Working in a swim shop, and giving private swim lessons, I have a lot of contact with beginning triathaletes. Most of them follow a similar path to the pool. Running is their gateway sport. They start by trying to conquer the marathon or half-marathon, or perhaps get involved with a running group at work. After the marathon is conquered, running starts to lose it’s buzz, besides which the pounding starts to take a toll on the hips, knees, and toes. So they move on to something harder and hop on a bike. Daily bike rides run 50 miles. That’s almost twice a marathon.
Eventually, they say to themselves, “Whelp, I can ride a bike. I can run a marathon. I’m in good physical condition. I used to swim in my neighborhood pool as a kid. Triathalon!”
This is where the problem comes in. They find that swimming is NOT easy to relapse into, and that your body easily forgets how to do it (or never did it right in the first place). Most adult swimmers never take the time to have any lessons or learn the proper theories of swimming training, and instead just get in a pool, assuming that they are in good enough physical condition to handle swimming, and struggle lap after lap, without really ever learning appropriate technique for breathing, resting, or what to do if they become fatigued in the middle of a lake.
Therefore, it is no surprise to me that a recent study led by Kevin M. Harris, MD, of the Minneapolis Heart Institute of Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis found that out of the 14 known triathalon deaths that could be found between 2006 and 2008, all but 1 of them happened in the swimming portion. The 1 other death was during a bicycle crash.
These 14 deaths out of 959,000 participants in USA Triathalon sanctioned events makes a death rate of 1.5/100,000 participants. This is nearly twice the death rate of marathons (0.8/100,000 participants).
The study further broke down these rates based upon the distance of the swim, and not surprisingly, long distance swims (defined as greater than 1,500 meters) had the highest rate of death, with 2 coming in the famed Ironman events, with swims of 3,860 meters.
Harris also discovered some other interesting statistics. The average number of participants in races with deaths were 1319, versus only 318 in races without deaths. When the chaos of a mass start is combined with often cold water, and often violent physical contact, and add in inexperienced swimmers, the risk for disaster seems obvious.
Besides inexperienced and undertrained swimmers, Harris believed that this chaos is probably the biggest contributing factor. Out of the 13 deaths, only 8 were reported as having called for help, while 5 were simply found motionless in the water after the field had passed through. Harris surmises that in the swimming leg of the competition, it is much more difficult to identify athletes who are in trouble, and much more difficult to get to them and provide medical aid.
The two big recommendations that came out of the study were that all triathletes should consider a thorough physical exam, specifically on the heart, before getting into triathlons, and having minimum swimming proficiency standards prior to entering a triathalon.
The proficiency standards would not be hard to set up, especially through an organization that already has a nation-wide infrastructure, such as the Red Cross. It could be as simple as going to any Red-Cross certified facility, paying 10$, and have the swimmer get in the water and swim XYZ distance, depending on the length of the triathalon they want to be certified for. It doesn’t take the keenest of expert eyes to determine what level of swimming it takes to swim these long distances. Anyone with a swimming background would be easily trainable to run these certifications, and it would make beginning swimmers more comfortable with how good of shape they really need to be in to be safe.
Full study can be read here (subscription required)