Focus on Eyewear

When it comes to chasing faster triathlon times, investing in the right gear can make all the difference. And yet there's one piece of kit many triathletes overlook - eyewear


Posted: 18 November 2009

Triathletes are control freaks. We spend hours training hard and eating well, and when we're not becoming physically fitter, we explore every conceivable way to improve our performance: from the fastest bike to the most aerodynamic helmet, via the slickest tri-suit.

But despite concentrating on the minutiae, there's one important element of performance that many triathletes have little control over: eyesight. 

Whether you have 20-20 vision or wear specs as thick as bottle tops, getting your eyewear right is crucial both in training and racing. You need to be able to see your way through an event, from every buoy to each twist and turn of the bike route, without being put at a disadvantage by competitors who have better eyewear. It's the difference between being comfortable or stressed in your race - and that translates into precious seconds and peak performance.    

Health and safety

Carolyn Hewett, winner of the 2009 TIMEX WomenOnly Triathlon, is extremely short sighted. "At my first Ironman in Austria last year, I noticed there was a table for athletes to pick up their glasses after they exited the swim," she says. "But my eyesight is so poor that I couldn't even see the table, let alone the buoys in the water, and it would be hard for me to find my bike without my contact lenses."

If you can't see your goal, there's a good chance you won't reach it. But you can ensure that your vision is perfect during a race by making sure you choose the correct eyewear options. The first thing to consider is your health and safety, boring and officious as this may sound. Eyes can be susceptible to infections from bacteria found in water, which can become trapped in contact lenses. A painful and potentially blinding eye infection called Acanthamoeba keratitis affects about one in 30,000 contact-lens wearers, according to the British Contact Lens Association (BCLA). Symptoms of Acanthamoeba keratitis include the sensation of having something in your eyes, watery eyes, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, swelling of the upper eyelids and extreme pain. 

The infection is caused by the bacteria Acanthamoeba that lives pretty much everywhere. The BCLA says this bacteria can be found in fresh water, tap water, chlorinated water (yes, that means the swimming pool where you train), sea water and soil, and may live in the noses of healthy people - in other words, it's all around us. 

Risk factors

Before you use this as a convenient excuse to stop your early-morning swim sessions, the risk of infection is low. Winfried Amoaku, chairman of the scientific committee at the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, says the infection affects 1.5 people in one million of the UK's population each year - although 93 per cent of cases occur in contact-lens wearers, especially those with soft lenses. "Although associated with dirty water, Acanthamoeba keratitis can be caught from any water source, including tap water used in cleaning contact lenses," says Amoaku. "Daily disposable lenses that are re-used for any reason, or poor cleaning of normal (extended wear) contact lenses and poor personal hygiene are all risk factors." 

Early warning

The infection can be successfully treated if caught early, but if recognised late it may need up to 12 months of intensive treatment. Amoaku adds that of the 40 cases of Acanthamoeba keratitis that a colleague dealt with in the past 15 years, five people lost their vision and required corneal grafts to salvage some of their eyesight. 

The BCLA issues guidelines for contact-lens wearers to reduce the risk of infection. These include washing and thoroughly drying your hands prior to inserting, removing and cleaning your contact lenses; disposing of the disinfecting solution when lenses are removed for wear; air drying the storage case when lenses are being worn; filling the case with fresh disinfecting solution when lenses are stored after use; never using tap water to store or wash lenses or cases - only sterile solutions; replacing your lens storage case every month to prevent a build-up of contamination; removing lenses prior to showering, swimming, watersports and hot tub use; and, if lenses must be worn when swimming, wearing goggles and disinfecting your lenses afterwards. 

Throw away

Opticians advise against wearing anything other than daily disposable contact lenses (which cost about £30 a month) when taking part in triathlons as they're not worn for long periods of time and therefore decrease the risk of infection. It's also a good idea to throw disposable lenses away as soon as possible after you swim to reduce the risk of any bacterial infection from the water, whether it's a swimming pool, lake or the sea. 

"There are risks when swimming in contact lenses," says Jan Goodwin of Mincher-Lockett Opticians in Stafford. "Even when wearing goggles, the water can sometimes get into your eyes. If you wear daily contact lenses, throw them away after the race. Extended-wear lenses pose a greater risk as the bacteria may build up in the lens, so use your common sense." 

