Home > Races & Travel

Health advice for international triathlons

How to prepare for your next overseas triathlon.

Health Advice for International Triathlons

Today, triathlons are held in most countries around the world and, sadly, it doesn’t take much for things to go horribly wrong if you fail to plan ahead. Medical misadventure stories abound about athletes who have been sick while travelling overseas.

We tend to expect the high health standard of our first world countries from the rest of the world, but the reality is that health care around the world differs tremendously. And, when we toss a stressful, fatiguing endurance competition like the triathlon into the mix with travel fatigue, jet lag, disorientation, change of diet, inexperienced travelers and perhaps alcohol, it’s amazing that more of us don’t get sick while traveling to overseas triathlons.

Before you go, consult with your doctor before travelling. They can tell you what booster vaccines, immunizations and inoculations you’ll need. If you are in a third world country and feel unusually ill, always consult a physician for diagnosis, advice and medication. Do not put this off, hoping your symptoms will resolve themselves. Hotels often have a physician on call or can contact one for you.

The Seven (Not So) Deadly (Medical) Sins

Seven things top my “most likely” list of offenders: jet lag, blisters, dehydration, diarrhea, sprained ankles, head cold, and sunburn. All can ruin your final preparations for your triathlon or sideline you on race day. Fortunately, these are all easily preventable or treatable with judicious application of common sense.

Jet Lag

Jet lag manifests itself as tiredness, lack of energy and motivation, dehydration, interrupted sleep, digestion problems, disrupted bowel activity, headaches, irritability, irrational anger, loss of concentration, lack of alertness and disorientation-not what we want a few days before a triathlon!

You can readapt to your new time zone by making arrangements to travel as comfortably as possible, manipulating your diet, readjusting your sleep schedule, getting sunlight exposure in your new destination and exercising lightly your first few days. If you take the following steps, the worst of your jet lag symptoms should disappear within three days:

  • Before leaving, get up and go to bed earlier several days prior to eastward trips (which are harder on the body than westward trips) and get up and go to bed later for westward trips. Be well rested and minimally stressed before you leave, getting to the airport with plenty of time to spare.
  • While traveling on the plane, set your watch to your destination time, and eat and sleep according to the local time at your destination. Drink plenty of water or fruit juice to prevent dehydration, which can worsen the effects of jet lag. Likewise, completely avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks.
  • When you arrive, take a walk outdoors in the sun (without sunglasses) to help you reset your biological clock. Early morning walks really help with this. Do not overdo your training because you’ll be competing in a few days anyway, so you should be following a tapering program.


Reduce the fluid from the blister with a sterile needle, wash the blistered area with warm, soapy water and apply an antiseptic cream. Cover with blister tape or band-aids.


Dehydration is common in travelers from walking around sightseeing, excessive heat and an irregular drinking schedule. Stay hydrated, and conserve your energy and glycogen stores by drinking fluids with electrolytes and natural sugars.


This ailment, arising from bacterial contamination of food or water, will make your life a nightmare for three to five days, until your meds kick in. Drink bottled water only, eat at reputable establishments and wash your hands or use an alcohol gel before each meal.

Commercially processed water is generally safe to drink so stick to bottled water and other bottled drinks, canned fruit juices and carbonated soft drinks. It is safer to drink from the bottle or can, rather than a glass that may not have been washed properly. Never drink water from a bottle that you have not opened yourself-the seal must be intact. Do not use ice in your drinks and brush your teeth with bottled water.

Avoid raw fruits and vegetables unless they are peeled or cleaned-oranges and bananas are safest because they have a thick, intact skin. Eat off clean plates and use clean cutlery. Patronize busy restaurants with lots of people in them. Do not eat food from street vendor carts under any circumstances. Avoid unpasteurized dairy products like milk, soft cheese, yogurt, ice cream and cream sauces. Make sure all meat and seafood is well cooked (served steaming or piping hot)-never eat raw shellfish. If in doubt, do not eat it.

Lotrimin, Imodium or Pepto Bismol work as a “stopper” for diarrhea. But you’ll eventually need antibiotics for self-treatment of moderate to severe diarrhea.

Sprained Ankle

It’s easy to turn your ankle while you’re tired and uncoordinated from jet lag and walking around gawking at strange sights. If your ankle swells up immediately, apply ice ASAP and wrap it in an ace bandage to minimize further swelling. At night, rest your foot higher than your heart level on a pillow. Wrap the ankle in a neoprene ankle sleeve-readily available in chemist shops like Boots. Ankle sprains respond well to anti-inflammatory meds that you should have packed in your first aid kit. Ibuprofen or Advil work well, too.

Head cold

These can be picked up while your immune system is lowered from jet lag and fatigue. Drink plenty of fluids, gargle with warm salt water, or take throat lozenges for sore your throat. Tylenol will relieve any headache you may have. A pharmacist in your locale can recommend a cough suppressant or oral decongestant.


Clearly, avoiding sunburn should be your approach to this painful problem, but to the fair Anglo-Saxon complexion this is easier said than done. Avoid running (and seek shade) between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun’s rays are strongest. When running on hot, sunny days, lightweight, light-colored clothing combined with plenty of sunscreen on both exposed and unexposed skin is the way to go.

Wear a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face, ears and neck while running. The higher the SPF (sun protection factor) in your sunscreen, the better. You should apply a full ounce (about a shot glass full) every couple of hours, and more if you’ve been sweating.

Standard procedures for treating sunburn include drinking water or sports drinks to replace lost body fluids. Taking Tylenol will reduce your headache, chills or fever. A cool bath will ease the damaged skin, and afterwards apply a light moisturizer. Stay out of the sun while your sunburn is healing, or cover it up.

A Travelling First Aid Kit

Antimalarial medications if applicable.

Antihistamine that you have used before. Over the counter antihistamines include chlopheniramine or Benadryl.

Decongestant that you have used before for head cold or flu.

Cough suppressant.

Lozenges for sore throat

Tylenol, aspirin or ibuprofen for pain or fever.

1% hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion for rashes.

Insect repellant

Sunscreen. Use an spf of 80 or higher.


Antacid or Pepto Bismol.

Lotrimin, Imodium or Pepto Bismol for diarrhea.

Azithromycin or ciprofloxacin for diarrhea, as recommended by your physician.

Oral rehydration solution packets. Ask your pharmacist for Oral Electrolytes

Antifungal cream.

Antibacterial hand gel

Antibiotic ointment such as Polysporin or bacitracin.

Gauze pads for abrasions and large cuts.

Adhesive tape.


Anti-blister tape.

Neoprene ankle support

Water purification tablets if traveling to third world country.

Roy Stevenson is a freelance journalist and university professor from Bothell, Washington.