.
Researchers say the high rate of sudden deaths during the swimming portion
of triathlons, which include swimming, biking, and running segments, suggests
that logistical factors and environmental conditions may contribute to
risk because it is difficult to spot and reach distressed athletes in
"Because triathlons begin with chaotic, highly dense mass starts involving
up to 2,000 largely novice competitors entering the water simultaneously, there
is opportunity for bodily contact and exposure to cold turbulent water," write
researchers Kevin M. Harris, MD, of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation,
and colleagues in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study also showed that deaths were more common in triathlons involving
greater numbers of participants.
Although researchers say mass screening before competitions may be
impractical, individual athletes may want to consider undergoing a
cardiovascular evaluation before entering a triathlon. Establishing minimum
participation qualifications, such as swimming proficiency, could also improve
The study analyzed online race results of 2,971 USA Triathlon-sanctioned
events involving a total of 959,214 participants between January 2006 and