Study Shows Risks for Triathlon Athletes Include Sudden Death, Cardiac Arrest

CLEVELAND – Whether it’s bragging rights or a “bucket list” – triathlons are gaining popularity.

The endurance event includes swimming, biking and running and pushes the body to the limit.

But recent research suggests some people should use caution.

Dermot Phelan, M.D., Ph.D., did not take part in the study but said results show some men are at greater risk for sudden death during a triathlon.

“Those men in the older age group who have underlying risk factors for cardiac disease are undoubtedly the highest risk group,” he said. 

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Researchers studied about nine million triathlon participants over 31 years.

Results showed death and cardiac arrest were not rare during triathlons, and that the incidence of sudden death was about 1.7 per 100,000 people.

Dermot Phelan, M.D., Ph.D., said proper training is important before a triathlon and stresses that people pay attention to heart disease risk factors like cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose before signing up for any type of endurance event.

The study also found men to have significantly higher risk than women. Older participants were at higher risk, as were people participating in their very first event.

They also found that most sudden death occurred during the swim portion of the race and mMost sudden deaths in triathletes happened during the swim segmentMost sudden deaths in triathletes happened during the swim segmentIN ADDININInany of those who died had underlying heart disease or a heart abnormality.

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Dr. Phelan said it’s important for individuals to see a doctor if they notice any heart-related symptoms while preparing for a race.

“If you are going to participate in a triathlon, it’s very important that you pay attention to your symptoms,” he said. “If you are getting chest pains, shortness of breath, palpitations or lightness in the head when you’re participating, you should see a cardiologist that has some experience in dealing with athletes.” 

Dr. Phelan said proper training is important before a triathlon and stresses that people, particularly older men, pay attention to heart disease risk factors like cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose before signing up for any type of endurance event.

Complete results of the study can be found in Annals of Internal Medicine.