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Beginner Triathletes and Risk Factors

This article has valuable information for athletes at any skill level, but especially for those looking to get started in multisport this year. 

By Alan Ley

crosstrainer"When in doubt, always do the safest thing." This is what Kim Pagel used to tell me when we rode bikes together 20 years ago. This doesn't only apply to triathletes. Exercisers, young and old, need to heed the same advice. The first issue all potential beginner triathletes should consider is their current health status. Not your health status ten years ago or how you would like to feel, but the actual realistic report card on your body and how it's functioning today in 2011.

What I am talking about is what every triathlete, from Olympian to 80-plus, should do: find out where you are at with possible health and physical risks so you can plot out a safe intelligent plan to get where you want to go. Often, the triathletes at the greatest risk are those that seem and assume they are fine!

The American College of Sports Medicine ( recommends consulting your family physician before beginning your triathlon training if you have any health risk factors such as metabolic disease, diabetes, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, poor genetics, prior cardiovascular incidents or being over the age of 45. Ladies: remember, heart disease is the number one killer of women!

Exercise, in most cases is the best way to decrease risk factors and improve your health and fitness. Having a clear understanding of your limits and possible problems would only allow you to exercise safer and with more confidence.

Cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary tests are performed using a treadmill or bike and are two of the best diagnostic tests that your physician or other specialist can do. They are called "stress tests," and the name alone might be enough to scare you, but that is not the case at all. The physician can look at your heart’s electrical and mechanical activity and a cardiopulmonary test can evaluate the functional capacity and condition of your lungs and heart working together under real conditions.

Cardiovascular/pulmonary and blood testing offer advantages and useful information to athletes at all levels, including the new triathlete, a born again exerciser or a silver warrior. 

Some advantages of cardio-pulmonary testing that can help your training:

  • Early detection of possible problems with the heart, cardiovascular system or lungs
  • Determines your current heart health status
  • Establishes safe heart rate zones for exercise
  • Determines your maximum safe heart rate
  • Helps in setting realistic goals for your fitness program
  • Benefits the individual by giving confidence to the exerciser
  • Testing will allow your physician the opportunity to evaluate your body under conditions similar to exercising, and he or she will collect the needed information to offer suggestions and precautions about the best and safest way for you to begin or continue exercising

Not everyone needs to have these tests performed. They are sometimes expensive, and you may have to ask your doctor’s advice on whether it is a good idea, but the information that is gathered is invaluable to a person with risk factors or someone who might just be questionable or a borderline candidate for being at risk.

Take the advice of Kim Pagel: "When in doubt, always do the safest thing." If you have any question about your health risks or health status, especially if you are considering beginning an exercise or triathlon training program, get a checkup. Ask about a cardiovascular/pulmonary performance test, have your blood pressure checked, and get a complete blood profile. You don't need to be in a crisis situation before thinking about these procedures.

Exercise is one of the greatest activities you can possibly do for your body and mind. Nothing has or ever will have the power to change you life as much as safe intelligent exercising. Be safe, train smart.