When competing in a triathlon, it's best to look for a sanctioned race. This means a governing body has examined and certified the course and plans for race day. In the U.S., USA Triathlon is this sanctioning body. The International Triathlon Union also puts together race guidelines. To be considered sanctioned, a triathlon must have on-site medical personnel, lifeguards and a comprehensive event plan. The race director must also sign a contract with USA Triathlon, committing to these plans. USA Triathlon also requires that the ratio of swimmers to lifeguards be 35-to-1 in ocean swims and 50-to-1 in all other bodies of water [source: Martin].
Most sanctioned races in the U.S. also require the athletes to have medical insurance. One way of doing this is mandatory membership in USA Triathlon, even if it's just for the one day you're racing. This gives you additional medical coverage and makes sure that all racers have sufficient insurance while they're competing in the race.
Sanctioned triathlons also have medical directors who make sure the race has a comprehensive medical emergency plan, including adequate medical staffing along the route. Medical directors pay attention to race day weather conditions and can alter the race for various conditions. If the weather is too hot, racers aren't allowed to wear wetsuits to help them during the swim. Likewise, the swim may be shortened or canceled if the combined air and water temperatures are too cold.
In the event that a racer is badly injured and needs medical attention at a hospital, sanctioned races also must have a medical evacuation plan in place. The race's medical director establishes this plan and makes sure it's executed on race day.
Even though competing in a triathlon can sound like a health risk, its benefits can outweigh the risks involved. The training required to successfully complete a triathlon can increase your body's overall fitness level. Making sure you train properly for all legs of a triathlon will also increase the likelihood of having a safe race. While the race itself can cause any number of accidents, a sanctioned triathlon will have measures in place to minimize those risks and keep the sport as safe as possible.
Read on for lots more information about triathlon safety.