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Applied Physiology of a Triathlon

Summary

The triathlon is an endurance contest in which contestants must compete in 3 consecutive events, usually swimming, cycling and running. Success in a triathlon depends upon the ability of the triathlete to perform each of the sequential events at optimal pace without creating fatigue that will hinder performance in the next event. The successful triathlete must, therefore, have highly developed oxygen transport and utilisation systems as well as the ability to efficiently produce a high energy output for prolonged periods without creating metabolic acidosis. Accordingly, mean V̇O2 max values for groups of triathletes during treadmill running have been reported to range from 52.4 to 72 ml/kg/min in men; 58.7 to 65.9 ml/kg/min in women. V̇O2 max values during cycle ergometry were 3 to 6% less than treadmill running values; tethered swimming maximums 13 to 18% less.

Predictable and well-known adaptations occur in the cardiovascular systems of triathletes. Structural adaptations of the heart that have been documented in triathletes include increased left ventricular cavity size or wall thickness, or both. Morphological characteristics of the triathlete’s heart appear to be unrelated to success in triathlon races. Following the acute stress of triathlon competition, alterations in both systolic and diastolic function have been observed. Heart muscle fatigue is the most likely reason for these changes, since there is a rapid return to normal with rest. Like the cardiovascular system, the musculoskeletal system responds to triathlon training. Peripheral adaptations occur that lead to increased muscle respiratory capacity and to modifications in substrate utilisation.

The musculoskeletal system is the site of most injuries to triathletes, and non-traumatic overuse injuries account for 80 to 85% of the musculoskeletal injuries. Maintenance of fluid and electrolyte balance is of primary importance for the triathlete both in day-to-day training and during races. Water may be an adequate replacement fluid for short distance triathlons, but some combination of carbohydrate, electrolyte and fluid replacement is necessary for longer races. Although the physiological bases for success in a triathlon are not well understood at present, the ability to maintain minimal alterations in the homeostasis of cardiovascular, haemodynamic, thermal, metabolic, and musculoskeletal functions are of obvious importance.

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Correspondence to Mary L. O’Toole.

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O’Toole, M.L., Douglas, P.S. & Hiller, W.D.B. Applied Physiology of a Triathlon. Sports Medicine 8, 201–225 (1989). https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-198908040-00002

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Keywords

  • Endurance Exercise
  • Apply Physiology
  • Prolonged Exercise
  • Finish Time
  • Peripheral Adaptation