Bare essentials 

Hewett finds that wearing contact lenses during her races gives her the flexibility she needs when it comes to other eyewear. She learned the hard way that sunglasses are an essential piece of tri kit after grit flew into her unprotected eye from the wheel of another cyclist during a race. The tiny piece of grit split her contact lens in half, leaving her struggling to see through her red, sore eye for the rest of the race.

"I wear a good pair of goggles along with my lenses, and stop the water getting into my eyes as much as I can by keeping the goggles on and not fiddling with them during the swim," says Hewett. "I could spend money on prescription goggles and sunglasses but I choose not to as I get through so many pairs. My lenses are comfy and I can quickly slip my goggles off and my sunglasses on after the swim. I always wear sunglasses now after the grit incident."

Overnight success

An alternative to wearing contact lenses is also starting to make an impact in our sport. Overnight vision correction or orthokeratology involves wearing rigid, gas-permeable lenses while you sleep. They aim to correct your vision by reshaping your cornea so that when you take out the lenses in the morning, you can see perfectly.

The lenses cost about £40 per month, with initial fitting costs of about £200. "The lenses are suitable for people who are short-sighted (moderately myopic), with a prescription of up to -5.0D," says Jennifer Golden of I-GO Overnight Vision Correction. "The cornea is elastic, so when the lens is removed in the morning, the cornea retains the shape of the lens, enabling wearers to see clearly throughout the day, without the need for conventional contact lenses or glasses."

Triathlete Patrick Sands from Hertfordshire has been wearing overnight vision correction lenses for three years: "I couldn't wear normal daytime contact lenses as they used to come out when I got water in my eyes. My eyesight is excellent all the time now: I don't wear contact lenses while I'm racing so I don't worry about dislodging them or getting dry eyes from the wind on the bike. I can just concentrate on doing my best in the race."

On prescription

Contact lenses may be the best option for many triathletes, but if you have a complex prescription it's not always possible to find lenses that correct your vision and feel comfortable. Prescription goggles are one alternative.

"There are more and more excellent prescription goggles and sunglasses for sports coming onto the market every year," says Alex Gage, a sports vision optometrist from Sheffield. "Made-to-measure goggles might cost between £60 and £100 - or £30 off the shelf if you have a standard prescription - and some can even be glazed with a photochromic lens [that darkens on exposure to ultraviolet light] for use in bright conditions."

Back-up options

Chris Bennett is the editor of Optician magazine and has been competing in triathlons for about three years. He's moderately short-sighted and wears prescription goggles and sunglasses for racing although he has tried contact lenses and overnight vision correction lenses. "There are various types of overnight vision correction lenses, and I've used many of them on and off," he says.

"But it's always useful to have a pair of prescription goggles and cycling sunglasses with prescription lenses as there may well be times when you can't use overnight vision correction lenses, such as when you have an eye infection or conditions are very dusty."

Prescription sunglasses vary enormously in price, depending on your prescription. Some models allow you to have an optical insert with your eye prescription, which can work out cheaper than complete lenses, depending on the brand you choose. Adidas is just one of the sports eyewear manufacturers that offers both clip-on lenses and direct glazing, with prescriptions starting from about £60 (www.adidas.com/eyewear).

Glaring error

Whatever you choose, make sure your eyewear protects your eyes from glare as this will ensure you perform better. In the water that means wearing goggles with mirrored or photochromic lenses, and once out of the water switching to sunglasses with polarising  lenses (that filter out glare) when it's sunny. "Sunglasses and prescription swimming goggles must be made to British standards and have a CE mark on them," says Boots optometrist Carolyn Zweig. 

The light fantastic

A fourth option to tackle poor eyesight both in and out of the water is laser eye surgery. Opinions about this treatment differ, however, so be sure to research any permanent treatment thoroughly. "We wouldn't recommend laser surgery for active people because the operation shaves away part of the cornea to make it thinner," says Goodwin. "There is a risk of scarring, leading to glare problems for athletes competing outdoors. It can also make your eyes more prone to drying out, which can be uncomfortable for cycling and running." 

Whatever your triathlon vision, kit yourself out with the right eyewear both in and out of the water and you'll maximise your performance at the same time as maintaining your eye health. 


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