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Death by triathlon may be more likely than death by marathon

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Triathlons and marathons are amazing fitness feats, but both carry risks: dehydration, exhaustion, broken bones and even death.

But when it comes to establishing which race has a higher body count, that would have to be the triathlon, according to a study presented this week at the American College of Cardiology’s annual scientific session in Orlando, Fla. Not that competitors are dropping like flies, but sudden deaths in triathlon were found to be about twice as high as in marathons: 1.5 per 100,000 versus 0.8 per 100,000.

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Prior research on marathon deaths had been established, but statistics on sudden deaths in triathlons were not known. Researchers looked at deaths that occurred in 2,846 triathlons featuring 922,810 participants (40% of them female) from January 2006 to September 2008. The USA Triathlon-sanctioned events included races of various durations.

A few more factoids: Most of the people who died in triathlons were males between 35 and 55 years old. Althoughthe deaths occurred during all races, not just the long ones, nearly all happened during the swimming portion.

That led study authors to theorize that during the swim — almost always in open water — competitors may have little opportunity to rest or signal for help. They also could be difficult to see by rescue workers, unlike in the biking or running legs.

During the two-year period researchers collected data, there were 14 deaths, 13 during swimming and one during cycling. More men died than women, and most of the deaths happened during short-distance races. All 13 swimming deaths were attributed to drowning, and four of those were associated with cardiovascular disease.

Researchers caution athletes to let their physicians know they’re participating in endurance races, especially if they’re at risk for or have a family history of heart disease.

The study was sponsored by the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation.

-- Jeannine Stein


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