What's in the Water?

It is no surprise that triathletes and swimmers expose themselves to some nasty waters all in the name of training and competition. Contaminated water is an occupational hazard. But what kind of impact does this have on an athlete? Is there really a risk of increased illness? Unfortunately, whether you are a triathlete, swimmer, or surfer your risk for GI illness is increased by inadvertent ingestion of contaminated water.

This past summer the Associated Press tested the water off the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics. What they discovered was that “...the waters where Olympians will compete...are rife with human sewage and present a serious health risk for athletes.” Of course, there isn’t a single Olympian that is going to forgo the biggest event of their athletic career because of dirty water.  

Most triathletes have experienced the possibility of a canceled race due to high levels of water contamination (I’m looking at you, Boulder Reservoir!). It’s naïve to think, however, that when the race isn’t canceled the bacterial load has magically disappeared. It hasn’t. The level of bacteria just dropped below a certain threshold during that moment and at that spot where the water was tested. Ultimately, testing can give us a good range or indication, but it can only be a general guide, and as I stated earlier, despite following EPA testing, swimming in U.S. recreational waters increases your risk for GI illness. 

What does this increased risk for GI illness mean for athletes? We certainly are not going to stop training and competing in open water just to avoid contamination exposure. However, there are steps we can take to avoid getting sick:

  • Check your municipality’s test results: All recreational waters must be tested for contamination, so if you plan on training in open water you can always check your city's most recent testing results
  • Avoid swimming after a recent storm: You may want to avoid swimming in your local lake or reservoir if there has been recent rain. Run-off from a storm can increase bacterial load in the water. 
  • Stop choking down water: How is your swim technique? Full rotation – breathing out through both your nose and mouth – staying relaxed. They are some basic tips, but especially for the novice swimmer poor technique can mean more water down the hatch and that means more of those potential nasty bugs in your system.
  • Get defensive: Although there has not been specific research examining recreational swimmers and the use of probiotics in the prevention of GI illness from contaminated water exposure, some of the same bacteria can cause traveler’s diarrhea (ie, E.coli). Probiotics have been found to prevent traveler’s diarrhea, so it’s possible that they could be helpful in preventing infection from bad water as well.  

Staring at that same black line for 1500m can get awfully boring. Outdoor training in the open water is a great change of pace and a must for any competitive athlete. We’re certainly not talking about contracting the plague from your local lake. But when an infection means missed training days, or your A-race is canceled because of bacteria levels in the water, it becomes a serious matter. And athletes are taking notice – especially those looking to punch a ticket to Brazil. Unfortunately, a new round of testing in December of 2015 revealed that the waters off Rio were worse than they were before. Luckily, they have eight months to literally get their shit together.