Two WSU professors to manage all medical data for World Triathlon and IRONMAN

Two Washington State University faculty members are now the official curators of all medical data for World Triathlon and Ironman.

Christopher Connolly, associate professor of Kinesiology in the College of Education, and Dr. W. Douglas B. Hiller, clinical professor in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine,  have entered an official collaboration with the two groups, aiming to make the sport of triathlon safer than it’s ever been.

In each triathlon that is administered under these organizations, on-site teams of doctors collect massive amounts of data about the athletes that participate, before, during, and after the races. Connolly and Hiller will oversee curating and analyzing the data in meaningful ways, then present their findings to the organizations.

The data uses vary, but one example Connolly gave was publishing critical findings on ultra-endurance exercise in extreme heat conditions to create official recommendations for training and competition that will increase athlete safety.

“There really are a diversity of ways we can make this immensely valuable but the data will impact the sport as a whole and hopefully, the triathletes themselves,” Connolly said. “We’re hoping this will help elevate the body of quality research as it relates to triathlon safety and performance.”

World Triathlon is the governing organization that coordinates all 23 international triathlon organizations, including USA Triathlon. That includes being the triathlon arm of the International Olympic Committee, which Connolly said is especially significant.

“World Triathlon opens up the doors to all other international organizations so it’s very meaningful,” he said. 

Improving research; improving safety

The Ironman World Championship has been held in Hawai’i each year since 1978. Hiller, who is a surgeon with Whitman Hospital and Medical Clinics, finished the event in 1982, 1983, and 1984, while at the same time doing orthopedic and exercise physiology research. 

“The medical tent at those races was a mind-blowing experience,” he said. “While most people quickly recover from their symptoms with rest, hydration, and nutrition, many require medical care on race day and after.”

Hiller said medical problems during races seemed to be well distributed across gender, age, and fitness levels. However, he was surprised that there was little valid research on the ultra-endurance needs of the various types of athletes competing.

Dr. W. Douglas B. Hiller (left) and Christopher Connolly

It was that lack of research that Hiller became interested in. He wanted to do something that could help make the sport safer and improve medical understanding and care at the races themselves.

His initial research findings were game-changing, including those dealing with hyponatremia, an often misunderstood condition which happens when the blood’s sodium concentration is abnormally low.

“At the time, ‘everybody knew’ that salt was ‘bad’ and was to be avoided, but thanks to our early research, and other studies, a change was made in medical tents around the world from a hypotonic intravenous electrolyte solution to a normal saline solution,” Hiller said. “This change almost certainly saved lives.”

Hiller said it’s important to continue learning from data regularly collected on up to about 60,000 athletes and make evidence-based recommendations for the following:

  • Factoring humidity into safe temperatures for racing at difference distances.
  • Best practices, medication, treatments, and staffing for medical care at triathlons worldwide.
  • Safe limits for training programs, potential dangers of dietary practices, and the long‑term effects of COVID‑19.

Strong past and current relationships

According to Connolly, the current partnerships are only possible because of Hiller, who is in the World Triathlon Hall of Fame and has been medical delegate and chief physician to USA athletes going to the Olympics and Paralympics. He was most recently in Tokyo at the Paralympics in the fall.

“Dr. Hiller has been in this triathlon world for 40‑plus years and knows everyone,” Connolly said. “He’s been chairman or president or director of nearly every medical committee at one time or other for Ironman and World Triathlon.”

For the past year, Connolly, Hiller, and five medical students from the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, have been sifting through 30 years of Ironman data, accounting for some 15,000 elite athletes. With the newest agreement, not only will the current and future Ironman data be included, but also new World Triathlon data. 

Up to now, it’s data that is manually input by the team. But moving forward, the research team is working on a database that is expected to be used by each triathlon race’s medical director. Connolly said the change will drastically help.

“This will give us way more data than we’ve had for triathlons in a much quicker process,” Connolly said. “If each medical director inputs that data, it could give us the data of up to a million athletes within a year’s time.”

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